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Commissioning for Colleges and Universities

In general, colleges and universities are by the most experienced, knowledgeable and savvy facility owners when it comes to commissioning. While many institutions of higher education have never heard of commissioning, many more, especially large public ones, have made commissioning “business as usual” for their capital projects.

While all of the benefits of commissioning accrue to colleges and universities, some of the reasons why commissioning is particularly important for their facility owners include the following:

  • Campuses with central utilities

  • Buildings that need to last

  • Transient populations

Technically, it is more difficult to “make buildings work” when they are part of a larger campus/network of buildings. Most large campuses have some type of central plant with boilers, chillers, and/or electric generators. Each facility built or renovated on such a campus needs to fit into the larger system of buildings and utility distribution networks. Facility owners know the challenges involved in getting systems within stand-alone buildings to function properly, and those challenges expand exponentially when the design and construction team needs to take into account external system interactions and coordination. There is rarely such a thing as an individual building project; each project needs to be considered an “addition” or “renovation” to the campus.

Without commissioning looking after the design intent and performance criteria of the college or university, we have seen buildings that do not function because they aren’t equipped to properly utilize the chilled water or steam provided by the central plant. The problems discovered include incorrect assumptions regarding pressures, pressure drops, and/or temperatures available to the building. A building designed with air handling unit cooling coils requiring 42F entering water temperatures is going to be out of luck if served by a chiller plant operated with 45F leaving water temperatures. Believe it or not, sometimes this type of fundamental question is not asked.

Alternately, we have seen new building systems which may function well within their building walls but which have a detrimental effect on the rest of the campus system. For example, if a central chiller plant is designed for a 16F temperature differential and a large new building is brought on line with cooling coils sized for a 10F temperature rise, that new building could drive down the efficiency and drive up the costs of operating the central plant.

When colleges and universities build new buildings, we typically see them asking for 75 or 100 year buildings, i.e., buildings that are expected to be around and be useful for 75-100 years. This is so different from commercial/industrial buildings which are often built to be “disposable.” The longer a building is intended to last, the more important commissioning is, because commissioning is fundamentally a process to improve building performance and reduce building operating costs over the life of the building. The longer a building operates inefficiently or ineffectively, the longer the inherent costs of the poorly performing systems will add up.

System documentation, which should be a product of the commissioning process for future reference by building operators, is the main tool on which facilities managers rely for training, troubleshooting, and maintaining the systems in their as commissioned/as intended operational states. This documentation does represent an additional cost to prepare during the design and construction process, but its value is directly proportional to the expected life of the building. At the same time, the cost per year for this documentation decreases as the expected life of the building increases.

System documentation is especially important for colleges and universities, because their facilities are constantly in a state of flux. Students come and go, faculty changes periodically, and programs are added, eliminated, or modified as each institution evolves and tries to remain viable and competitive. This means that the facilities supporting the mission of the college or university need to change, and that means new design and construction teams are introduced to each building numerous times over its long life.

Without accurate, understandable, and available system documentation, these new teams will either proceed on the basis of their best assumption regarding the existing systems they are modifying or they will charge the facility owner extra fees to research, test, and confirm how the systems are intended to operate. As most large institutional owners know, neither of these approaches has very desirable outcomes with respect to maintaining the integrity of the original system design intent. Ironically, the most frequent culprit projects are very small renovations which “can’t afford” a lot of upfront systems research and analysis. Small projects can cause huge problems if not properly integrated into the central building systems.

All of this adds up to colleges and universities being way out ahead on the commissioning curve. A number of major universities have created full time positions to oversee their commissioning programs (University of Washington, Emory University, University of Minnesota, to name a few), and some academic architectural, engineering, and construction management departments are including commissioning in their curriculum. Looking at colleges and universities may be a way of seeing into the future of commissioning for the mainstream.



Engineered Systems, June, 2003

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