Some people consider commissioning to be too much trouble and too much time to tack on to the end of a project. Of course, commissioning is not something that should be “tacked on to the end of construction,” but it is true that most functional performance testing necessarily occurs towards the end of construction. This does not mean, however, that the testing should be troublesome or extraordinarily time consuming.
The commissioning process throughout the design and construction phases of a project is intended to minimize the level of effort and pain associated with testing during the acceptance phase. These early commissioning steps include design reviews, submittal reviews, controls integration meetings, and the development of customized functional performance test procedures and acceptance criteria reviewed by all responsible contractors. The intent is to go into the acceptance phase poised and prepared for smooth and successful testing.
Many hours of project team member preparation go into the pre-testing commissioning activities. This includes establishing a clear understanding of how systems are intended to function, agreeing on who is responsible for which parts of equipment and systems integration, and, of course, the work required to install, start-up, and program the systems to perform as documented.
After all of this preparation, one of the biggest challenges we run into once functional performance testing begins is the introduction of new project team members who were not part of the pre-testing coordination or communication. Sometimes this is inevitable due to someone changing employment. However, it sometimes happens that new people are sent to the site to participate in testing because they are less costly per hour (i.e., less experienced) and/or less in demand than the people who had been an integral part of the systems coordination and planning process.
These new people may know how to manipulate their respective systems (e.g., HVAC controls, lighting controls, fire alarm, on-board equipment controllers, etc.) upon the request of the commissioning professional running the tests, but they do not know anything about the unique details of the systems being tested and cannot quickly answer questions about why the systems perform the way they do. When asked the “why” question, the best case is that these people can dig into the system programming and answer the question, but the time involved in arriving at an answer is excruciatingly long compared to simply asking the person who did the programming and/or setup work in the first place.
New people who are not familiar with the project history will dramatically slow down the functional performance testing, increase the number of issues that need to be documented in the commissioning action list and followed-up on later, and result in excessive retesting time required before the systems can be accepted by the owner. All of these consequences of sending the wrong people to participate in testing are the things that give commissioning a bad reputation. I am not implying that inexperienced test participants are the only potential source of these problems, but they will always be a contributing factor.
So, who are the best people to send to functional performance testing? I believe they are the following, depending on the systems being tested.
HVAC controls contractor - Whoever programmed the system
Fire alarm contractor - Whoever programmed the system
Mechanical contractor - Whoever started up the equipment with on-board controllers
Lighting controls - Whoever programmed the system and/or set up the controllers
Commissioning firm - The commissioning professional who was most closely involved in the systems review, integration, and coordination process
I believe that excellent pre-testing coordination, communication, and team follow-through, combined with having the best people participating in the functional performance testing, can cut the time spent on end-of-construction commissioning activities (testing, issues resolution, and retesting) by 25-50%.