Although the commissioning process has served project teams well within the realm of standard building systems, this realm has typically been defined within the walls of an occupied facility. The standard scope of commissioning services may not include commissioning of the central utility systems (e.g., chilled water, hot water, steam, power, etc.) that have such a significant impact on the operation of numerous buildings on a campus. I argue that a similar but slightly modified process can benefit the design, construction, startup, and operation of campus central utility systems.

The relatively new need for commissioning various building systems results from several factors including:

  • More powerful and integrated building systems;
  • A need for system documentation (as opposed to standard equipment manuals);
  • Facilitating the transition from construction to occupancy and continued operation;
  • Verifying achievement of optimal system performance to realize calculated energy savings; and
  • Meeting accreditation/certification requirements (JCAHO, LEEDTM, etc.).

These factors (among many others) have resulted in the development of a well-defined commissioning process tailored to the design, construction, acceptance, and occupancy of a facility. This process has been defined and published by industry leading organizations such as ASHRAE, the DOE, and the Building Commissioning Association (BCA), just to name a few.

Since this process was developed primarily for building systems, I've heard central utility owners claim that it may not meet the unique needs of a central utility plant. This process may also be seen as excessive since the design engineers, installing contractors, and vendors on a central utility project typically take on more responsibility related to the design, construction, startup, and acceptance of the centralized utility.

Since these central facilities managers tend to have a very clear and well-defined understanding of their project's specific needs, I can see their wariness about implementing the widely advertised and all-encompassing commissioning process. I would, however, argue that a central utility project is still exposed to many of the same factors listed above and can benefit from a more unique and individualized approach to start-up, verification testing, training, and documentation.

Defining The New Scope

Like any other commissioning project, it is imperative to clearly define the scope of commissioning services through a commissioning plan that identifies the systems that will be commissioned as well as the specific roles and responsibilities for all members of the team.

In the case of a central utility plant, commissioning may simply be a process through which to deliver services already contracted to be provided by others. This can be a significant benefit to facility owners who don't have enough time in their schedules to adequately track, coordinate, and review the delivery of vendor, contractor, and professional services the owner has "bought" in an organized, efficient, timely, and well-documented fashion. It also promises to be a benefit to the entire project team, who will reduce their duplication of effort, false starts, and project administration time.

The scope of commissioning work for a central utility project will vary greatly from institution to institution as facilities managers who own and operate central utilities tend to have varying, yet specific, priorities and resources. These priorities may include:

  • The need to verify and document system performance in an effort to meet energy goals and establish a baseline for future performance comparisons;
  • The need for an enhanced and well-managed start-up plan that orchestrates the efforts of the design and construction team;
  • Pressure to bring a system successfully on-line within a tighter-than-normal schedule;
  • Lack of O&M staff during the construction and start-up process;
  • The need to more clearly define and facilitate a training program for the new, or modified, utility systems; and
  • The need for enhanced documentation such as record drawings, systems O&M manuals, CMMS data collection and population, recommissioning manuals, etc.

Institutions with central utility plants depend on the successful operation of these utility systems to support the continued operation of numerous buildings on campus. Facilities managers understand this importance and put a great deal of time and energy into making sure that systems operate as designed. The typical building systems commissioning process can be uniquely tailored for a central utility project and can effectively assist institutions in meeting their unique testing, training, and documentation needs. ES