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What is Commissioning?

A Comprehensive Guide

Buildings today are comprised of various complex, interconnected components, systems and technologies that have been developed and improved upon over the course of many decades. The growing sophistication of modern mechanical and electrical systems, coupled with mounting expectations of building owners, occupants and regulatory agencies are driving demand for commissioning services.

Indeed, quality design and first-class construction are only the first steps in achieving a successful project outcome. Commissioning of the systems and design has also become an integral part of the equation, and the process of commissioning is fundamental to the overall success of a project.

In this guide, we cover the following topics:

What is Commissioning? Commissioning Defined.

In practice, commissioning is a collaborative, quality-driven, systematic process that focuses on verifying and documenting that a building and all of its commissioned systems are planned, installed, inspected, tested, operated and managed as designed. Some of the main building systems involved in commissioning include:

  • Mechanical systems such as HVAC, ductwork and ventilation systems
  • Electrical systems such as power distribution and lighting controls
  • Plumbing systems
  • Communication and alarm systems
  • Protective systems such as fire/smoke protection
  • The building “envelope” such as the walls, roof, windows/curtainwall, doors, etc.

Ultimately, commissioning aims to integrate all of the disparate parts of a building in order to deliver a facility that operates as a fully-functional whole. A fully developed and integrated commission plan can help bridge gaps between building owners, design teams, contracting teams and end users, thus ensuring a smoother transition from design to construction to operation.

To achieve this, the commissioning process begins with assuring that each building component is installed and operating correctly, and meets the performance requirements of the design. This is accomplished by proper inspection, testing and certification of the basic installations. The next step involves coordinating all of the individual components into functional systems and ultimately integrating and optimizing these systems into one cohesive, unified whole.

The final level of the commissioning effort includes the process of documenting the completed building and its components. The documentation of commissioning establishes the standards of performance and serves as a benchmark to verify that the building systems have been designed and constructed to meet those standards. It also acts as a historical roadmap of the “why, what and how-to” decisions made during the commissioning process.

Commissioning should be looked upon as a holistic, integrative process that spans from pre-design/planning to occupancy and operations. It should also include ongoing commission functions after construction is finished.

Commissioning Goals

The primary goal of commissioning is to ensure a building and its systems meet the owner’s project requirements. This includes, but is not limited to, the following commissioning goals:

  • To deliver a building or facility that performs according to its design intent and meets the owner’s project requirements.
  • To verify all of the various systems and components are installed and working correctly with benchmarks in place.
  • To provide lower energy, operation and maintenance costs for the owner.
  • To prevent future problems and costs though proactive quality measures.
  • To provide accurate documentation and records on the design, construction and testing in order to facilitate future operation and maintenance.
  • To optimize building performance.

The Main Benefits of Commissioning

Building commissioning delivers many measurable, bottom-line benefits to owners, occupants, design and construction teams, the environment and the general public.

As a risk-management strategy and an important element of sustainable design, commissioning helps mitigate risk, ensures building performance, prevents expensive breakdowns and maximizes energy efficiency, environmental health and occupant safety. Buildings that are appropriately commissioned tend to be more energy efficient, with lower operation and maintenance costs and characteristically fewer change orders or claims.

Let’s take a look at some of the fundamental benefits of commissioning.

  • Better energy performance. Commissioning ensures that a building meets the performance and energy savings promised by the design, and can help reap quantifiable and significant energy savings and/or emissions reductions. This directly equates to lower utility bills and reduced payback times for existing and new buildings.
  • Operational cost savings. According to the GSA’s Building Commissioning Guide, the operating costs of a commissioned building range from 8-20% less than that of a non-commissioned building. Potential operational benefits include a reduction in repair/replacement costs, longer equipment lifespans and a reduction in future construction costs or tenant improvement projects.
  • Reduced project schedule and costs with fewer change orders. The commissioning process helps uncover issues that could surface later on as expensive maintenance or safety problems. According to a 2018 study by Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, 79% of projects that participated reported that their buildings were occupied on schedule due to commissioning, and up to 90% of those projects reported that problems were detected and corrected earlier on. The study also found that 56% of projects reported fewer change orders as a result of commissioning.
  • Enhanced occupant safety, health and comfort. Some injuries and illnesses associated with unhealthy or unsafe building design and operation can be prevented by measures that consider concerns such as indoor air quality, electrical safety and accident protection. Commissioning aids in the delivering of an efficient, secure, safe and healthy building for its occupants.
  • Improved system and equipment function. The commissioning process verifies all systems and equipment are installed and working correctly. Commissioning documentation serves as a benchmark to verify that the building systems have been designed and constructed to meet the intended standards of performance.
  • More efficient transition from design to construction to operation. Commissioning provides an integrative, holistic perspective to the design, construction and operational functions. A fully developed and integrated commissioning plan can bridge gaps between building owners, design teams, contracting teams and occupants. This results in enhanced communication, improved training and documentation, reduced delays and higher quality and consistency across the board.
  • Greater peace of mind and satisfaction. For a relatively low investment and high return, commissioning gives the owner confidence and assurance that their design intent and operational requirements will be met or even exceeded. This equates to improved owner and occupant satisfaction.

What Drives Commissioning Projects?

There are numerous factors that drive commissioning projects depending on the type of building, its intended use and the owner’s requirements. The chief drivers of most commissioning projects include:

  • Attain energy efficiency and sustainability goals
  • Achieve LEED certification
  • Meet code compliance targets
  • Obtain energy, operating and maintenance cost savings
  • Improve building function (operations, performance, controls, etc.)

An effective way to demonstrate the value of commissioning is to take a look at a few examples, such as:

  1. A private building owner desires to maximize energy efficiency, achieve LEED certification and provide a safe and comfortable space for tenants.
  2. Institutional buildings like museums and schools have goals for lower maintenance costs and better reliability. In the case of art galleries, museums and libraries; humidity and temperature control may be essential.
  3. Mission critical facilities aim for improved operations with very little or no downtime. For example, a hospital or data center may need to maintain continuous operations and ensure maximum reliability.

4 Leading Types of Commissioning

  1. Commissioning / New Construction Commissioning. Generally, the plain term “commissioning” refers to the process of commissioning a building that is newly constructed or in the design and construction phases. This is the most common type of commissioning and can also be the most impactful because it allows the commissioning process to begin early on in the project and take preventative measures.
  2. Re-commissioning. The second type of commissioning is re-commissioning. It refers to the commissioning of an existing building that has already been commissioned in the past. Re-commissioning often happens after a building becomes fully operational and the owner has a more accurate picture of how the building is being used. It is common in buildings that have aging systems and is helpful to ensure all components and systems are in good working order. It is also used to verify system efficiencies or identify possible system failures before they occur.
  3. Retro-commissioning. Retro-commissioning refers to the commissioning of an existing building that was not previously commissioned when it was initially designed and constructed. It typically aims to help resolve problems that occurred during design or construction or address issues that developed throughout the building’s life as the equipment aged or as the building usage changed. Retro-commissioning aims to identify areas where efficiency improvements can be made and help improve overall operations and maintenance procedures. The goals of retro-commissioning are often tied to cutting energy waste, maximizing energy cost savings and identifying and fixing existing problems.
  4. Continuous Commissioning. Continuous commissioning refers to an ongoing commissioning program tailored to meet specific operational and sustainability goals. It leverages innovative technology and commissioning methods to integrate energy management in a continuous, ongoing solution in order to resolve operating problems, improve comfort, maximize energy use and identify retrofits for existing buildings. Unlike traditional commissioning, the goal of continuous commissioning is not necessarily to ensure all systems are functioning as originally intended. Rather, it ensures that the building and its systems are operating optimally, to meet current requirements.

The Building Commissioning Process

The commissioning process is interconnected with the overall project delivery process. The basic steps within the commissioning process include:

  1. Pre-Design / Planning. During the pre-design or planning stage, the commissioning team is identified and the owner’s project requirements are defined. This stage also includes developing a preliminary commissioning plan and establishing the initial commissioning budget.
  2. Design. During design, a lot more detail is given to building systems including design specifications, documents and drawings. Design stage commissioning activities assist in ensuring the owner’s project requirements are properly defined and accurately considered in the contract documents. At this stage the commissioning team will begin monitoring the established owner’s requirements, conducting commissioning reviews, and refining the commissioning plan.
  3. Construction. At this point, construction begins and the commissioning process becomes critical. The commissioning team begins verifying the systems and components are operating to meet the project requirements. Construction-phase commissioning activities include ensuring quality through installation, start-up, performance system testing and training.
  4. Issue Resolution. Unforeseen issues develop during all projects. Early identification and prompt resolution may be the most important component of a successful commissioning process. From the moment commissioning begins through project completion, issues are identified, documented, communicated and tracked until they are officially resolved. The commissioning team participates in the resolution of most issue associated with their scope of work. They will communicate with other team members, including the owner, designers and contractors, provide supporting documentation or research and track the issues until they are resolved. The commissioning provider and the project management team strive for proactive issue resolution.
  5. Occupancy and Operations. At this point, construction is finished and the handover of the project has been completed. This final stage is used to close out the commissioning process, clear any defects and finalize any outstanding documentation. It includes performing deferred and seasonal testing, reinspecting performance prior to end of warranty periods and the completion of the final commissioning report.
  6. LEED Certification. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED certification is a globally recognized symbol of sustainability achievement and leadership. LEED requires commissioning to achieve certification and an experienced commissioning agent with LEED knowledge will be able to help project teams meet the requirements of LEED Certification and earn points toward a higher LEED label.

Conclusion

Commissioning is fundamental to the overall success of a project, and delivers many measurable, bottom-line benefits to owners, occupants, design and construction teams, the environment and the general public.

For more information on how commissioning can help you get the most out of your building systems, contact The Concord Group. Our team of experienced engineers and technical professionals can help you reduce your risk, mitigate critical issues and deliver a cost-effective solution for the performance of your facilities. Our tailored approach to commissioning is geared toward efficiency and sustainability, ensuring it will have a positive outcome for your facility operations and occupants.

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