This Thing Called Commissioning: Part I

This firm and this Engineer have extensive knowledge and experience in the process that has become known as “Commissioning”, abbreviated “Cx”. We have “commissioned”, to one level or another, every constructed project designed by this firm for the past twenty-five years: about 850 to date. So I figure why not impart some of the wisdom that has been imparted to us during this period.

First, just what is “Commissioning”? Colleague Mike Green, P.E., of MEP Engineering has answered, “It depends.” I would agree. Yes, it depends, for Commissioning can range from Cx “Lite” to Cx with full documentation and engineering verifications. And the whole range can be, and often is, called Commissioning.

One reported origin relates Cx back to the Navy (circa 1863) as a way to confirm that ships and submarines were seaworthy and ready for battle. It was performed by those who built the vessel, with guidance, direction and verification provided by those who designed the vessel AND by those who would operate it. This was a pretty important process, as there was no room for failure.

This basic model was, over time, adapted to land-based enterprises, mostly for all kinds of industrial facilities such as refineries, power plants, manufacturing and the like. In the 1980’s, a few specific owners and projects began to include Cx, ASHRAE formed its Cx Guidelines Committee, and in the latter ‘80’s published its first HVAC Commissioning Guideline.

In the 1990’s, the benefits of Cx began to be recognized for the increasingly sophisticated building systems, particularly those in the HVAC realm. Accordingly, Cx began to emerge in the institutional and commercial building sectors, seamingly focused in the public sector. Since circa 2000, Cx has spread to fairly completely encompass larger scale public and private sector building projects. Market penetration into smaller projects, whether public or private sectors, remains spotty but with growth. But what is “it” that has spread in the last decade? Again, “it depends.”

Currently, the reality is that there is no industry practice or uniform definition for Cx. True, there are some written standards by recognized authorities such as ASHRAE, but there is no uniform application of them. Even the large public sector institutions, which have been the main proponents for Cx in the building industry have typically developed their own Cx expectations, specifications and procedures.

As for me, I think the variety is a good thing. There should be no attempt at a “one size fits all” metric for the building industry. Doing so, quite literally stifles thought, imagination and innovation and increases costs. Robots are great in many applications. They should gain no toehold, however, in the individual artistry and ingenuity of the building industry.

Look for Part II in the next newsletter. It will present arguments for customized levels of Cx which are tuned for the needs of an owner and a project type. It will also discuss the Engineering aspects of Cx, and who should be candidates for doing what in the undefined world of Commissioning. – Tom Green, P.E., LEED AP – Principal Engineer