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Commissioning Is Not A Commodity

This month’s column is written specifically to the building owners who are interested in procuring commissioning services. A lot of organizations and institutions are trying to get a handle on how to “buy” commissioning services, and there is a small, but growing, group of owners who believe (or are at least wishfully thinking) that commissioning has reached “commodity” status. That is, if they say “commissioning” they will get the same thing regardless of who the providers are.

Unfortunately for those owners, the design and construction industry is still trying to decide on a standard definition of commissioning and are a long ways from having any two providers who do it exactly the same way. Therefore, commissioning can not be lumped in with commodities such as corn, beans, and pork bellies.

A more appropriate, and often used, analogy is the automobile industry. When trying to explain commissioning to building owners, I’ve heard it stated that, “You would never accept a great looking car from a dealer if it didn’t operate properly, e.g., back firing, inoperable brakes, poor gas mileage, leaking oil, black exhaust, missing parts, cracked windshield, etc. Why would you accept a building that doesn’t operate properly? A building is a much bigger investment and a longer term commitment.”

Automobiles are not commodities, either. A buyer does not just shop around for the cheapest “car” and expect to have all of his/her expectations satisfied. The car buying adventure starts with a narrowing down of the “quality” of vehicle desired and affordable to the buyer. Informed buyers will know whether they should be visiting the Chevrolet dealer or the Mercedes Benz dealer (or something in between) prior to setting out on their shopping trip. Once at the appropriate dealer, there are additional choices commonly known as options. Does the buyer want the low end, stripped-down version of the dealer’s line or does s/he want the top-of-the line with all of the bells and whistles?

The same thought process needs to be used in procuring commissioning services. Before the owner even ventures out to talk with providers, the owner’s representatives need to educate themselves about the quality of commissioning offered. I don’t mean to imply that there are good quality and bad quality approaches, but if you stick with the automobile analogy, there are some that provide more value for more cost to those that can afford it (Mercedes). For those that can’t afford it, there are acceptable and functional alternatives (Chevrolet). Owners need to understand where they stand in the range of opportunities.

Once the affordable quality is determined, the next thing the owner needs to do is identify the desired options. Commissioning “options” include when commissioning is started; what systems are commissioned; level of on-site availability; level of testing, documentation, and training rigor; involvement of owner’s operations personnel; team versus lone ranger approach; etc. In short, the owners need to define what commissioning means to them before they can go out and ask for competing bids to provide those services. To do otherwise will result in a confusing mess of apples, oranges, and grapefruit (commodities, but none of them are necessarily the commodity the owner needs/wants).

Simply selecting the low bid for something called “commissioning” (the commodity approach) is not the way to start or sustain a commissioning program. Imagine purchasing a “car” with no other description and being satisfied with the result. The facility owner, even though s/he is totally swamped with other responsibilities, needs to understand the commissioning process enough to define it and enforce its proper execution. Without that commitment, money spent on commissioning will not provide the value it could and the owner will most likely be disappointed in the results.

Next month I will take this theme into the execution phase of the commissioning process. The owner plays a critical, though low effort, part in the successful implementation of a commissioning plan.



Engineered Systems, July, 2001

Rebecca Ellis, PE, LEED AP, CCP, CxA
Questions & Solutions Engineering
1079 Falls Curve
Chaska, MN  55318