My elevator speech about commissioning boils the process down to documentation, testing, and training. Documentation is a constant throughout the commissioning process, theoretically starting with the owner’s project requirements and ending with the commissioning report. This month and next, I want to do a deep dive into two elements of the systems manual, which is one of the most beneficial documents to come out of the commissioning process. Both elements are critical for the ongoing sustainable operation of the commissioned systems. This month’s column will be dedicated to HVAC controls documentation, and next month’s will focus on non-controls-related operational instructions.

One of the most referenced parts of a systems manual is the HVAC controls section. This is because controls are complex, have many possible designs, and are not necessarily intuitive. We’ve spent a generation of commissioning projects providing systems manuals to building operators and training them on the importance of understanding the details and idiosyncrasies of their buildings’ HVAC systems. Even though the equipment in the mechanical rooms may look like things they’ve seen in previous facilities, there is about zero chance the controls are the same as what the operators have worked with before.

As commissioning professionals, we take pride in complete and accurate documentation. Nowhere is this more important than the systems manual controls section. The controls contractor is the responsible team member for preparing and submitting the controls section for compilation into the systems manual. For the most part, it is an “as-built” version of the approved controls submittal from early in the project. The as-built designation means it represents the final installation, programming, and commissioned operation.

There are always tweaks to a controls system between submittal approval and final completion. Acceptable tweaks are typically (1) programming logic that was not detailed in the submittal and/or (2) approved “improvements” made by the programmer based on unique field conditions or the programmer’s experience with similar systems. Most of the tweaks are simply edits to the sequences of operation section of the controls manual; however, we have had many projects where the as-built documentation is not accurate or even submitted by the contractor.

A competitive commissioning proposal needs to assume that all commissioning team members will meet their responsibilities within the commissioning process. Therefore, the systems manual level of effort assumed by the commissioning professional, with respect to the controls as-built, is typically a one-time “review for completeness and accuracy.” Then, the contractor’s document is incorporated into the systems manual. At most, assuming the initial review finds problems, the commissioning scope also includes a back check of a resubmittal of the as-built controls manual.

In worst case scenarios, the commissioning professional could get looped into an endless cycle of submit/review/comment/resubmit/review/comment/etc. with an uncooperative controls contractor. The following are two options for dealing with these situations, both of which are likely outside of any commissioning professional’s contractual responsibilities.

  1. The owner can refuse payment to the contractor until the documentation is approved by the commissioning professional. This could result in multiple iterations of the submit/review/comment/resubmit cycle, for which the contractor should be held responsible for the commissioning professional’s fees after the first round.

  2. The commissioning professional can “red-line” the inaccurate as-built manual based on what the commissioning professional knows after functional performance testing and final accepted operation. These red lines would be accompanied by a disclaimer from the commissioning professional noting that the information is based solely on his or her field observation/testing of system installation/operation and is not a certification of the contractor’s programming. As with option one, the commissioning professional’s out-of-scope services would need to be paid for by the owner, but the owner would have grounds against which to back charge the contractor.

Option two may be the most efficient approach to resolving the problem of an uncooperative controls contractor; however, it will result in a messy systems manual that is more difficult for future building operators to reference.

One thing the commissioning professional does not want to do is allow a controls as-built documentation standoff to drag on very long. The systems manual is far too important a resource to delay its delivery into the building operator’s hands. In general, the more time that passes after substantial completion, the slower anyone’s (even the owner’s) responses will be to commissioning action items. If the owner chooses not to pursue either option above, the commissioning professional has no authority to influence a better outcome. It’s probably best to submit the systems manual with an inaccurate (so noted in a general note from the commissioning provider) controls section than to not submit it at all.