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Small ≠ Unimportant

To close out my recent series of columns addressing easily neglected but critical aspects of commissioning, I want to unequivocally state that just because a project is small doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be commissioned. Facility operators know this intuitively, but capital project planners may need to be convinced.

Many building owners want a simple formula for determining whether or not a project will be commissioned. The obvious and easy approach is to assign a dollar limit, i.e., every project over a certain construction cost will be commissioned. Everyone has a project budget, so no extra analysis is required. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily in the facility owner’s best interest.

It may be more critical to commission a “small” project than some very large projects. In fact, mechanical and electrical infrastructure projects often fall into most owners’ definition of “small.”  This is because many owners have difficulty funding multi-million dollar infrastructure projects that don’t result in something tangible like new finishes and/or larger spaces. As such, building infrastructure projects tend to be implemented piecemeal in relatively small (compared to major building additions and renovations) projects.

Examples of such infrastructure projects include adding standby or emergency power; replacing central plant boilers, chillers, and compressors; converting air handling systems from constant volume to variable volume; replacing aging electrical gear; integrating existing building systems; etc. These projects are some of the most important to commission for a variety of reasons, but they are, surprisingly, often overlooked from a commissioning perspective.

Another category of “small” projects are remodeling projects within an existing facility. As noted in previous columns, what appears to be simple from an architectural perspective, e.g., move a couple walls, add some skylights, convert an office to a conference room, etc., can easily mess up mechanical, electrical and communication systems if there isn’t enough attention paid to what is above ceilings and behind and in walls.

One of the risks of small remodeling projects is the potential to “mess up” building systems in such a way that there is a ripple effect to other areas of the building. A classic example of this is balancing terminal units serving the renovated space to achieve their new design quantities of air and water flow while, at the same time, stealing air and water capacity from non-renovated zones. Non-renovated zones which worked just fine prior to the project may suffer as a result of a “small” project performed with blinders on.

Another “small” project type that might be a good candidate for commissioning is high profile projects. The executive suite of a corporation, the new alumni center at a university, laboratory space for a new, highly recruited faculty member, etc., are all examples of this. Even though the commissioned systems in these facilities may be simple, typical, or historically non-problematic, what is the risk to the building owner of those systems not working properly the day the “very important persons” start using the space.

Answering the question, “To commission or not to commission?” should involve project size as a last resort or not at all. The more important questions to analyze are as follows:

  • Are there complex inter-related systems?
  • Are there critical systems that can not afford a “break-in” period?
  • Is the project type one that has been problematic in the past?
  • Does the project rely on critical systems in an existing facility?
  • What is the risk/cost of the systems not functioning properly after occupancy?

These should not be difficult questions for the project planners to answer, if they understand the scope and intent of their project. The challenge is to insert these questions into the planning process early enough to receive the best value from the commissioning process.



Engineered Systems, July, 2006

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