How to Write an Effective Systems Manual

WoodHarbinger-479-EditBy Jeff Yirak, P.E., LEED AP BD+C, O+M

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

Operator training is an under-appreciated aspect of the building turnover and closeout process that can greatly influence whether the energy and comfort performance of a project design is actually achieved for the life of a building. Operation and Maintenance (O&M) staff training should occur in parallel with the final commissioning and demonstration of the project and should consist of as much technical and hands-on instruction as possible. In concert with the training program, the O&M documentation needs to be sophisticated enough that it supports the staff in maintaining the high operating performance of the facility for the life of the building. Typical O&M manuals do not provide the detail, specificity, or insight needed to achieve and sustain persistent performance in today’s built environment. A complex project like a building utility plant requires a sophisticated document to manage it: that document is called a systems manual.

A Systems Perspective

A systems manual is unlike a regular set of O&M manuals. While an O&M manual may contain an exhaustive listing of the equipment with the building, the systems manual’s value is in communicating the complete picture of the components of the facility from a systems perspective. This means the O&M staff can see the comprehensive interaction of components in a system and the inter-system activities and reactions that make up building performance. Systems manuals require additional effort to create and don’t happen by accident; it takes a certain expertise to create one that effectively addresses the comprehensive systems concept while being practical and effective. The following five characteristics contribute to compelling systems manuals.


A systems manual that’s hard to use won’t get used. It has to be easily navigable with no special software or training. While there are more sophisticated software packages on the market, Wood Harbinger has found that a PDF document utilizing hyperlinks and bookmarks for efficient and intuitive navigation is the most convenient and easily adopted software format for a systems manual. The Adobe Reader software is free, the file sizes are convenient, and navigation is straight-forward.

sys man screen shot

Wood Harbinger utilizes an interactive PDF format for the systems manuals we create, with bookmarks for each section of the document, as well as hyperlinks in the table of contents that will take you to the selected section.

In addition to the mechanics of the systems manual, the content has to be approachable to the O&M staff. The systems manual needs to convey the design intent at a relevant level for the reader and provide an informational background without being overwhelming. Write with the intended audience in mind; remember that the O&M staff is typically not made up of engineers, but be sure to avoid talking down to your audience. Use of tables, lists, and illustrations to break up text and make the content digestible is a good way to communicate the information without losing the reader.


Like any tool, if it can’t be located when needed, it doesn’t do any good. Rather than bulky binders of hard copy information that may never leave the shelf, or if they do, not get put back and then become misplaced, a software-based manual enables an Owner to place the systems manual on a company intranet, for example. With this delivery method, O&M staff, armed with a tablet device, can roam the facility and call up the systems manual when they reach their destination, no matter where that destination is. Adding radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to the utility systems equipment enhances this process by allowing pin-point information recall. If a wide area network wireless solution isn’t appropriate for the job, consider at least linking the systems manual to or through the building automation system, since that’s often the first line of troubleshooting.

A usable and accessible systems manual is more likely to be referenced on a regular basis, and making a habit of using it will help O&M staff avoid employing “band-aid” overrides that may “fix the problem” for the short term, but with associated system performance impacts.


O&M staff must understand the connections within and between the systems they’re operating and maintaining in order to make informed decisions during both routine operation and troubleshooting. The great value of a systems manual is in imparting a comprehensive understanding of the system effects during operation. To do this, it must contain accurate information presented in a contextual manner that paints the full picture of the function, purpose, and inter-dependencies of the systems. This information comes from the as-built construction documents, approved construction submittals, operation and maintenance manuals, and design intent documents such as the Basis of Design.

Overriding a set point to address a complaint about it being cold in a certain part of the building, for example, may mask the issue and have a damaging effect on the entire heating water system, as the system postures to serve this single zone. With an accurate and contextual systems manual easily at hand, O&M staff may find a more informed approach in simply starting the heating system thirty minutes earlier to ensure comfortable temperatures at occupancy.


Compilation of systems manual documentation shouldn’t wait until the end of the project; it’s easier to get the constituent information during design and construction rather than after, which helps ensure the completeness of the systems manual. The design team must be made aware that a systems manual is to be provided so that they can make sure the documentation requirements are specified in the project manual. These requirements will define the scope, systems to be included, level of detail and complexity, and intended audience. Often, the Commissioning Authority picks up the torch for generating the systems manual, as they are the entity closest to the built systems and O&M staff, and can best bridge the gap between operator training and systems manual adoption and use.


A good systems manual will be accurate on the day it is produced, but like the building it describes, it needs to be maintained to ensure optimum function for the life of the facility. The delivery method of the systems manual must allow for updates to help ensure it stays relevant, powerful, and in use. This is another benefit of providing the manual in PDF format, as that software is amicable to modification.

Besides the technical ability to update the manual, deciding who is responsible for its maintenance is also critical. If no single individual, such as a Capital Project Manager or Resource Conservation Manager, can serve as a focal point for facility upgrades that directly influence the systems in the manual, then regularly scheduled review and update periods should be selected to ensure the manual stays current. Somewhere between three and five years is a good benchmark to review the manual against the current facility requirements and align the two, if needed.

As building utility systems become more complex in the pursuit of energy performance, O&M staffs have a challenging time ahead of them. Arming the O&M staff with the right training and tools, such as a systems manual, gives the facility its best chance at operating in optimum condition for the life of the building.

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