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Commissioning: getting it right from the start

Due to the integration and interdependency of systems and assemblies, a performance deficiency in one system can result in less than optimal performance by other systems. The commissioning process should be implemented in new and existing buildings—and the correct management of that process is critical. The commissioning process is a quality-oriented process for achieving, verifying and documenting that the performance of facilities, systems and assemblies meets defined objectives and criteria. Using this integrated process results in owners receiving the expected, including a fully functional, fine-tuned facility.


July 28, 2010
By David Underwood P.Eng

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The process begins at project inception and continues for the life of the facility. It is not an additional layer of construction of project management—in fact, its purpose is to reduce the cost of delivering construction projects and increase value to owner, occupants and users. Commissioning helps to verify and document that systems and assemblies perform according to the owner’s project requirements; provides documentation and tools to improve the quality of deliverables; ensures that operation and maintenance personnel and occupants are properly trained; and implements statistical quality-verification practices, to name a few.

There are several benefits to the commissioning process. Occupants, owners, designers, contractors and buildings all benefit from commissioning, which improves health and comfort, reduces utility costs and prolongs equipment life. Building commissioning restores existing buildings to high performance, and in most cases, even higher performance than ever before. For new buildings, commissioning helps designers and contractors deliver a project that meets owners’ project requirements. Commissioning reduces change orders resulting from design errors. Commissioned buildings are more likely to be completed on time and within budget, and reduce contractor call-backs during the warranty period. It also reduces the cost of operation and maintenance and equipment replacement in existing buildings, and improves the performance of the operations and maintenance staff through effective training.

The commissioning process in Canada started with the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Z series of standards, which applied to hospital construction specifically. When the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) entered this field, this CSA standard was being used for hospital construction. However, the benefits were only imagined for the completed building, and the massive amount of specific form work required in these standards by designers and contractors, and lack of independence of the commissioning authority were seen as an impediment to the construction process. Commissioning developed by ASHRAE was first widely accepted by other institutions, such as school boards, government buildings and municipal facilities. It was resisted particularly by the general and specialty trades as a cost and time extra to their work, however, was soon discovered that earlier mentioned benefits were excellent. We now see these trades and genera as the greatest supporters of the commissioning process.

Since commissioning has been recognized as essential to the construction and upkeep of high-performance buildings, ASHRAE has released several documents on the process. For example, ASHRAE Guideline 1.1, HVAC&R Technical Requirements for the Commissioning Process, focuses on specific tasks to successfully implement the commissioning process for HVAC&R systems and assemblies, and describes the technical requirements for the application of the commissioning process found in ASHRAE Guideline 0-2005, The Commissioning Process, which verifies that HVAC&R systems achieve the owner’s project requirements. The quality-oriented process outlined in the guideline provides improved quality and greater cost effectiveness compared to commissioning as currently practiced by many commissioning providers. Although Guideline 1.1 focuses on HVAC&R systems, it’s vital to keep in mind that a successful total building commission process will carefully validate interfaces and possible interfaces between all building systems. Even when HVAC&R is the primary focus of the commissioning process, coordination among disciplines is essential for success.

ASHRAE has also developed the Commissioning Process Management Professional (CPMP) certification program in close collaboration with APPA (formerly known as the Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers), Building Commissioning Association (BCA), Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), National Environmental Balancing Bureau (NEBB), Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), the Testing, Adjusting and Balancing Bureau (TABB) and the University of Wisconsin – Madison.

To continue to improve building performance, experts agree that the commissioning process should be implemented in new and existing buildings—and the correct management of that process is critical. The purpose of this certification is to help building owners, developers, standards writing agencies and others assess the capability of individuals to manage the whole building commissioning process.

There’s no doubt that the importance of commissioning has grown over the past few years due to the asset value it adds to the building. Most important, high-performance buildings with reliable equipment kept in good condition are worth more than their uncommissioned counterparts—both economically and sustainably.

David Underwood, P.Eng., Fellow ASHRAE, Life Member, ASHRAE-Certified Commissioning Process Management Professional, is retired and resides in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. He serves as a vice president on ASHRAE’s Board of Directors.