The Case for Commissioning Existing Buildings

April 1, 2011
Existing-building commissioning empowers O&M staffs, allowing them to do their jobs better and faster and receive more positive visibility from management and occupants.

Existing-building commissioning (EBCx) has been slow to gain acceptance in the operations-and-maintenance (O&M) community, partly because EBCx often is confused with O&M/preventive maintenance (PM). When EBCx is confused with O&M/PM, the facility owner feels like he or she is paying for the same service twice. Even worse, the O&M staff feels as though an outside crew is going to find fault with its work.

Nothing could be further from the truth. EBCx empowers a building's O&M staff, allowing it to do its job better and faster and receive more positive visibility from management and occupants. Commissioning fills the gaps of conventional maintenance programs and addresses the anomalies that form the Achilles' heel of planned preventive maintenance. EBCx is a new lease on life for an O&M/PM program.

Items That “Fall Through the Cracks”

EBCx approaches building O&M from a different point of view. An EBCx team has a fresh set of eyes and sees things needing work, rather than items scheduled for inspection. For example, an EBCx team pinpoints minor items damaged or disturbed by off-site contractors working on the premises, such as an emergency-exit light/battery pack that has been knocked off-kilter. If a light is not aimed properly, it cannot provide the appropriate amount of illumination. And, if it is 12 ft off the ground, nobody will see it until it is too late. In some environments, such as a health-care facility, this can lead to a code infraction.

Let's say someone running a new phone line accidentally steps on the building-management system's (BMS's) network wiring. Suddenly, a section of the building no longer reports to the central workstation. This is not a fatal flaw because the stand-alone panel will continue to function. However, the error means the O&M staff cannot monitor the conditions in the affected space properly, and it may not have the time to track down the problem and determine why it cannot “see” the space.

In the previous examples, EBCx approaches facility-operations quality as a mandate for uniform improvements to achieve better efficiency. The outside team expedites small-item repair so larger units can be tested, resulting in fewer headaches for the day-to-day O&M staff.

Deferred Maintenance

Every facility has a certain number of malfunctions that would be repaired if only there were enough time and money. Although not life-threatening, these glitches cause higher energy bills and/or uncomfortable environments for building occupants.

For example, let's say a worn-out actuator on an air-handling unit's economizer damper causes failure to utilize free outside-air cooling when it is available. The resulting increase in energy bills is ignored in favor of addressing comfort issues elsewhere. When the EBCx team identifies the problem and documents a monetary reason to fix it, funds for the repair suddenly become available. The ensuing reduced energy costs create good public relations for the O&M staff, and the new actuator means one less problem waiting to be solved in the future. Everybody wins.

Specialized Repairs

Deferred maintenance sometimes includes specialized repairs, such as BMS reprogramming. In this case, not only can minor unexpected breakdowns be costly, on-site personnel typically are not qualified to make repairs. More money, time, and coordination, then, are required to bring in a specialized repair person.

BMS programming can be lost via power outages, power surges, electrical-storm upsets, or even an accidental flip of the wrong dipswitch in a control panel. The resulting lack of control over schedule, setback, and other energy-saving tactics may show up only occasionally, making diagnosis difficult. If a night/weekend override no longer works correctly, the resulting complaints from occasional users could damage the reputation and credibility of the O&M staff. Typically, O&M staffs do not have the specialized knowledge, software, and tools to test BMS programming. Additionally, it does not always make sense to test BMS programming for one small problem. Small problems, however, tend to build up, as do occupants' complaints and ill feelings. When an EBCx team checks a system's programming from the bottom up, upgrades software as required, and checks remote-access and auto-dialing capabilities, the BMS works correctly, and the O&M staff's morale is boosted.

Missing Documentation

An EBCx team reviews a facility's O&M documentation for completeness and replaces it as needed. Once missing information is replaced and organized, the building owner should transfer it to electronic format. CDs can be divided into tracks, providing fast access to information on a battery-powered laptop, even in the absence of light and power. In the event a CD is destroyed, burning a new one is a 5-cent solution to a big-buck problem.

One of the largest handicaps O&M staffs face is the lack of complete and correct as-built drawings of finished projects. Piping, valves, variable-air-volume boxes, and other equipment are marked with the same labels on plans and physical units, as well as in BMS systems. When a major addition is in the process of being completed, an O&M staff may not have the time and presence of mind to prod an unresponsive design/build team into providing as-built drawings. Although an O&M staff does not have time for this type of work during the course of a routine day, it is in the EBCx team's scope.

Staff Training

It is unlikely that the O&M staff maintaining a building is the same group that serviced the facility when it was new. Part of an EBCx team's job is to retrain, helping the entire staff understand a building's systems, whether a team member was trained five years earlier or never received any kind of instruction. Retraining sometimes includes reviewing the native languages spoken by the staff and teaching in the most effective language.


EBCx helps overworked O&M staffs elevate the quality of their facilities, providing the shot in the arm needed to make a building's O&M better and easier.

A commissioning project manager for AKF Group LLC, a full-service engineering firm, Ron Wilkinson, PE, LEED AP, is an authority on commissioning LEED Green Building Rating System projects and sustainable buildings. He is the author of the first commissioning training program for LEED for New Construction and Major Renovations. He is a longtime member of HPAC Engineering's Editorial Advisory Board.

About the Author


The founding principal of Seattle-based Wilkinson Commissioning Management, Ron Wilkinson, PE, LEED AP, CPMP, is the author of the first commissioning training program for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for New Construction and Major Renovations Green Building Rating System and the founding recording secretary for ASHRAE Guideline Project Committee 0.2/1.2, The Commissioning Process for Existing Building Systems and Assemblies/The Commissioning Process for Existing HVAC&R Systems. An ASHRAE Distinguished Lecturer and an American Institute of Architects Continuing Education Lecturer, he has spoken on commissioning practices internationally. He is a longtime member of HPAC Engineering’s Editorial Advisory Board.