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Operations & Maintenance Personnel And The Commissioning Process

For the next two months we are going to be discussing how commissioning enhances the effectiveness of future operations and maintenance of a new or renovated building. In this column we will cover the importance of including the operations and maintenance (O&M) personnel in all phases of the commissioning process.

O&M personnel have historically been the “outsiders” in the design and construction process, often because, within a particular organization, the group which builds and renovates facilities is separate from the group responsible for operating those facilities. As such, the worst case scenario, which is still happening in many institutions and corporations, has the O&M staff “in the dark” until the day the building systems are turned over to them to operate. This situation, combined with the fact that many building systems are not complete or operating properly at this “turn over” point, leads to an extremely rough beginning to occupancy of the building. This is a rough beginning that, in some cases, the facility systems never overcome completely.

In the interest of achieving a smooth, trouble-free building turn-over, it is imperative that the O&M personnel be involved in the design and construction process from the first days of planning. A good commissioning plan will include O&M staff on the commissioning team, thus requiring that they participate in design meetings, design reviews, construction phase site visits, O&M manual review, training sessions, and system verification testing. If they are involved in all of that, there will be no surprises at the end of construction, and the operators will know exactly what they need to do to make the new systems “sing.”

In addition to the education/training of the O&M staff during the commissioning process, there is much information that the O&M staff can provide as “education” to the design and construction team. This is especially true in a project which is being built in an existing campus setting with central utilities, energy management systems, etc. The O&M staff need to communicate their existing protocols, preferred system types, sequences of operation, and system parameters, e.g., available steam pressures; chilled water supply and return temperatures; chilled water system differential pressures; and central monitoring, control, and alarm requirements, etc. If the new systems are designed in a vacuum without an understanding of the infrastructure, both physical and operational, into which they must fit, the systems may simply not work and/or the O&M staff will be unwilling to put forth a meaningful effort to learn and operate such “different” systems.

The O&M staff need to be consulted early in the design process in order to understand their preferences, experiences, and areas of expertise. This doesn’t mean new systems need to be “dumbed down” because O&M isn’t interested in new technologies, but it does mean the design team needs to include the O&M personnel in decisions made in order to obtain their “buy-in.” If the design team believes something “new” is required, they need to convince the operators of that fact and should be able to do so in a professional, technically-based manner, not by saying, “Well, that’s the way it’s going to be, whether you like it or not.” If the operators don’t believe in or want to believe in the systems being designed, they have complete control over whether or not they function in the long run. In the worst case, if they don’t feel that they’ve been treated respectfully by the designers, they can get their “revenge” on the designers by proving the designers wrong by making sure the systems don’t work as intended.

The O&M personnel also need to be involved throughout construction; observing component installation, particularly in areas to be concealed in the future, and attending some, if not all, of the construction coordination meetings. Also during construction, the O&M staff needs to participate wholeheartedly in the equipment and system training provided by the contractors and commissioning consultant. The commissioning process should include plenty of planning and coordination time to allow for the O&M department to review and approve the training agendas and then to schedule appropriate times for the training to occur.

Finally, and very importantly, the O&M staff should be allowed to participate in the verification testing process. Tests should be scheduled following the equipment and systems training and will be an opportunity for “hands-on” learning about the installed systems. Putting the systems through their sequences of operation and observing all modes of operation enhances the more traditional training experience.

Including O&M staff in the commissioning process requires not only a change in approach by the design and construction team but also by O&M management. Although all of this sounds great on paper, we’ve found that, when push-comes-to-shove, an organization’s O&M management will usually decide that they can’t afford to let their people participate. “We’re too busy. We’re short staffed. We’ve got to fight all these fires.” This is a short-sighted attitude which needs adjustment. O&M management must be convinced of the value of the “investment” of their people’s time. Allocating time during design and construction will only reduce the amount of time the new or renovated building systems will require of the O&M staff in the future.


Commissioning: Getting It Right

Engineered Systems, August, 1999

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