This month, I want to address an issue which is as old as building systems commissioning itself. It was one of the first challenges commissioning professionals endeavored to resolve in order to more effectively and efficiently facilitate the commissioning process … and yet it still lingers. It does not linger in small, dark, unenlightened corners of the design and construction world. It lingers on a majority of projects. The issue is the readiness of commissioned systems for functional performance testing (FPT).
There are myriad reasons why systems are not ready for testing even after the commissioning professional works diligently with a project team to coordinate the process leading up to testing, provides test procedures with acceptance criteria, and repeatedly asks for affirmation that the systems are fully installed, started-up, balanced, programmed, and pre-tested for compliance with the test procedure requirements. Common reasons include:
- Lack of realistic construction scheduling
- General contractor not taking responsibility for coordinating all of the subcontractors required to make individual systems ready
- The expectation that commissioning testing is a substitute for “quality control,” i.e., testing’s purpose is to identify problems for the contractor to fix
- The belief that commissioning testing is the process by which the controls contractor is told how to program the sequences of operation to meet the owner’s expectations (despite the fact that sequences of operation were painstakingly defined in the bid documents and reiterated in the control system shop drawings)
Functional performance testing would be better named “system performance demonstration” because the intent is for the systems to pass the functional performance tests with no problems or glitches the first time around. All of the steps of the commissioning process are geared toward achieving that result. However, this continues to be such an elusive goal that we are ecstatic when testing results in only a handful of issues that need to be resolved and retested. The good news is that this does happen once in a while. The bad news is that it does not happen nearly as often as it could.
What have we tried?
Prefunctional checklists. These were the first foray into making the contractors responsible for system readiness and have been a mainstay of commissioning since the beginning. However, checklists are often pencil-whipped and practically meaningless other than to be able to point fingers when the systems are not ready for testing.
Penalties. It has become more and more common for project specifications to include penalties for excessive functional performance retesting due to systems not passing their initial tests. What is less common is owners who choose to enforce those penalties.
Rewards. Only a few owners have gone to the trouble of offering incentives to contractors for successful initial functional performance test results. When they do, it definitely gets the contractors’ attention.
Pretesting remote trend analysis. This is very beneficial for limiting the amount of wasted field testing time. However, unless the systems are truly ready and the trend logs illustrate per-design performance, it can drag out the testing/acceptance process well past the scheduled building turnover date with multiple rounds of data collection, trend downloads and analysis, and review comments back-and-forth.
A lot of people need to step up in order to improve this situation, starting with general contractors/construction managers, many (but not all) of whom need to take their systems-level coordination responsibilities more seriously. This starts with including reasonable time at the end of installation and before substantial completion for start-up, integration, balancing, and controls implementation. It ends with a keen appreciation for the benefits of functional performance testing being successful; this is an opportunity for the entire construction team to leave the project with a great impression and to gain the owner’s goodwill for the next project or for word-of-mouth references. ES