HVAC Commissioning: Why You Need to Test for Performance

I Commissioned My Project, Why Is Facilities Telling Me It Isn’t Working?

HVAC commissioning should be quality assurance on a project. But most of the time, acceptance of a newly renovated space by facilities operations is a rocky road.

Have you ever completed a project, closed out every issue on the engineer’s punch list and the commissioning issue log, received sign off from special inspections, and completed all operator training, only to have endless calls and meetings to discuss problems the facilities team is facing now that the space is occupied and in use?

These types of situations can leave you scratching your head, which isn’t surprising considering the reasons are quite nuanced. If you ask any commissioning agent, they’ll most likely tell you they weren’t engaged early enough in the project timeline. While this is certainly true (it’s a lot easier to fix a problem on a drawing than to fix equipment installed in the field), it’s not the complete answer.

In this blog, we’ll take a look at the testing process and changes you can implement to make commissioning a success.


Test for Both Performance and Functionality During HVAC Commissioning

In commissioning, functional performance testing is a critical component of the quality assurance process. Even though the official name is functional performance testing (FPT), the colloquial name is functional testing. And therein lies the problem: testing for functionality is not the same thing as testing for performance.

Take an air handling unit (AHU) for example. Typical functional testing of an AHU would entail things such as:

  • Changing setpoints and watching variable frequency drives (VFDs) or valves react
  • Triggering alarms and confirming they report properly
  • Pulling one wire off a sensor and confirming it’s mapped properly to the control system

All of this is necessary, but if this AHU serves a critical revenue center with strict environmental requirements, it’s important to know how the space is performing. But that’s not something a commissioning agent, or anyone on the project team, would be able to tell you.

It’s conceivable that the AHU is perfectly functional (with valves and VFDs all working fine), but the space it serves cannot maintain its environmental requirements due to outside influences. These might include misuses of space, preexisting issues in adjacent areas, ineffective training on setpoints and control sequences… the list goes on and on.

Setting performance requirements should be one of the first things tackled when developing a project. Commissioning is supposed to use the Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR) to guide the quality assurance process throughout the entire project, but the OPR is rarely comprehensive enough to actually specify performance requirements.

If you’re lucky, the Basis of Design (BOD) from the engineer will speak to performance, but typically it just details system capacity for the equipment to be installed. Without clear performance requirements, a commissioning agent has no choice but to test solely for functionality. And we know where that gets us, right?


Add a Trusted Advisor to Your Team for Quality Assurance

Okay, so we know that performance requirements are typically not defined for projects at the onset, and we know that commissioning agents are painted into the corner of only testing for functionality. How can we make this better?

To reiterate, commissioning is quality assurance (QA). A QA inspector for a manufacturing company is usually the highest paid individual working on the manufacturing floor. But in construction, a commissioning agent is usually selected from amongst the lowest prices provided during a competitive bidding process. That bidding process usually takes place after the design is finalized and procurement of the construction team is underway.

I know what you’re thinking — that I’m telling you to pay more for a “better” commissioning agent who will fix all these problems. But the real answer lies in how you leverage your commissioning agent, even if they are the lowest bidder.

The piece missing from your construction team is a trusted advisor, an individual or firm who understands the need to test for performance. A trusted advisor can develop test scripts that validate what really matters: that the new space is conditioned properly throughout all four seasons and consistently performant. This firm can work with you to set the vision of what success looks like for the project, and work with the commissioning agent to execute that vision.

Related: Why Building Automation Needs to Be Part of Your New Project from the Start >>  


hvac commissioning agent

Make Sure You Have a Controls-Focused Owner’s Representative

To maximize the utility of your commissioning agent, you need to engage with a trusted advisor, but what does a trusted advisor firm look like? For one, it’s a firm that specializes in building automation systems (BAS), also known as controls.

Why would this trusted advisor need to be an expert in BAS? All functional testing is rooted in the BAS, because the controls are what get those VFDs and valves to modulate in the first place. But when it comes to performance testing, understanding the limitations in how the equipment and systems are controlled (as well as how they need to work in concert) is fundamental to preparing effective test scripts designed specifically to verify performance.

Beyond controls expertise, the trusted advisor firm needs to function as an owner’s rep for the project. Why, you ask? For the simple fact that the entire project team needs to be focused on the right elements — namely performance requirements — throughout the project.

A controls-focused owner’s representative can keep the project team aligned and driving towards success (a performant space that facilities wants to accept) at all times. And they’ll simultaneously work with the commissioning agent and the controls vendor to identify functional issues that will affect performance. The right partner will understand what needs to happen to ensure successful acceptance of your project. They’ll leverage their technical ability to roll up their sleeves and make it happen.

Better project delivery starts with placing the right people in the right roles and fully understanding the limitations of the standard, competitively-bid commissioning approach.


Improve Project Delivery and HVAC Commissioning with the Right Partner

Want to get your next project done right the first time? The team of BAS experts at Enica Engineering can help you ensure HVAC performance and avoid future operational issues.

Contact Enica today to learn more about our expertise >>