The Case for 100% Commissioning

After project LEED certifications grew in popularity during the early 2000s, professional commissioning services became a prerequisite for many projects in the A/E community. By 2009, I was able to recognize this growing market need, and co-launched SMMA’s Commissioning Group with Mark O’Brien, Chief Mechanical Engineer. In 2011, our team was chosen as one of a select group of firms to provide commissioning services to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). We continue to assist the MSBA in ensuring that our local schools are both energy efficient and sustainable, while recognizing that their early adoption of professional commissioning services set an industry standard for clients across the board.

Based on the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) guidelines and industry practices, the project contractor is responsible for fully constructing, testing, and ensuring a pre-determined level of quality systems. The selected Commissioning Authority then observes and tests their work to verify that it achieves the Owner’s Project Requirements. To benchmark this performance, the commissioner thoroughly examines the building’s centralized systems while randomly sampling 25% of the de-centralized and unitary systems, such as fan coil units and terminal devices. Testing only a fraction of these simple systems covers much of a building’s functionality and efficiency, but still heavily relies on the discretion of the commissioning team, over-generalization, and assumption.

SMMA and Commissioning

Though many clients support the 25% benchmark to cut upfront costs, minimize contracts, and reduce the number of site visits and service hours, we need to shift our conversations towards commissioning 100% of a building’s systems. Since we trust our most communal spaces to not only function, but to protect and have a minimal environmental impact, the return on investment (ROI) becomes irrefutable: with 100% commissioning of all systems, clients are better equipped to quickly address issues relating to building maintenance, functionality, and performance that would otherwise remain unseen.

The Issue with 25%

Our belief has always been to try to pick the systems that are the most complex to test. However, with 25% commissioning our options are limited and we must be strategic. As an example, let’s say a commissioning team needs to choose between testing Room A or Room B. Room A is 12x12 feet, with an eight-foot ceiling height and several pieces of HVAC equipment. Room B is 15x15 feet, has a 30-foot ceiling height, and no visible equipment. Normally, it would be easier for that team to commission Room A since they do not require a lift and the area is smaller. With 100% commissioning, they would need to test both rooms.

The biggest takeaway from 100% commissioning is picking the rooms that we would not normally go into.

The Sterling Middle School Example

Fortunately, I’ve seen the benefits of 100% commissioning first-hand alongside many of my clients. I was introduced to the concept in 2016, when SMMA began to provide commissioning services for the Reay E. Sterling Middle School located in Quincy, MA. The project’s design phase had followed normal protocol. Once it came time for construction, however, I was approached by the City of Quincy to exceed the MSBA’s scope: their belief in 100% commissioning stemmed from past projects and lessons learned. At the time, they were discovering significant and costly facility issues over a decade after completion in other projects. Thus, the City granted me a second contract, enabling my team to provide full building commissioning services for the new 96,000 sf school.


100% Findings

We checked all systems: life safety, security, electrical, plumbing, fire protection, HVAC, and the building envelope. Between both contracts for the Sterling Middle School, my team discovered an abundance of issues that we would have missed within a 25% scope. These included, but are not limited to, unsafe wires, missing insulation, temporary lighting embedded into building infrastructure, a lack of general signage and safety measures, unwired control devices, and sealed 6-mil plastic filters in air ducts. Surprisingly, these findings were a mix of low-hanging fruit and more complex concerns that could have triggered other building complications.

“Today’s graphical control packages are comprised of colorful diagrams, animations, and a tremendous amount of input, output, and calculated data. As a building Owner/Operator, how do we know the information on the screen is correct? Through our experiences, we have determined that implementing 100% commissioning is the only way to have the confidence that the building is built correctly, operates appropriately, and the information on the graphics is believable. The commissioning agents I have worked with have all heard me say ‘Commissioning 25% of your equipment is great way to ensure 25% of it works properly.’ After the building is constructed and the warranty period has ended, the building Owner is left to operate a unique, state-of-the-art building.

We have discovered that without commissioning, there really is no one specifically tasked with, and capable of, ensuring that all the separate systems in the building are installed and operate properly and are in concert with one another. This is the reason it is vitally important to include 100% commissioning in every project, the same way a construction trade would be included. We have discovered that buildings not commissioned 100% continue to be plagued by deficiencies for months, years, and even decades, resulting in repeated service calls, increases in utility expenses, and reductions in equipment life, occupant comfort, and a building’s reputation.”

— David Scott, Energy Technician, City of Quincy

100% Cx with SMMA

Assisting NZE Goals

Not only does 100% commissioning mitigate facilities risks for clients, but it also helps reach local sustainability and Net Zero Energy (NZE) goals. As more Owners and local governments start adopting Net Zero protocols to combat the growing climate change crisis, they will seek more energy-efficient buildings. Since building envelope upgrades have a direct correlation with HVAC performance and contribute to overall energy efficiency, a more comprehensive and thorough review is warranted through commissioning efforts. Thicker insulation in walls and ceilings not only help resist heat gain and heat loss, but also allow many buildings to convert to smaller, electrical-based building systems. These systems, which lessen a building’s carbon footprint, also benefit from more thorough commissioning as a newer technology that has yet to be mass-adopted.

In general, our industry can adopt 100% commissioning as long as we have the proper resources and support. It is our jobs to explain the ROI for facility management across industries, saving our clients and Owners from heftier service bills in a few years’ time. The best practice in this case is simple: encourage our partnerships to take full advantage of the team that knows the building and its systems inside and out while they’re active on the site. They won’t regret it.