Designing to the E-Quest run

I was reading your article about the potential disconnect between system complexity and the resources/capabilities of the owner’s O&M organization (“Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should,” May 2014).  I could not agree more other than to advocate that this consideration be elevated to a central focus at the project scoping and conceptualization phase, and even as a mandatory part of the strategy to satisfy LEED. Even though my vantage point may be limited to Navy-owned facilities and as a volunteer on a regional high school building committee, I could go on and on and on about the disconnect I am seeing between system design to satisfy LEED goals and what is remotely likely to be sustainable over the long haul (relative to budgets, staffing, and slow, cumbersome contracting mechanisms for specific owners).  I might morph the title of your article to read, “Just Because It can be Commissioned and Accepted, Doesn’t Mean the Owner Will Bother to Keep it Functioning 10 Months From Now.”

I attended  a couple of courses taught by USGBC instructors on-site for the benefit of our facilities engineering staff and think LEED considerations are an excellent reference for informed cherry picking (and I do acknowledge the USGBC’s position that mimicking the LEED process without formally submitting creates the risk of weak follow-through). Because of the LEED points associated with energy performance, and the minimal constraints on how those savings are achieved “on paper,” I have seen all too much of what I call “designing to the E-Quest run.” We get very pained and skeptical reactions when we insist that certain features be designed in to augment the basic design of certain energy-conserving measures.

Just two examples. We insist that we have the capability to shift VFDs into 100% constant speed bypass via command through our DDC. When we get the inevitable, “Why, we don’t normally do that?” my response is that about 10% of our VFDs seem to be in fault at any given moment. If the HVAC maintenance forces (100% outsourced) cannot quickly figure out the underlying problem, they tend to just switch the VFD into manual bypass by the panel switches causing 24/7 operation at full speed until they can get back to fully resolve the issue (after who knows how many days/weeks/months). In the interim, we not only have lost a pump/fan that would have been running 60 hours a week and automatically modulating below 100% speed, we have transcended a constant speed pump/fan running 60 hours week to one that is running 168 hours. 

With the capability to switch into bypass through the DDC, we are at least able to preserve tracking of the daily time-of-day schedule (sometimes eliminating 108 hours per week of unneeded operation). In another job, the designer initially didn’t want to provide freeze protection for water source heat pump condenser water to be circulated through a tube bundle in a closed circuit cooling tower because of the 3% calculated performance hit it would incur. We responded that the tower’s waterfront location was highly susceptible to very cold wind blowing through the fill, regardless of fan status, and the one-year warranty and 3% performance hit be damned, we were going to add glycol to the loop immediately after turnover because it might takes us six months or more to get the tube bundle repaired/replaced if it froze and split.

Keep up the good advocacy, and I’d love to hear about your findings if you get back to LEED-rated buildings for retrocommissioning tasks down the road.

Guy Borges, P.E., CEM

Facilities engineer,

U.S. Navy Undersea Warfare Center

Newport, RI  

Ellis responds

Thank you so much for your supportive and, unfortunately, supporting email regarding the pitfalls of designing for high energy efficiency in an operational situation where maintaining simple things can be a challenge. Your phrase, “designing to the E-Quest run,” is an interesting perspective I hadn’t considered in those terms before. In addition, I am continually amazed by the stories of design engineers who fight against the owner — especially obviously knowledgeable, capable, and experienced owners — when the owner requests something specific.

With respect to retrocommissioning existing LEED-certified buildings, that’s a very touchy situation. Owners of LEED-certified buildings can be very protective of that honor, especially when they invested so much time and so many resources obtaining it. At the same time, their building operators are sometimes pulling their hair out because they feel like they were sold either a lemon or an extremely high-maintenance luxury car. It is a very hard pill for the owner to swallow to think about retrocommissioning, even 3-4 years after construction. The facility almost needs a turnover in ownership/management before anyone is willing to face the facts and try to improve actual operations. It’s pretty much the classic push/pull between capital projects management and facilities operations professionals — elevated to a new level of stress.

In any case, I appreciate your taking the time to write your email validating what I had to say in my column. I was sitting on that topic for a quite a while, weighing the pros and cons of potentially insulting building operators in the process of trying to help them out.

The problems behind copy-and-paste

(In regards to June 2014 commissioning column, “Designer Copy/Paste”)

Copy/Paste is the most common practice in engineering business. I’ll elaborate:

  1. Most engineers don’t have enough practical experience to understand how systems behave in the field, and they don’t write sequences of operation.

  2. Most engineers considering operating a pump or opening and closing valves in the field are the job of the operating team, and engineers always look down upon them. That is what I call a gap between two teams — they always work opposite of each other.

  3. The design engineer’s road to fame is to graduate from engineering school, pass his or her P.E. exams, collect as many initials to put after their name, and now he or she is qualified to work as a design engineer.

  4. Most engineers who develop and write sequence of operation for mechanical jobs are electrical or software engineers.

  5. Most engineering firms, due to the competition in the engineering field, are not paid enough per job to invest in educating their engineers or to invest enough time to produce high-quality construction documents.

(The) above brief comments are what I have found after practicing engineering for over 40 years in the States.

This is sad, but no one is willing to spend an ounce of energy to correct the mess we have in our engineering field. The money we saved in cutting down in producing high-quality construction documents and in training our engineers resulted in a lot of wasted energy in most buildings I visited during my engineering practice.

Mohamed A. Elgindy, P.E. 

Milton, DE

Ellis responds

Mr. Elgindy,

Thank you for taking the time to share your very candid thoughts about design engineers. In general, I agree it is a frustrating and sad situation.

However, there are some glimmers of hope out there…driven, from what I can see, by building owners who actually care about how their buildings perform. It is only the people buying the services (building owners) who can demand better performance and be willing to pay for it. There are some excellent design engineers out there; there just isn’t much demand for them at this point.