This past August, I wrote in this column about the opportunity to invest in a niche business providing temporary HVAC design and construction administration. Well, here is another niche business that can differentiate your consulting firm from the competition: 3rd-party testing, adjusting, and balancing (TAB).

For several years, I’ve been able to convince building owners to hire me to provide 3rd-party TAB in addition to 3rd-party commissioning. On several occasions, I received the contract for both because I was the only consulting engineer offering this service when the owner was initially looking only for a commissioning agent. I would tell others, “If I can get the commissioning contract, it will take less than 30 minutes to convince the owner that 3rd-party TAB in sync with the commissioning was the way to go.” It was that simple when working with an educated owner who seldom, if ever, was satisfied with the traditional TAB services being provided as a subcontractor by the builder.

Even with this success and providing seminars on the topic of TAB as an independent 3rd-party business venture, I’ve been surprised at how many design engineering firms don’t want to get involved with this quality control function. Consulting firms have seen how 3rd-party commissioning can be a profitable and additional revenue for the firm. Now there are numerous companies providing this service.

My analogy of commissioning and TAB has been to say that when you buy an automobile, the invoice sticker on the window will list a bunch of options furnished with the vehicle (e.g., electric door and window package) and the sticker will also note the estimated miles per gallon (MPG) the car will get on the highway and in city traffic. The quality control person making sure the electric door and window package is working is the commissioning technician. The assurance that the estimated MPG will be achieved is going to be the mechanic (aka TAB technician) to set up the flow, pressure, etc. That said, it has always been my opinion that the most qualified person to oversee the commissioning and TAB technician is an engineer who is a hands-on practitioner. 

Sure, you need the technician with the tools to facilitate the work, whether it is TAB or commissioning. But the consulting engineer, doing both quality control services, provides the TAB roadmap (system flow diagram with flows, pressure, pressure drop, etc.) and commissioning roadmap (functional performance test narratives) to note just one of several documents needed to complete the TAB and commissioning.

Years back, working for a major mechanical contractor, I noticed that technicians like to “do the work,” and thinking through the design intent was not something that they were as much interested in understanding. After all, starting up and adjusting a central AHU versus another unit can become routine, and the technician would roll up his sleeves and get right into the work. At the same time, design engineers can become very disinterested in managing the financial side of their HVAC project. To them, engineering is what they enjoy and “bean counters” are left to watch the cash flow, so the designer will roll up her sleeves and get right into the work. As the project moves from design to construction to project closeout, you can envision the silos that make up the job.

Now, construction managers and owner representatives will say that they are the ones responsible for managing the project and the quality control, but really none of them will facilitate the TAB and commissioning process. They will assign a MEP coordinator to oversee the HVAC, electric, and plumbing subcontractors, as well as interface with the design team. This coordinator will most likely not be an experienced TAB and/or commissioning specialist. When something doesn’t go as designed, the fingerpointing will begin.

I believe an experienced, practical, hands-on consultant can be the 3rd-party point person to bring confidence and experience to the project by directing the TAB company’s technician in sync with the contract documents and then direct the HVAC subcontractor to follow the commissioning process. Now wouldn’t that be a niche business opportunity to enhance project quality control?  ES