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The Middle East Commissioning Mystery

Why commissioning in the region often doesn't pass the test

ANALYSIS, MEP, KEO International Consultants

Kirk Rosenbaum, senior commissioning manager at KEO International Consultants, looks at why commissioning in the region often doesn’t pass the test

The general understanding of building commissioning is confused at best in the GCC and MENA regions, and many people reading this article will find out that building commissioning differs greatly from their current understanding.

The traditional definition of commissioning is the one still used by the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) within their Commissioning Code M: Commissioning Management document.

Commissioning is defined as: “The advancement of an installation from the state of static completion to full working order to the specified requirements. It includes the setting to work of an installation, the regulation of the system, and the fine tuning of the system.”

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) define commissioning much more generically in their Guideline 0-2005: The Commissioning Process.

ASHRAE defines commissioning as follows: “A quality-focused process for enhancing the delivery of a project. The process focuses upon verifying and documenting that the facility and all of its systems and assemblies are planned, designed, installed, tested, operated, and maintained to meet the owner’s project requirements.”

One code focuses specifically on startup and turnover while the other considers commissioning to be a holistic process that extends throughout the projects life-cycle from concept to operation. The two documents could not be more different.

The confusion regarding commissioning is compounded by the numerous sustainability programmes in use within the region: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS), Estidama, and the Dubai Green Building Regulations (DGBR).

All of these programmes require commissioning, but the process under each programme varies dramatically. Some programmes require design reviews, and some do not. Some programmes require post occupancy re-commissioning, but most do not.

Some programmes require the project commissioning agent to be independent of the design and construction companies on a project, and others do not. Systems to be commissioned vary from programme to programme, and only one of the programmes requires commissioning of critical systems such as fire alarm or fire suppression.

With all these differences of opinion about what commissioning is or is not, how does a building owner, project manager, or design professional make a decision about what level of commissioning is to be performed on their projects? The bottom line is that commissioning must be done to satisfy the local codes, but beyond that, what should be targeted?

Commissioning to the code requirement will provide the service at the lowest possible cost, but it will not provide commissioning to the best possible value. Studies from the United States indicate that fully commissioned buildings will obtain between 12 and 20% energy efficiency improvement over buildings that are not commissioned.

Personal observation from doing more than 20 years of building commissioning has shown that if sufficient time is allowed for design reviews and construction monitoring that commissioning more than pays for itself by the reduction in variation/change orders from the contractor and in savings related to avoided delays for the final occupancy of the project.

How do GSAS, DGBR, Estidama, and LEED stack up in providing maximum value from the commissioning process for new buildings? Based on the varying requirements for the systems needing to be commissioned and the level of involvement of an independent commissioning agent (ICA), the author’s opinion of potential commissioning value of each program is as follows.

As we have discussed, commissioning as identified in CIBSE and the various sustainability programmes does not provide the maximum value service. Full value commissioning has many facets. Including the following scope of services for your ICA will bring a project its maximum level of commissioning value.

First of all, it is a priority to have the ICA involved from concept design so that they can assist in the development of the owner project requirements. Primarily the ICA provides input on system operation, efficiency, commissionability, and maintainability.

This is important because operations staff frequently do not adequately define their needs to project management, which in turn does not adequately define the needs to the designer. As a result, it is not infrequent that projects get turned over to operations personnel that do not serve their needs.

Also in the planning phase, the ICA should produce the first draft of the project commissioning plan. This document defines the commissioning scope of work, identifies the parties responsible for each task, and establishes lines of communications. The commissioning plan is updated as design progresses and the project enters its construction phase.

A second key document should also be implemented at this point in the project. ASHRAE refers to it as the commissioning issues list. This document is maintained by the ICA and tracks all issues identified during design and construction that require review and possible corrective action by other members of the project team.

Items tracked on the issues list could include missing information needed from the project owner, a design problem regarding maintenance access for a pump, a construction problem involving the incorrect installation of a control valve, or a test result that found a damper does not actuate properly when commanded to do so.

The commissioning issues list is like a score card for the project and will provide historical information on all issues identified by the commissioning process and how those issues were resolved. If your current ICA does not provide such a document, he should be asked serious questions about how he is managing your commissioning work.

The ICA should be an organization that is independent of the project design firm and the contractor, and the ICA should be hired directly by the project owner. This will result in an ICA that has no conflicts of interest or issues of communications when acting as the owner’s champion for all issues related to the projects operation and performance.

During the design phase of the project the ICA needs to conduct a review of the concept design report or the basis of design document to verify it is in compliance with the owner requirements. In addition, and more importantly, the ICA needs to conduct a minimum of one review of the documents being issued for tender. Complex projects could benefit from an additional review during the design development period.

- How does a commissioning design review benefit a project? These are examples of items found within the last year on projects across the GCC:
- Mechanical rooms identified as having doors of insufficient size to all the replacement of equipment parts.
- HVAC equipment oversized to the point of adding 20% to the building’s annual energy consumption.
- A mission critical facility with 100% redundant HVAC plant and equipment, but an electrical system that included a dozen single point failure locations that could disable the entire project.
- A five star meeting and reception facility identified as needing over 100 access doors to be cut into its lavishly finished ceiling to allow for MEP maintenance.
- Concrete foundations not properly coordinated for electrical and mechanical building services. (This item would have resulted in major change order costs if identified in the middle of construction.)
- Chilled water systems identified with insufficient valves for proper balancing.
- Water pipes travelling through spaces prohibited by the electrical codes.
- Smoke management systems insufficiently sized to meet code requirements.
- Code-required fire walls and fire doors not drawn or specified with the proper fire ratings.

In the project construction phase it is important for the ICA to periodically inspect the progress of the works and to benchmark typical installations of various pieces of equipment when they are initially installed.

As a project owner, project manager, or even the contractor, is it not to your advantage to know that the first air handling unit on the project has been installed incorrectly, or would it be better to let the error be repeated ten, fifty, or one hundred times and have the ICA identify the problem when the first air handing unit is being functionally tested?

During the construction period, between submittal approval and final installation, the commissioning method statements, procedures and record forms must be created. One of the biggest debates in the industry is regarding which parties author, review, and approve these forms.

To keep commissioning costs down the contractor is many times directed to produce the documentation; however, the quality suffers. It is recommended that the ICA produce the procedures and forms to ensure the highest quality in the testing regime.

The production of the documentation is a fine point and it is not absolutely critical that this be done by the ICA as long as they participate in the review and approval process.

More critical is the participation of the ICA in final system inspections, functional testing, integrated testing, and performance testing. This is the area where many sustainability programs and/or project specifications falter.

Most indicate that the ICA is to monitor or verify the execution of the commissioning testing program as executed by the contractor.

This is absolutely insufficient for several reasons. Anyone who receives tenders from commissioning services providers understands this problem well.

With the amount of field inspections and test witnessing only defined by the requirement “to monitor and verify”, commissioning fees can vary by several hundred percent based on the individual opinions of the commissioning services providers. To tighten up the range of commissioning fees it is critical for the extent of site inspections and testing witnessing to be clarified.

The second problem with a programme of monitoring and verification is that field deficiencies can be hidden with the stroke of a pen. A chilled water system might be cooling the building well enough that no obvious problem exists with system performance, but the pumps might be running at an incorrect speed or the system temperature refuses to reset. Problems like this may result in a plant using a great deal of excessive energy.

An example of this type of problem was identified during a building inspection conducted in 2012. An HVAC system contained heat recovery wheels that would pre-cool ventilation air for the building.

However, the system would not shutdown the heat recovery wheels when the outside air temperature was less than the exhaust air temperature as designed. As a result, the wheels would increase ventilation air temperature prior to being cooled by the chilled water coil.

No cooling problems were ever noticed in the building, but correcting the programming on the heat recovery wheels was projected to save the client $36,000 (AED 132,000 approx.) annually.

Contractors and designers have conflicts of interest with regard to documenting all faults uncovered during commissioning testing. There is pressure to turn the project over to the client, and there are issues of pride and reputation regarding the identification of one’s own errors in the works.

It is only human nature to respond in these ways, and that is why it is most advantageous to have the ICA participate in most field inspections and tests on the completed systems. It is in a building owner’s best interest to include their champion for quality and performance at these times.

Depending on the type of building being commissioned the appropriate level of involvement of the ICA in the inspection and testing programmes varies. For an apartment building or hotel where room types and systems are duplicated hundreds of times the ICA can be involved with a representative sample of the works.

For a hospital, data centre, or other mission critical facility the ICA involvement may need to approach 100% participation.

Other benefits that can be offered by the commissioning process include improved project handover from the contractor to the facility maintenance staff. The ICA can be used to oversee contractor training programmes and review the quality of the operation and maintenance manuals being provided.

A key deliverable that can be provided by the ICA is a document called the Systems Manual by ASHRAE or the Building Log Book by CIBSE. This is only called for by a few sustainability programmes but is a very key document.

Operations and maintenance manuals will provide direction on fixing the equipment in the building, but the systems manual functions as an owner’s manual for the entire project. It will inform the building operators how to control the building systems in various conditions and how to return the systems to all original settings.

It also provides a location to record any changes made to the systems because of building modifications or usage changes. The systems manual is an extremely valuable tool in maintaining and operating a building as efficiently as possible.

Building commissioning is a service that is misunderstood, and that is not yet fully developed. It is most important for everyone to understand that it is no longer just the activity of turning over a building to an owner once construction is complete.

It is a process that runs through the entire lifecycle of a building that improves operability, efficiency, and maintainability. Codes, guidelines, and sustainability programmes all disagree on what constitutes a good commissioning programme, and therefore it falls to a project owner, project manager, designer, etc. to determine the best commissioning practice for an individual project.

Many of the best practices have been identified above and can serve as a guide, but potentially the best advice that can be provided if any question exists about the extent of commissioning needed on your project, is to contact a certified commissioning professional for their input.

Certifications are provided from numerous organizations including AABC Commissioning Group (ACG), American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), Building Commissioning Association (BCA), Commissioning Specialist Association (CSA), and National Environmental Balancing Bureau (NEBB).

In Numbers:
- 20%: Maximum energy efficiency improvement of commissioned buildings over those which are not
- 35%: Potential commissioning programme value achieved from LEED Fundamental Cx
- 65%: Potential commissioning programme value achieved from Estidama

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