The trouble with system integration

I thought Howard McKew's "Tomorrow's Engineer" column on commissioning services ("How Do You Sell Commissioning Services?" July 2005, page 70) was informative, but I feel it failed to mention a problematic area that has been occurring on larger projects with increasing regularity: The lack of overall system integration.

This is an area that falls between traditional engineering services and the commissioning services outlined in McKew's article. Several of the consulting engineers in Rhode Island have been discussing this issue, and I believe it would make an excellent future article.

As an electrical consulting engineer, I have had the frustrating experience of having "specialized" electrical systems such as security, architectural lighting, data/communications, etc., eliminated from my scope of work and given to specialty vendor/contractors. In these instances, the vendor/contractors work directly for my client (architect).

On typical projects, the electrical contractor installs only the raceway and wiring associated with these systems in accordance with the shop drawings provided by the specialty vendor/contractor. The head-end and peripheral devices are installed by the specialty contractor themselves. The system installation information is not indicated on contractual documents (plans and specifications) prepared by me. The shop drawings associated with these systems are reviewed and stamped by the architect. I am sometimes given a courtesy copy.

Needless to say, most of the problems I observe with these systems are a direct result of the specialty vendor/contractors operating in a vacuum, with little, if any, coordination during the construction phase. Although they work directly for the architect, the architects do not have the expertise to integrate these highly technical sub-systems that they have assumed the responsibility for.

It is my opinion that the architects have taken on the responsibility for these systems themselves in lieu of the traditional electrical consultant in a misguided effort to reduce their consulting engineering fees. The specialty vendor/contractors typically absorb the design costs into their price to provide the system to the enduser or construction manager.

When things don't go well with these specialty systems, the architect often attempts to pass on the problems to the electrical consulting engineer. I have seen several commissioning engineering firms attempt to mediate disputes resulting from the lack of overall system integration. And obviously, this isn't their problem or within their scope of work, either.

Walter Powers Jr., P.E.
Powers Engineering LLC
Electrical Consulting Engineers
E. Greenwich, RI

McKew responds:

Your e-mail couldn't have been more timely. I have recently met with our in-house electrical and data/communication engineers to discuss the possibility that they may write a feature article to address many of the issues you address. Not much is said in the commissioning business relative to this topic, and we think more should be noted.

Making the upper case for accuracy

The article in the October 2005 issue of Engineered Systems titled "Fort Bragg's Arsenal of Efficiency"(by Joanna R. Turpin, page 26) was very interesting, but the author (or possibly editor) fell into a trap. The article refers to a solar turbine. It should be Solar with a capital "S" not a lower case "s." The turbine was manufactured by Solar Turbines Incorporated out of San Diego and thus the capital "S" and has nothing to do with solar energy as is implied by the lower case "s" as in solar energy.

Gas turbines (also called combustion turbines to avoid confusion with natural gas fuel) can run on almost any fuel but currently have not been adapted to run on solar energy. Solar energy has been used to drive turbines by generating steam from the heat of the sun, and therefore a solar turbine system is possible. This, though, is not the case at Fort Bragg. The system description in the article and Figure 2 make it clear that this is a gas turbine installation. The integrated approach used at Fort Bragg was very interesting. Having been involved with cogeneration and similar applications in a past life, this article was of personal interest. Keep up the good work.

Holger Lukas, P.E., CCP
Consulting Engineer
Schenectady, NY

(Editor's note: Our thanks to Mr. Lukas for giving a whole new meaning to "shedding some light" regarding the oversight. We do appreciate the correction and promise to capitalize on this distinction in the future.)

Kudos on commissioning coverage

I wanted to drop Rebecca Ellis a note to say that I enjoy her columns on commissioning. The information she provides is very useful and right on the money. She has a good grasp of this subject.

Keep up the good work, and I'm looking forward for next month's ES issue on the highest level of commissioning.

Dean G. Fesette
Project Manager
Broward County School Board
Fort Lauderdale, FL

Specifying suggestions

I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed Steve Liescheidt's "PerSPECtives" column titled, "Methods of Specifying" in the January issue of Engineered Systems (page 32). As an engineer who has been trying to help engineers write specifications for BAS, I have been surprised to discover how some specifiers feel very strongly that there is only one "right" way to write a spec. In my articles and presentations, I've been pushing the idea that you should first determine what the requirements are and then write the spec accordingly, but that seems to be heresy to some specifiers. I found this column to be a refreshing change from this dogma, and it provided interesting insight into specifying methods.

My company sponsors a free website,, designed to be interactive and flexible in helping engineers write control systems using the CSI format. You may find it worth a quick look.

Steve Tom
Director of Technical Information
Automated Logic Corporation
Kennesaw, GA