Commissioning Authority

Matthew J. Nelson, PE, CPMP, ECO Commissions
Updated by the WBDG Commissioning Committee

Last updated: 07-28-2015

Introduction

Commissioning is a standardized process lead by a professional, commonly referred to as a Commissioning Authority (CxA), who is knowledgeable in the design, construction, and operation of systems. The The CxA typically leads a team of system experts trained and certified in the facility commissioning field. There are numerous certification organizations in the industry, recently the Department of Energy (DOE) with NIBS assistance, has established a national certification for commissioning certification organizations. These organizations will be required to perform according to ANSI standards and they must meet ISO/IEC 17024. NIBS recommends that an owner seriously consider the program benefits when acquiring the services of a CxA. The outcome of the process verifies proper operation of commissioned systems and that the requirements set forth by the owner are achieved. By definition, to put something "into commission" means that it is ready for regular use. Historically, commissioning has been used by the Navy to ensure that ships were seaworthy prior to leaving port. At sea, a breakdown would not only be costly to correct, it could potentially be life-threatening. For manufacturers the benefits are also well understood for using commissioning on expensive and sensitive process systems as it ensures safety, reduces waste, and maximizes up-time.

In the construction industry, commissioning or building commissioning was first used on building projects by the Public Works Canada┬╣. The process of building commissioning was further refined when, several years later, ASHRAE formed the HVAC Commissioning Guideline Committee who then published the HVAC Commissioning Guideline in 1988┬╣. In 1998 the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) added commissioning to its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) criteria. A move that, made great strides in promoting the use and acceptance of building commissioning.

Today the role of the building commissioning authority has become a central component to the whole building design process as the built environment continues to include more complicated and interdependent systems and owners focus on energy efficiency to keep operational costs down.

¹History of Commissioning, PECI

Description

Definition of a Commissioning Authority

A commissioning authority (CxA) is a person or firm responsible for the delivery of the commissioning process. Depending on the size and complexity of the project the process may be executed by one person or an entire team. For a team approach there would typically be a person dedicated to managing the process, while others are involved with the more technical aspects of the process.

The knowledge base that a CxA needs to draw from includes information about design, construction, and maintenance. While knowing something about all these elements is critical to being a successful CxA, most professionals will be stronger in one of the three areas. Furthermore, a CxA need not be a design professional or an engineer, with a number of Commissioning Authorities having a background as a test and balance contractor, controls technician, or even facility maintenance. Traditionally the professionals who become Commissioning Authorities do so as a second or third career.

Currently one cannot even obtain a degree in Building Commissioning, so learning about the process typically involves courses or self-study that leads to obtaining one of the industry's certifications. Unlike Architects or Professional Engineers, Commissioning Authorities are not required to be certified to practice building commissioning but most are because it is so often part of any evaluation and selection process for projects. While most certifications focus on the individual there are some that cover the entire firm. For a complete list of certifications refer to the certifications section (below). When looking at the certifications it is important to point out that few of them focus on the technical nature of commissioning systems and instead test applicants on the process. ASHRAE's CPMP certification was the first created specifically to focus on the management of the commissioning process as an entirely new job function, leaving the certification of commissioning authorities to other organizations.

Most Commissioning Authorities often have knowledge and experience related to HVAC and controls. However there are others in the field with different discipline specialties or have experience with specialized building types.

Examples of discipline specialties include:

  • Emergency Power Systems
  • Building Enclosure (Envelope) Systems
  • Communications Systems
  • Fire Protection Systems

Examples of specialized building types include:

Commissioning Authority's Role in Whole Building Design

The Commissioning Authority can and should play a key role in the whole building design process. The CxA should become involved during the pre-design phase or be the first person by the side of the owner. Involvement continues through design and construction, providing continuity as the owner's expert, making sure that their requirements are being met. The primary role throughout the project is to understand the OPR, making sure that these are incorporated into the design, installed during construction, and tested with a completely functional building being returned to the owner. During this whole process the CxA works with the design team to accomplish this.

Designing, constructing, and operating a building is a complex feat that involves input from many different team members. While many of these professionals have high levels of competence they are still prone to the issue of poor coordination and integration due to schedule and budget constraints. This is where the CxA can assist the project team, not only by leveraging their experience and knowledge, but also through project iteration. Commissioning Authorities experience project iteration because of the fact that they do not work on a single project full-time. Instead they have a number of projects in various stages of design, construction, and operation. So problems encountered on one project can be avoided on another, passing it along as a lesson learned.

As a CxA there are four stages of involvement on new construction projects:

Pre-Design—The rationale behind bringing the CxA on before the design team is to provide owners with unbiased opinions of the design teams during evaluation. Before the design team is selected, the CxA assists the owner's staff in the development of the Owner's Project Requirements or OPR. This "living" document is the guideline for the project and holds all the information and requirements that the owner wants to include and/or achieve. It is referred to as a "living" document because it is kept up to date by the CxA throughout the project incorporating any changes that arise. For whole building design this is a critical document that gets everyone on team on the same page and gives the designers specific instructions to follow during their design process.

One approach to evaluating design teams during selection utilizes the OPR by providing it as the key element in the RFQ for design services. Each team is required to provide their BOD in response to the OPR. The BODs are then evaluated to determine which team best understood the Owner's intent for the project. This many times provides a better selection than evaluating teams' project experience that has nothing to do with an owner's current project.

Design—During the design phase the commissioning authority will perform commissioning reviews of the design documents checking to make sure that the project team is following the OPR, that interdisciplinary coordination is occurring, and that maintainability is being designed into the project. Additionally, the CxA will work with the design team to develop commissioning specifications that will inform contractors what their responsibilities will be during construction. This all leads to a design that is clear to the contractor and easy to take care of.

Construction—The CxA contributes to the whole design process during construction as they visit the site for observing equipment installation, ensuring that the design documents are being followed, and communicating information back to the design team regarding issues. These visits are focused on the commissioning aspects of the project and do not replace any construction administration responsibilities that the design team may have. In addition to assisting the design team, the CxA can advocate for the contractors by pushing for resolution of field issues that could potentially lead to construction delays. The key result of site inspections is early detection and resolution. Not only is this appreciated by the team, but it saves money for the project overall. Once all the systems have been installed the CxA will proceed to test the equipment and systems, so when the building is finally turned over to the owner it is running smoothly. It is wise for the owner to include the O & M staff for the building on the commissioning team. Their participation on the team during construction and acceptance activities will greatly enhance their knowledge of the proper operation of the facility systems.

Operations—In this phase the CxA works with the maintenance staff to understand the installed systems through training and documentation. This is a crucial step, because even the most advanced design in the world will be reduced to its simplest form to match the level of understanding of the building operators. This is why it is so important to include the maintenance staff in the whole building design process. Keep them in mind when selecting equipment and creating sequences of operation for equipment. For the conclusion of the project, during the 10-month post-construction walk-through, the CxA will be involved with the team to make sure that any issues are resolved prior to the end of the warranty period.

Commissioning Authority Strategies for Achieving Whole Building Design Objectives

While not involved with all of the whole building design objectives there are a few where the CxA plays an important role.

Functional/Operational—At the core of the Commissioning Authority's project role is verifying that the building and the systems it contains are functional, and that they can be maintained for the life of the equipment. Verification is done through the use of an operational script specifically written for the project that follows the engineer's sequence of operation. This script is known as the Functional Performance Test (or FPT), and contains scenarios like equipment start-up, changes in operating conditions, failure modes, restorative modes, safeties, and alarms. Once written, this same form is able to be used by the facility's staff in the future to ensure that the equipment is still operating according to the original design parameters. These scripts are critical in the on-going commissioning process used by the facility staff to maintain proper facility operation for the life of the building.

Productive—Commissioning impacts productivity by verifying that the equipment is operating properly and that the sensors in the inhabited spaces are reading accurately by checking calibration. A second way that productivity is affected by the CxA is by establishing a functional building; this allows the maintenance staff time to perform their regular duties instead of handling complaints and other issues brought to them by the occupants. When staff gets into a "fire-fighting" mode they often delay regular equipment maintenance and apply temporary changes to the building system that are often left in place and masking larger underlying issues and further hindering efficient system operation.

Secure/Safe—Even though they are not large energy consuming systems, life safety systems should be commissioned. These systems exist solely to protect the lives of the facility occupants and proper operation is essential. If not tested, and they are not operating properly, this may not be discovered until it is too late. When the commissioning process includes security or other access systems, verification of these will provide the building owner with piece of mind knowing that they are operating properly and that their staff has received adequate training to use them.

Sustainable—Without proper commissioning, sustainable and energy efficient operation of a building would be unlikely. From the drawing and installation review, to the equipment testing, and through the maintenance staff training, the CxA establishes an important operational baseline that the owner and their staff can reference while maintaining a sustainable and energy efficient facility.

Interaction with Others

It is important that the owner hire the commissioning authority directly. This not only allows the commissioning authority access to the owner and their requirements for the project, but also puts them on a peer level with design and construction teams. Being an equal in these teams is critical because it means that any issues will be given the attention they need without being subjugated. The CxA also needs to take care not to overstep their bounds, understanding and following the proper lines of communication for the project, making suggestions and raising questions, rather than being critical of the engineering and directing construction changes.

A typical project organizational chart

A typical project organizational chart

Communication is the top skill for a CxA and should be able to do so on three distinct levels. The first is at an executive level, where the CxA will be communicating with the owner, becoming empathetic to their requirements and their staffs' ability to operate the building. Next is developing a rapport with the design team by effectively communicating that the CxA is their ally not an adversary. It helps to have an attitude of "win-win", leading designers to discover the CxA's intent, and ultimately assisting them as they put together a quality set of construction documents. Lastly are the contractors, the people that bring life to the drafting and create the physical reality of the building. Communicating with these craftsmen requires an understanding of budgets, schedules, and construction methodologies. Issues in this phase are often best communicated face-to-face and as early in the construction process as possible. Also take time to listen to them as they often have great suggestions and insight regarding the design or layout that the team might have missed. Communications throughout the commissioning process, whether a formal report or a casual conversation over a cup of coffee, cannot be stressed enough as a skill.

Emerging Issues

Some of the emerging issues in the discipline of Commissioning Authorities include:

Slow Market Acceptance Outside of LEED

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system has had both positive and negative effects on the commissioning industry. Positive from the recognition and business development stand point, but negative because it has caused commissioning to be viewed as a commodity rather than a custom solution to fit an owner's needs. Additionally, it has trained design and construction teams to think of commissioning as two separate services (fundamental and enhanced) rather than a unified process which then requires reeducation, especially when discussing non-LEED projects. Owners not striving for LEED and unfamiliar with commissioning also need to be educated as to its benefits instead of dismissing it when faced with a tight budget. In the end, owners will realize that they can pay for commissioning now, or they can pay for energy and other inefficiencies later.

Lack of Training Beyond the Commissioning Process

Upon entering this discipline one discovers that there are a number of resources to learn about the process of commissioning. Beyond this basic knowledge lies a gap in practical training. Experience and in-house expertise become the standard teachers at this stage which then begs the question, "Can you teach experience?" Commissioning Authorities that fail to gain this practical experience are in danger of becoming paper pushers and will bring little value to a project. A large opportunity exists for the organization that can bring this type of hands-on knowledge to this discipline.

Litigation

When first learning about the commissioning process it is made clear that it is focused on helping owners inherit buildings that meet their requirements and function properly. Concurrently, the use of words like ensure and guarantee when referring to building operation and one's work are discouraged. As a discipline, CxAs are not responsible for the design or installation, and because of this their liability is limited. However, anyone who has been involved with construction knows responsibility can be hard to assign when something is not right. Everyone connected to the project becomes involved when litigation occurs and the commissioning authority is no different. Their involvement commonly takes the form of providing expert testimony and producing documents that will be used in the case. Even when not affiliated with the project some commissioning firms become involved by providing expert witness services. As a commonly touted benefit of litigation avoidance, commissioning may also be beneficial to the project should litigation occur.

Relevant Codes and Standards

Major Resources

WBDG

Project Management

Project Planning, Delivery, and Controls, Project Delivery Teams, Select Appropriate Design Professionals, Risk Management, Building Commissioning, Determine Project Performance Requirements, Commissioning Document Compliance and Acceptance, Owner's Role and Responsibilities in the Commissioning Process

Government Agencies

Organizations

Certifications

ACG (AABC)
AABC is a test and balance organization that has created a separate subgroup that specifically deals with building commissioning, the ACG. They have two certifications available. The CxA is focused on the experienced professional, while the CxT has been recently added for the applicants who require more training.

AEE
AEE has four certifications available. The CBCP was the original certification, followed next by the EBCP for those professionals focused more on existing buildings rather than new construction. Recently they have added the CBCF and the CBCPM for firm or professionals that wanted to further distinguish themselves.

ASHRAE
ASHRAE developed their certification in close collaboration with APPA, BCA, IES, NEBB, SMACNA, TABB, and the University of Wisconsin - Madison and closely followed the rigors of the ANSI criteria. ASHRAE's intent was to establish a certification specifically focused on the individuals who would manage the process of commissioning for a project, rather than the technical aspects of commissioning.

BCA
The only organization solely dedicated to the field of building commissioning, they developed the CCP certification as a high benchmark for professionals. Later, to meet the need for a more entry-level certification they developed the ACP.

NEBB
The NEBB commissioning certification process follows closely their process for becoming certified in testing and balancing. Anyone can take their certification courses, which cover a number of different building systems but they will only certify firms. To accomplish this firms must first meet specific qualifications and be approved by the organization. Additionally, a certified firm must have at least one qualified supervisor who has also met the individual requirements of the supervisor position as described by NEBB.

TABB
The TABB Commissioning Supervisor is certification that is not commonly seen in the industry.

University of Wisconsin
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a unique certification process. Applicants who do not yet have sufficient professional experience in the commissioning process to qualify for one of the more advanced certifications will receive accreditation as a QCxP. This certification is then valid for five years to allow the applicant time to acquire the necessary experience for one of the other certifications.

Publications

Training and Other Resources