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Building Automation Startup and Fine Tuning vs. Commissioning

One of my frequent declarations is that “Commissioning” is great, because there isn’t a universally accepted, hard and fast definition of what the word means in the context of the facilities design and construction world. This leaves owners and providers the opportunity to define it in a way that best meets the needs and expectations of each individual owner and/or project.

I believe strongly, however, in a few things that Commissioning is not. For example, Commissioning, in general terms, is not the transfer of responsibilities from the project team members typically responsible for them to the Commissioning Provider. The Commissioning Provider should not be introduced to a design and construction project as someone who will relieve the designers, contractors, construction managers, or owner of their normal contractual obligations.

The Commissioning Provider should be introduced as someone who will facilitate a process and team approach that will help all team members perform their responsibilities efficiently and successfully. The testing at the end of the Commissioning process should be seen as the team’s demonstration that they have been successful in delivering properly functioning facility systems in a pre-planned, organized, and well documented manner.

With respect to building automation systems, I believe there are some Commissioning Providers who believe their real works starts only when the construction phase nears its end. I’ve noted a number of times in the past that simply testing at the end of construction is not Commissioning. That approach typically turns into problem identification, finger pointing, and probable missed schedule deadlines – not the desired result from a well orchestrated team Commissioning process.

What I want to focus on in this month’s column is my opinion that Commissioning is not startup and fine-tuning of building automation systems (or any other system, for that matter). I understand there are some Commissioning Providers that wait until the controls contractors are complete with their installation and programming and then enter the scene to perform the programming checkout and to “tune” the control loops.

In typical project specifications, the controls contractor is responsible for both of these activities. To introduce the Commissioning Provider as the person who will be doing, or at least directing, the startup and tuning may bring a level of confusion regarding who is responsible (liable) for the controls system performance. In my opinion, if there are any “problems” later on (i.e., after project completion and the owner assuming operational responsibility for the system), the controls contractor will try to use this usurpation of his/her responsibility/authority as a contractual release from liability. Conversely, the Commissioning Provider is not likely to step up to the plate and admit full responsibility (liability) for the operational issues. The owner will be back to the standard finger pointing exercise they have on non-commissioned projects when issues arise after construction is complete.

Another one of my regular mantras over the years has been that the Commissioning Provider needs to be a third party – defined as someone who is solely responsible for verifying the functional performance and quality assurance aspects of a project and has no responsibilities with respect to design engineering, installation, or quality control functions. When the Commissioning Provider takes on all or some of the specified responsibilities of the controls contractor (i.e., startup and tuning), the Commissioning Provider is blurring the lines between unbiased third party verifier/documenter and installation contractor.

I believe that the Commissioning Provider is absolutely responsible for developing, directing, and documenting verification procedures which test the controls contractor’s programming and loop tuning work. However, the Commissioning Provider will overstep the bounds of his/her authority if they direct the contractor to make changes or, worse, make changes on his/her own, without going through the appropriate communication channels.

Commissioning is not redesigning or reprogramming the controls system but documenting that the control system performs as specified and as defined in the Design Intent Document. For the Commissioning Provider to step outside of the realm of Review, Test, Document, and Train is for the Commissioning Provider to subject the project team to confusion regarding responsibilities and to take on far more liability than most Commissioning Providers typically sign up for.


Engineered Systems, February, 2004

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