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Commissioning: Stop, Look & Listen

Over the last couple months this column has been about retrocommissioning, commissioning existing building systems that have never been commissioned before. There is no question that there is great potential to be realized through a retrocommissioning process, primarily in terms of improved system performance and decreased energy consumption. However, successful retrocommissioning is not something can be accomplished in a vacuum by a commissioning professional; it depends heavily on the building’s operations and maintenance (O&M) staff.

Without the O&M staff’s cooperation, candid communication, and willingness to try something new, even the most technically savvy commissioning professional will be challenged to make the process a success. This is one of the reasons why retrocommissioning requires more than just technical know-how; it requires a respect for others and their work, a willingness to listen, patience, and the gift of persuasion.

Catching More Flies With Honey

One of the first steps of retrocommissioning is gathering information about the systems being commissioned and how they currently function. Original design documents and O&M manuals can provide a good basis for what the systems are and, perhaps, how they are intended to operate. However, only the system operators can explain what’s actually happening. Even in new buildings the chances of the systems being exactly as designed are slim to none (refer to Engineered Systems February, 2007 Commissioning column), so it is critical that the commissioning professional base the retrocommissioning study on actual conditions and not intended conditions.

The commissioning professional needs to show a sincere, non-judgmental interest in how the systems are currently operated. It is important to listen without interrupting or disagreeing with what the O&M staff tells them. If the commissioning professional comes across as thinking he/she knows more about the systems than the O&M staff, the O&M staff may stop sharing information and otherwise cooperating with the retrocommissioning process.

Observation Is Key

In addition, it is likely that the O&M staff will have problems they want to share and have corrected as part of the retrocommissioning study. Again, simply listening to the problems, their symptoms, and steps previously attempted to resolve them is critical in showing respect for the O&M staff and their work. I recommend avoiding the temptation to offer solutions to their problems too quickly, even if the commissioning professional thinks it is obvious. I believe most O&M professionals want to see a significant effort put into learning about the systems before an outsider offers solutions to problems with which the O&M staff has struggled for a long time. I think they are right about that. Until the commissioning professional really digs in and sees what the systems are doing (again, not just what they are supposed to be doing), the commissioning professional’s level of confidence needs to be tempered.

I believe that it is through on-site observation, testing, and trend logging that the commissioning professional can gain the respect and interest of the O&M staff – to say nothing of gaining the requisite knowledge of actual system performance. The O&M staff needs to be encouraged to participate in this work - to the greatest extent possible - in a spirit of exploration. The commissioning professional must lead the work with a humble sense of, “Let’s see what is happening here,” and not, “Let me show you what’s going on.”

By developing a mutually respectful relationship with the O&M staff, the commissioning professional will gain an inside advantage. The O&M professionals will be much more willing to work with him/her if the O&M staff believes the commissioning professional is not out to discredit their work. The commissioning professional needs to present all findings in terms of “newly discovered opportunities” and not in terms of “mistakes” made by the O&M staff.

The O&M staff may also be more willing to actively participate in the retrocommissioning process to help advance the cause. This may take the form of manually recording readings of system parameters not otherwise easily logged or trended; being on the lookout for examples of inefficient or poor system performance to be evaluated by the commissioning professional; and having an enthusiastic interest in implementing and sustaining system modifications recommended by the commissioning professional.

As noted above, patience is a key characteristic for a successful retrocommissioning professional. Mutually respectful relationships are not built during a single meeting or site visit. As such, a thorough retrocommissioning process can not be rushed. Certainly, opportunities for energy savings and performance enhancements can be gleaned by the commissioning professional through document evaluation and a cursory review of current operation. However, there is more to be gained by digging deeper and getting into the details of systems operation only known (or suspected) by the O&M staff.

 

Commissioning: Getting It Right

Engineered Systems, October, 2007

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