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Planning for Commissioning

Let’s say you’re a building owner/operator and just returned from a conference, workshop or seminar about commissioning and how great it is. Or, better yet, you’ve just read another Getting it Right column in Engineered Systems. You’re gung ho and ready to start; commissioning is going to be the answer to all of your problems. Now what do you do?

This column is about the need for some soul-searching, planning, and brainstorming on your part prior to starting commissioning “for real” on any particular project. Many owners, especially in these days of everyone being over-extended and “too busy,” will want to go out right away and hire someone to do commissioning for them. Without giving that someone, presumably a third party commissioning professional, clear direction regarding what you expect the commissioning process to be and what you hope to benefit from it, this will almost certainly be a bad experience for everyone involved.

There are too many ideas of what commissioning is and too many ways of providing commissioning for an owner to expect the commissioning consultant to “get it right” without providing a detailed definition during the solicitations and negotiations for commissioning services. In a way, hiring commissioning services needs to be handled similarly to the commissioning process itself. That is, the owner needs to define the INTENT of commissioning, i.e., the owner’s expectations for a successful commissioning project, prior to soliciting proposals from providers. Without a clear and detailed scope of work statement, the owner will have no reason to expect “apples and apples” in the competing proposals received.

Therefore, instead of being so enthusiastic about the commissioning process that you go right out and hire someone to “do it” for you, there needs to be an in-house investment of time and program definition. If you are a large institution or facility which has multiple buildings and are constantly building or renovating, you’ll want to develop a Master Commissioning Plan which can be applied and customized to any future project. Without such a Plan, commissioning is apt to be different from one project to the next, especially if you hire different commissioning providers for each different project. The Master Plan needs to be a collaborative effort between, at least, the capital projects people, the facilities operations and maintenance people, and, perhaps, your contracting/financial people.

The Master Plan will define how commissioning is to be defined and performed at your institution. Your organization, policies, procedures, project delivery methods, and politics are all unique to your institution; therefore, you need a unique commissioning plan to meet your needs. The Master Plan will define when commissioning will start, who will be on the commissioning team, what tasks and milestones are involved in the commissioning process, who on the team will be responsible for each task, and how all of the commissioning activities fit into your normal project delivery method(s).

If your Master Plan includes a third party commissioning consultant on the team, then this person/firm’s roles and responsibilities will be clearly defined in the Plan. Only once you have a Master Plan in place are you ready to solicit proposals from these third party consultants for implementing the Plan on a specific design and construction project. The Master Plan serves as a key part of the Request for Proposal package so that each proposer knows what you want from them. If you don’t include your institution’s definition of commissioning and how it is to be implemented, you will get a different approach from each of your proposers. Their way of commissioning is what you’ll get, not your way, and each proposal will be different.

Just as with a Design Intent Document, the Cx Master Plan, needs to be quantitative and verifiable with respect to the performance you expect from your commissioning consultants. Simply stating, “All building systems shall be commissioned to ensure that they function properly at the end of construction,” is not sufficient. It’s the equivalent to stating, “All building occupants must be comfortable,” in a Design Intent Document. You must identify exactly which building “systems” are to be commissioned and what the “boundaries” of those systems are. For example, if you want to commission your electrical system, does that mean each individual outlet and light switch is to be “commissioned” or is there some boundary (e.g., secondary switchgear, primary switchgear, etc.) beyond which you’ve determined the cost/benefit ratio for commissioning electrical systems is too high?

If you don’t want to take the time to plan up front and, instead, simply choose to go straight to a consultant and do it their way, you’re asking for trouble. How often do your design consultants successfully read your mind? The chances of a commissioning consultant “getting it right” for you without your detailed input will be even slimmer.

Perhaps the first thing you need to do with your initial enthusiasm is hire a commissioning professional to help your institution develop a Master Commissioning Plan. The commissioning consultants should know what questions to ask and how to help you identify the level of detail required to get apples-and-apples commissioning from project-to-project. This should be a relatively inexpensive investment of dollars for the consultant but will require a fair amount of time on your part (perhaps 1-2 days worth of the key players’ time at your facility). The benefits, however, of a little planning will go a long ways towards your being satisfied with subsequent “real” design and construction commissioning projects.


Commissioning: Getting It Right

Engineered Systems, November, 1999

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