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Commissioning & Deferred Maintenance

There is a lot of discussion around the industry about the cost of commissioning. Sure, there is an up-front cost associated with commissioning (see the Getting it Right column in the September, 1998 Engineered Systems), but this month we are going to look at one of the costs of not commissioning new or renovated building systems.

An insidious and difficult-to-document drawback of not commissioning building projects is an ever-increasing amount of deferred maintenance at many institutions. The value of deferred maintenance in neglected buildings throughout the United States is measured in the billions of dollars. This is due to a number of factors; the primary ones being the natural tendency to procrastinate, to not give priority to things that are not broken, and a general squeezing of facility operations funds across the board. Funding for regular and preventive maintenance is not very glamorous and certainly doesn’t take precedence over repairing and/or replacing systems that simply do not serve the users’ needs.

What does this have to do with commissioning? Lots…..

Because it is still business as usual to “complete” a project on schedule but leave many systems unfinished and not fully coordinated and tuned, most building operators are saddled with the task of “commissioning” the new systems after the contractors are gone. This effort often involves vain attempts at obtaining information regarding design intent, operations & maintenance manuals, as-built drawings, accurate control system documentation, and test and balance reports. While attempting to compile this critical information, the building operators are under the gun to provide a comfortable and safe working environment for the newly-moved-in occupants. This pressure results in their having to “try things out” and start fiddling with the systems in order to meet their immediate goals of placating the occupants.

All of this new building “commissioning” by the operations and maintenance staff is extremely inefficient and unfair, because it is not their job to fix new buildings. They should be handed new buildings that work and be responsible only for proper maintenance and care of those systems. Instead, they spend a great deal of time fighting fires in new buildings, and the preventive maintenance on both new and old buildings is deferred until they have more time.

With the great building boom we’ve been experiencing in the 1990’s, this has resulted in a downward spiral of falling farther and farther behind in performing the tasks required to maintain systems for their normal life expectancy, to say nothing of the hopes that systems will last even longer than that. Each new building, instead of joining the inventory of physical plant assets as a shining new, well-oiled machine, is delivered in a dysfunctional state that actually adds to the operations’ staff headaches and troubleshooting work load.

How can commissioning help? Commissioning can help in a number of ways. First, by verifying that systems operate properly before the contractors leave the job site, the number of occupant complaints that need to be addressed will be reduced.

Second, the building systems and their operation will be well documented and the operations staff will be well trained prior to the building being turned over to them from the contractors. Operations and maintenance manuals, test and balance reports, test reports, accurate as built drawings, etc., will be complete, reviewed, and in the operators’ hands prior to their being responsible for the building. The commissioning training program will concentrate on making sure that the operators know and understand the new systems instead of concentrating on simply going through the motions and getting credit for fulfilling the minimum specified training requirements. This will eliminate the “guesswork” inherent to most operators’ typical on-the-job training agenda.

Third, the commissioning process can be used to expedite the entry of new systems and equipment into the preventive maintenance (PM) program. By collecting, organizing, and entering the equipment and its PM requirements into the owner’s work order system before the end of construction, the operators can “hit the road running” when it comes to preventive maintenance. Normally, this data entry can not occur until O&M manuals are received from the contractors (typically months after the end of construction) and, even then, the O&M manuals are very short on the specifics needed to efficiently transfer maintenance requirements into a PM program.

All of these benefits of commissioning will free up the operators to start actually performing PM tasks on the new systems. This should go a long way towards making sure that the new systems are not added to the already-backlogged deferred maintenance category. Although this is not an immediate cash benefit, it becomes a bigger and bigger issue later on when, due to neglect, the systems require major overhauls or replacements prior to the end of their normal life expectancy.

 

COMMISSIONING: GETTING IT RIGHT

Engineered Systems, June, 2000

Rebecca Ellis, PE, LEED AP, CCP, CxA
President
Questions & Solutions Engineering
1079 Falls Curve
Chaska, MN  55318
rteesmag@QSEng.com