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Is there a Minimum Definition of Commissioning?

Last month I talked specifically about ASHRAE Guideline 0-2005, The Commissioning Process and its Owner’s Project Requirements document. As quoted from the Guideline, the ASHRAE document “is not definitive but encompasses areas where there may be a variety of approaches, none of which must be precisely correct.” I’d like to explore that a bit more this month. How much latitude is there in the term “commissioning” for new construction? If there are no approaches that are “precisely correct,” are there any approaches that should be considered incorrect?

Defining commissioning used to be a work in progress

I have always promoted and enjoyed the flexibility of the commissioning process. Ten years ago, commissioning could be defined as anything the building owner needed it to be in order to improve project delivery results. The general areas for consideration included documentation, testing, and training. However, owners were free to throw in anything else that might be missing from their normal project coordination and delivery process. Examples included spare parts tracking, preventive maintenance of systems used during construction, population of computerized maintenance management systems, etc.

Today there are a multitude of guidelines, templates, certifying organizations, etc., all of which define commissioning similarly but with their own twists, strengths, and weaknesses. These are excellent resources for owners and commissioning providers to reference when defining commissioning for individual projects.

In practice there is a wide variety of commissioning provider approaches to commissioning, many of which follow the general format and intent of the various industry guidelines. However, there are more and more providers entering the market who are deciding what commissioning should be on their own and delivering that to their clients. In some cases these providers are under-performing the “commissioning” process when compared to the most commonly referenced and recognized guidelines.

Examples of under-performance include:

  • Simply testing at the end of construction with minimal project team participation or communication prior to testing.
  • Delegating most commissioning activities to the contractor and collecting their paperwork.
  • Preparing a commissioning plan with all responsibilities assigned to the design or construction team and leaving it up to the building owner to enforce and oversee the process.

These approaches are not necessarily wrong for a particular project, but they do not meet the intent of the industry guidelines. As such, should they be called “commissioning”? With the well established definitions of commissioning published today, I am afraid we can not be so free with our use of the term. Building owners procuring commissioning services are starting to rely on the industry standard definitions of commissioning.

Clear standards needed

More and more requests for proposals (RFPs) prepared by building owners in search of commissioning providers are naming some of the published guidelines as a reference for process standards. The most frequently used these days, from my experience, is ASHRAE Guideline 0-2005. That is fine, but owners referencing Guideline 0-2005 need to be aware of the disclaimers regarding “a variety of approaches” and the Guideline being “not mandatory.” These statements are significant loopholes for providers who want to provide minimal services for minimal fees.

As such, it is still necessary to identify a project-specific commissioning process in each RFP. Although it is best for the building owner to define the services requested of the commissioning providers (refer to January-April, 2005 for a more information about soliciting commissioning provider services), an alternate approach would be for the proposing commissioning firms to define how they interpret and intend to implement a specific guideline’s commissioning process.

The clear definition of commissioning tasks and the delegation of responsibilities prior to selecting a commissioning provider is critical to obtaining apples-and-apples fee proposals. Building owners who believe they need only reference a standard industry guideline in order to receive comparable fee proposals from different commissioning firms are likely to be disappointed. Owners may be disappointed with the wide range of fee proposals that need to be considered in further detail, or they may be disappointed with the level of service and results obtained from simply selecting the low cost firm.

On the bright side, the wise flexibility provided by most industry guidelines is a gift to building owners and commissioning providers who can take the time to evaluate project-specific needs and customize a commissioning program that meets the intent of one or more selected guidelines.

 

Commissioning: The Least You Can Do

Engineered Systems, April, 2007

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