If you're an electrical contractor who's already familiar with the commissioning process, you're ahead of the curve. If not, it's time to get onboard if you want to keep your competitive edge. Commissioning has already become a priority for many industry organizations and is starting to take hold in the construction industry. In fact, several societies, regulating bodies, and organizations are looking for ways to improve the commissioning process and update the construction process to better encompass commissioning activities. Organizations such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), Building Commissioning Association (BCA), and the National Institute of Building Sciences are just a few of those groups actively writing standards and adopting procedures that outline the commissioning process.

Systems that are commissioned vary depending on contracts, project scope, and what firm is hired as the commissioning authority. Traditionally, the focus of commissioning has been driven by the HVAC industry. However, there is increasing momentum for whole building commissioning, which encompasses all aspects of the building process and includes all trades. Electrical systems are a logical step in the progression toward a fully commissioned building.

If a building is commissioned, and you're the electrical contractor on the project, you should count on being involved. Most of the time specific electrical systems such as power distribution, fire alarm (Photo 1), and lighting are included in the commissioning process. But even if the job consists of HVAC systems only, you should still be prepared for commissioning and quality control activities.

Qualifying the concept. What is commissioning, and why has this trend been gaining popularity in recent years? The process is a quality-based methodology for verifying and documenting that all building systems are installed and function as they were originally designed. In theory, the act of commissioning should reduce project construction costs, increase equipment operational efficiencies, reduce building maintenance expenses, and boost an owner's return on investment. In practice, the process is an additional influence in the standard construction process in which a commissioning agent or authority will observe, review, and participate in most aspects of the construction project.

Typically, a commissioning authority is a third-party organization with licensed engineers retained by the owner for the purpose of quality assurance. Implemented for a variety of reasons, including regulatory requirements, energy savings, sustainability, quality assurance, additional insight, or facility optimization, commissioning is accomplished by incorporating a quality assurance process throughout the project. The commissioning authority outlines this process by developing a plan that includes all members of the commissioning team. The commissioning team is specific to each project, but almost always consists of the general contractor and subcontractors installing the systems to be commissioned, as well as the owner, architect, engineers, and designers.

Levels of commissioning services. The commissioning process includes several objectives that will vary from project to project. Understanding these objectives will help you improve coordination with other project participants.

Design review: A design review is conducted to not only review the design professional's approach on the project, but also to familiarize the commissioning authority with the design. The commissioning authority should approach this review with a lessons-learned mentality to identify possible problem areas, provide suggestions, and ensure the owner's project requirements are being met.

Plans: A successful commissioning process should include a published plan and specifications. The commissioning plan details the entire commissioning process and is generated as an outline and reference guide for the commissioning team. The plan should indicate how each commissioning activity fits into the construction sequence, outlines each party's responsibilities, lists important objectives, and may contain forms to be completed. The commissioning specifications are included in the project manual and detail the contractor's contractual responsibilities in relation to the commissioning work. If a plan or specifications are not made known, commissioning may consist of an acceptable standard, such as ASHRAE Guideline 0.

Inspections and tests: The commissioning authority may assist, conduct, and/or direct each test required by the specifications and/or manufacturer. When a system is commissioned, exhaustive documentation should be expected for manufacturer testing, site conditions, equipment startup procedures, and system testing results.

Verification: Deficiencies that are identified during most commissioning activities will require corrective action (Photo 2). These deficiencies must be communicated in the form of a published issues log, report, or other selected method. The commissioning process should encourage communication between the members to resolve deficiencies. When a deficiency has been purported as complete, the commissioning authority may verify its completeness and quality. The level of verification will vary depending on the particular deficiency and the commissioning authority's scope of work.

Follow up: Sometimes a commissioning authority may return when the project reaches the end of the warranty period to review current system operation with building occupants. Further testing, verification, or issue resolutions may be performed at this time. Often the objective of a warranty review is to assure maximum building efficiency, confirm deficiency resolution, and validate sustainability.

What contractors need to know. Project budgets can be made or broken with commissioning. As the subcontractor, you must know what will be required of you in order to conform and stay within the original budget. The old adage, “read the specs,” holds true with commissioning because the work will be governed by the specifications and commissioning plan. For instance, a contractor that doesn't read the specifications may not provide assistance with commissioning as required. The result might be a claim brought against you by the owner.

Some contractors may be surprised with the level of documentation that accompanies the commissioning process. For example, when commissioning an electrical generator the following documentation might be required by the commissioning authority: manufacturer start-up checklists, commissioning authority's start-up checklist, installation and start-up manuals, operation and maintenance manuals, associated construction communications, functional testing verification, proof of training documentation, and responses to issues. When you account for documentation, communication, and the coordination necessary for the commissioning process, you'll find the project will be more profitable.

There are several approaches you can take to enhance or improve the commissioning process, including:

Respond to requests in a timely manner: You should be proactive in communicating the project status to the commissioning authority. If you don't, you may not receive all the funds available in the contract. The owner often relies on the commissioning authority to indicate when a particular system is complete so it's your job to keep the commissioning authority well informed.

Don't think someone's out to get you: Commissioning is a process of quality assurance and within that process certain deficiencies will be observed. As a result, you should budget for testing, correcting, and helping identify deficiencies. A commissioning authority's primary objective is not to find problems, but rather to achieve a higher level of quality.

Know the project particulars: Considering the amount of documentation and thoroughness expected, it is essential, from a cost standpoint, that you inquire about the documentation procedures to avoid repeated testing. Adequate documentation showing deficiency correction will promote timely resolution and prevent repeated callbacks during the project close-out and warranty phase.

Working together. It's critical for contractors to keep in mind that a commissioning authority does not replace or have the charge of the engineer. A commissioning authority does not design a job, but assists in the design creation by offering suggestions. The suggestions are based on the owner's project requirements or lessons learned, which helps all parties involved.

Commissioning results in higher quality projects, sustainable projects, and meeting the owner's project requirements. For a list of commissioning authorities operating in your area, contact the state energy department, BCA, or check the listings for local engineering/commissioning firms involved in this activity.

Wallace is a licensed mechanical engineer, and Cash is a licensed electrical engineer for Systems West Engineers, Inc., Eugene, Ore.