Monitoring-based Commissioning: A ‘Boots on the Ground’ Perspective

by Nick Baker, EIT, CCP, GPCP, LEED AP BD+C

This article is part of Wood Harbinger’s newsletter series.

The practice of commissioning is all about assuring that building designs meet the needs of the owner and end-users, that installed systems meet the design intent, and that these systems also function optimally at startup and over time. The commissioning process is designed to achieve these goals: design reviews to check the design, functional testing to provide a snapshot that validates successful system operation, and trending to provide the bigger picture about ongoing operations.

Traditionally, we’ve advocated that owners include at least a year of trending in their commissioning program to monitor year over year operation and make sure everything is operating as planned. We also recommend follow up recommissioning every 3-5 years to help keep building systems in tune and operating at a high performance standard. Another option, commonly referred to as monitoring-based commissioning, is now available to owners to augment these methods. This option expands upon trending, with software that integrates with building and campus automation controls. It’s called fault detection and diagnosis (FDD) software. Sounds fancy! But what does it actually do?

Fault Detection and Diagnosis: How It Works

FDD software aims to help building owners and operators achieve the end goal of building efficiency, occupant comfort, energy use reduction, and energy cost savings.

In the past, when we’ve looked into the software, we found that it didn’t work with BACnet, the communications protocol utilized by many building automation control systems (BAS). Advances in the software have made it BACnet compatible and now that FDD and BAS are speaking the same common language, there’s great potential for the benefits real-time, continuous monitoring capability can provide.

The software works with the existing sensors and controllers that are part of the BAS system to automatically detect faults or anomalies in equipment operation, diagnose the discrepancy between actual operation and prescribed operation, and notify building operation and maintenance staff so that they can adjust the HVAC system’s performance and keep it operating at peak levels. This gives operators a more complete picture of an issue while it’s happening, and before it potentially becomes a bigger issue. This opportunity, to help operators maintain persistent performance of their building, is what makes monitoring-based commissioning so attractive.

There are similarities between FDD software and energy dashboards. In truth, it’s the same hard data collected and communicated, with a few fundamental differences. FDD software is diagnostic and presents data in a way that is useful for facility professionals. As Matt Woo explored in his article in Wood Harbinger’s last Sustainability newsletter, an energy dashboard is a data visualization tool for the less technical audience of building end-users and is meant to present energy usage information in a way that engages people to take actions that effect energy usage at the user level, not the systems level.

Monitoring-based Commissioning: Decision-Making Criteria

Monitoring-based commissioning is not a stand-alone effort, but something used in tandem with the original commissioning program for new construction or as part of an existing building commissioning effort in an current space.

For new construction as well as existing building commissioning, it’s important to make accommodations for installing and utilizing the software early in the project. First, you’ll need to weigh the benefits and challenges of a monitoring-based commissioning exercise with your commissioning provider, and then make sure it’s within your provider’s approved scope, if you choose to include it. Then, you’ll need to choose an FDD software package that will be compatible with the DDC system selected for the project, or the existing controls in your building or on your campus. For new construction, this will require coordination with your mechanical and engineering consultants. Once implemented, your facility personnel will need training on how to use the software and review the data; this exercise will need to be part of the commissioning team’s project turnover scope.

One of the benefits of monitoring-based commissioning (and traditional commissioning, too) is its scalability; you can apply it to one facility and scale up, or apply it to a whole campus in one go. Our recommendation is to start small and build up. Get your feet under you, identify what works and what doesn’t, and then take on the rest of a campus environment. We have a client that decided to implement a monitoring-based commissioning program over a 100+ building campus all at one time. They chose this approach in order to realize the savings that comes from volume. They are committed to the coordination and time necessary to get it all up and running successfully, but it’s a challenge.

FDD Software Options: Finding the Right Fit

A little internet research for “FDD software” will show you that there are a multitude of software options available, including SkySpark, Switch, FDDWorX, Kaizen, and others. In comparing the sales literature, it all says basically the same stuff, so we have to dig a little deeper to find out which one will be right for you and your project. Your commissioning provider can help you ask the right questions and get the full perspective by comparing and contrasting your FDD software options based on some key components:


Does it work with your existing DDC, or the DDC system that’s selected for your new project?


Does it fit into your budget? Does a quantity discount option make sense? If so, are you prepared organizationally to take on the coordination effort to successfully deploy it campus wide?


Does it monitor what you want to monitor? What do you want to be able to do with the data once it’s collected?

Graphic User Interface (GUI):

This is part of functionality but an important enough factor to stand on its own. Just like Apple vs. Android and other such matchups, the software you choose needs to meet your preferences so you’ll be more likely to use it and feel like it’s successful.


Do you want your data stored in the cloud or on a local server? Does your organization have security standards that affect this decision?


Make sure your implementation includes training for your O&M staff, so they know how to use the software to realize its benefits.


Monitoring-based commissioning augments a commissioning project by providing additional tools to building operators. Like any potential opportunity, it’s important to research your options and have an understanding of what you want the tool to be able to do, so that you can make the best choice for your specific needs. FDD software is potentially a very useful tool, providing additional intelligence and insight into building operation that holds promise for tomorrow’s building operators. Perhaps it’s something to keep in mind for your next upgrade or new construction project!

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