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Selling Commissioning

Commissioning services are not an easy “sell” to facility owners who don’t have a burning desire for them. We can categorize building owners three ways:

CATEGORY 1: HAPPY OWNERS. Owners who do a lot of construction and are typically happy with their new buildings and renovations.

Those in Category 1 have no apparent need for commissioning. They clearly have a design and construction process which successfully delivers projects to the owner’s satisfaction on a regular basis. These owners are often privately funded and able to negotiate with designers and contractors and build long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with all parties in the process.

Chances are that these projects are not “perfect,” but the owner’s satisfaction precludes any chance of them considering commissioning. Unless you are in the “inner circle” of the owner’s team and have a trust-based relationship, approaching the owner with examples of how the owner’s projects really aren’t so great and could be improved through commissioning will not result in much success.

CATEGORY 2: UNHAPPY OWNERS. Owners who do a lot of construction and have had project after project “not work.”

Those is Category 2, either due to outside forces (laws, purchasing restrictions, etc.) or a lack of internal resources, can not seem to complete a project to the owner’s satisfaction. They consistently are unhappy, particularly with building systems operation, training, and maintainability of the buildings.

These are the owners who are hungering for a solution. They know that the regular process is no longer working for them, and they will catch on to the benefits of commissioning right away. What these owners need is a plan for how to introduce commissioning into the regular design/construction process and how to pay for it as part of the capital project. They know that they’ll pay for it one way or another, either up front for a formal commissioning process or during the first 1-2 years of operation. The difference, for many facility owners, is the source of funds for the two different scenarios.

Traditionally, the operations budget bears the brunt of trying to “commission” building systems after the facility is turned over to the owner’s operations staff. The cost for this after-the-fact, seat-of-the-pants “commissioning,” is difficult to track and document. It takes copious amounts of operations personnel time, which has a price tag associated with it, but another “victim” of this approach is regular maintenance on existing equipment and systems. If the operations staff is busy figuring out, troubleshooting, and band-aiding a new system which doesn’t work yet, they may not be performing their normal preventive and predictive maintenance tasks.

In addition to the personnel time issue, an un-commissioned building will likely consume more energy than a properly commissioned building. Without proper training and system understanding, the owner’s staff will typically not be able to achieve optimum energy performance after the designers and contractors are off the job. This energy cost impact will continue throughout the life of the building.

To put commissioning into the design and construction project budget would mean increasing that budget slightly in anticipation of saving money in the operations budget following construction. The decision maker needs to be the person in the owner’s organization who has control over both pots of money, i.e., capital projects and facility maintenance.

Commissioning will typically result in a net cost savings to the owner, but this is impossible to quantify prior to completing a project. One can present data to the owner demonstrating how much time and energy was saved on past projects due to the commissioning process, but one can not say with certainty how much a future project will benefit. It is the Unhappy Owners’ past experiences which convince them that there will, with very high probability, be costs saved by formally commissioning a project.

CATEGORY 3: NAÏVE OWNERS. Owners who do not do a lot of construction.

Category 3 owners don’t know enough about the process to understand how complicated design, construction, and the coordination between all interested parties is. When they pay people to design and build a building, the owners believe they will get exactly what they’re expecting. However, these owners know least about how to articulate what they want, and that will lead to problems at the end of the job.

These owners will not be open to the idea that they need to pay someone “extra” to make sure the building operates as expected. They’ll usually be suffering from sticker shock when they learn how much it costs to design and build a building in the first place. Their peers and consultants can bombard them with horror stories about new buildings that don’t work, but their attitude will usually be, “That won’t happen to me.”

Category 3 owners are likely to reject commissioning as a process which starts during design and continues through startup and building turnover. They will, if informed of commissioning ahead of time, consider commissioning “after the fact” when they find that their building really isn’t what they had expected. They won’t realize all of the benefits of full-scale commissioning, but it will be better than no commissioning at all.


Commissioning: Getting It Right

Engineered Systems, June, 1999

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