Commissioning: what is Commissioning?

July 1, 2010
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And more importantly, who does it?

In my May, 2010 column, I addressed minimum requirements for meaningful functional performance test procedures. That was a narrow slice of the commissioning pie. With this month’s column, I want to start looking at the entire pie and address minimum requirements for the process of commissioning.

The Building Commissioning Association (BCxA) has done the heavy lifting on this topic by carefully and thoughtfully developing a list of eleven “Essential Attributes of Building Commissioning.” The founders of the BCxA and developers of the “Essential Attributes” included many pioneers of the building commissioning industry dedicated to promoting and preserving the fundamentals of commissioning in order to serve building owners and operators consistently well.

I believe the “Essential Attributes” need to be more widely understood and appreciated, not only by people providing commissioning services but by those procuring them. Therefore, I am dedicating space in this and subsequent columns to review each of them.

ESSENTIAL ATTRIBUTE #1

The Commissioning Authority (CA) is in charge of the commissioning process and makes the final recommendations to the owner regarding functional performance of the commissioned building systems.

This first attribute acknowledges that commissioning is a “process” and it needs a leader. Note that it does not say, “The CA performs commissioning.” Commissioning is a team effort that involves not only the CA but also many others associated with the design, construction, and future operation of the commissioned systems. The CA is “in charge” of this team but is not responsible for doing everything included in the commissioning process.

This attribute also implies that the CA does not accept the commissioned systems but “makes the final recommendations to the owner.” The CA is the owner’s technical representative for evaluating system performance but the final decision to accept or not to accept the systems lies with the owner.

ESSENTIAL ATTRIBUTE #2

The CA is an objective, independent advocate of the Owner. If the CA’s firm has other project responsibilities, or is not under direct contract to the Owner, a conflict of interest exists. Wherever this occurs, the CA discloses, in writing, the nature of the conflict and the means by which the conflict shall be managed.

There are two issues at play in this attribute: (1) whether the CA is responsible for anything other than commissioning for a project; and (2) who holds the CA’s contract. Both of them are related to the CA’s ability to focus solely on the goals of commissioning, i.e., verification that systems perform as required by the owner and preparation of the owner’s operations personnel.

If the CA is responsible for designing the systems, installing the equipment, programming the controls, scheduling the project, and/or keeping the project on budget, there is a strong possibility that at some point in the project the demands of the other job will influence decisions or recommendations made during commissioning. This does not serve the owner’s quality goals as well as someone acting only in the CA role.

However, the BCxA recognizes that some owners do not have the budget, time, or inclination to hire an independent CA. In that case, this attribute puts the responsibility on the CA for acknowledging the inherent conflicts of interest. This needs to be in writing, preferably in a document signed by both the CA and the owner; the commissioning contract would be an ideal place. Exactly how “the conflict shall be managed” needs to be determined on a case-by-case basis between the CA and the owner. It will depend heavily on the reason for the owner’s decision to double-up responsibilities and the owner’s relationship with the CA.

If the CA is a separate firm contracted through another project team member (architect, engineer, contractor, test and balance contractor, etc.), there is a risk that the contract holder will pressure the CA to go easy on them. This pressure can come in the form of reluctance to pay for the CA’s services or by simply playing the “you’re not a team player” card. Many owners see this as the easy approach to contracting for commissioning services without fully appreciating the downside of possibly diluting the value of those services. However, in the case of some government or corporate procurement rules, it is the only way the owner can have commissioning introduced to a project at this time.

Whatever the reason for contracting through someone other than the owner, it is important to have a conflict management plan. I strongly recommend that this include a clause that allows the CA full and direct access to the owner at all times.

For the full list of all eleven “Essential Attributes,” visit www.bcxa.org. ES

Recent Articles by Rebecca Ellis, P.E.

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