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What is 3rd Party Commissioning?

There is a common misconception among project managers and project owners about what commissioning is/means. Many believe that the design engineers are solely responsible for commissioning their own work. While this is true, what happens if there is an issue with the design? What happens if the project is taking longer than expected and the designers or design builders are beginning to lose money? How will a typical project manager know and be able to address these challenges if designers and contractors can actually make more money by missing things in the initial design or by leaving problems that require expensive service contracts or changes/upgrades after the project is over?

A good commissioning agent will be able to spot and prevent these issues from occurring and will communicate with the owner and entire construction team to make sure that the project is a success. Ideally the commissioning process begins before the design is finalized. This helps prevent expensive change orders and jumping the gun with regards to breaking ground. Think of a commissioning agent as the owners technical arm, a type of insurance policy that helps ensure that the owner gets what they want and what they paid for.

When I studied “The Commissioning Process for New and Existing Buildings” at the University of Wisconsin College of Engineering Professional Development Department, one of the biggest points they stressed throughout the course is that “the commissioning authority should be under separate contract and be a separate entity from the design team”. To borrow a familiar colloquialism, the fox should not be guarding the hen house. In other words, the owner should have their own technical representative to assist with the requirements gathering and ensure that the design meets the owners long-term objectives, oversee the project and assist/verify that the project is unfolding well, assist with training O&M staff, provide commissioning documentation and, if necessary, hold the design team and contractors accountable if there are issues with the project.

It is very important to understand that a 3rd party commissioning agent is part of the team to help ensure a successful project and not to be an adversarial body, unless absolutely necessary. While a commissioning agent is hired to act directly with the owner’s best interests in mind; if they are to have a long and successful career, they will be working with the same design and construction professionals on multiple projects. Thus it is in their best interests to be an agent of transparency to bridge the opposing interests of the owner with those of the design and construction team.

Rather that having the owner in opposition to the construction team to save/make money, a good commissioning agent helps to create a win-win situation for all parties.

3rd Party Commissioning Explained

Third Party Commissioning Services are value added services that provide the owner with a second set of eyes regarding the design of new projects as well as technical expertise that monitors the progress of a project. Commissioning agents work with the interests of the owner in mind to ensure that components within the project are optimally designed, installed, tested and verified as meeting project objectives. Commissioning agents are engaged during the design phases to ask the questions that “future proof” the project and prevent expensive change orders. They optimally have extensive experience with energy efficiency and work to ensure that the life cycle (long term) costs of projects is as low as possible. Commissioning agents also help train building operators and provide summarized documentation as guidance to operators should there be issues with equipment in the future.

Commissioning services are best implemented at the onset of a project and continue until the commissioning agent signs off that a project has been thoroughly completed. At project onset, a commissioning agent can work with the owner’s personnel such as maintenance staff and project managers to understand existing operations and provide technical feedback/guidance to design professionals on the owner’s behalf.

By engaging a commissioning professional early in the design process, it is more probable that designs are efficient and designed with the owner’s best long-term interests in mind. Ideally a third party commissioning agent works directly for the owner under separate contract from the rest of the design/construction team. This helps to ensure that recommendations of the commissioning agent are always in favor of the owners best interests.

As a project progresses, the third party commissioning agent works as the technical arm of the owner, creating systems and reports to track and verify that components are being installed and function correctly. In an optimal situation, maintenance staff work directly with the commissioning agent to assist with commissioning activities and thus receive training in the process. As the project comes to a close, the commissioning agent works with all parties to verify that equipment has been tested by installers and manufacturing representatives and/or spot tests equipment to verify correct operation. When issues are encountered during spot testing, vigorous testing should be undertaken to ensure that all equipment is operating correctly at turnover. At the end of the commissioning process, the project can be signed off with significantly stronger assurance that the facility will function correctly and maintenance staff understand how to operate the facility according to design.

Note that commissioning may extend the time frame of a construction project to ensure that all components are being installed, tested and verified correctly prior to the owner paying contractors and closing out contracts. This ensures that the owner isn’t continually paying to fix a problem that should have been addressed prior to project hand-off. The collection of commissioning documentation provides the owner with written assurance that equipment has been tested according to specifications by the installer/contractor. Should problems occur in the future, these documents can be very beneficial.

On a general basis, 3rd party commissioning seeks to ensure that the technical aspects of a project are verified by a technical expert in order to reduce the workload of project managers who may not be familiar with mechanical/electrical equipment, control systems or the commissioning process. A commissioning agent provides technical assurance to the owner that the owner gets what was ordered.

Other important points about 3rd party Commissioning

  • Commissioning agents help find and correct deficiencies and identify other issues before the owners warranty expires.
  • Equipment for the cooling season and for the heating season should be tested during their respective usage periods to make sure that all equipment is tested and that the building functions as a system. Performance during the shoulder season should also be observed with trending reviewed.
  • As part of commissioning documentation, testing procedures for various equipment types should be recorded so that operators have a quick reference manual to test the equipment and diagnose common issues. Commissioning reports from the construction phases of the project are useful for creating the final commissioning manuals and maintenance procedure documentation.
  • Commissioning documentation should include a brief equipment overview and testing/troubleshooting procedures for various equipment types.
  • Commissioning agents should optimally verify that controlled equipment is installed, labelled, programmed, tested and operating correctly by working with a building operator to test this equipment. This provides hands on training while allowing for the troubleshooting of newly found or existing deficiencies.
  • Commissioning activities should include a review of the DDC graphics to ensure that information displayed is accurate and correlates with observations in the field.
  • Enhanced commissioning includes a review of trends to verify equipment operation over time and under varying conditions.
  • Commissioning agents provide recommendations based on lessons learned to provide general guidance for future projects.
  • It is the responsibility of the project manager to enforce recommendations of the commissioning agent with regards to ensuring that contractors complete work/take corrective actions by way of withholding payments if necessary. Recommendations can only be helpful if followed through. It is best practice to have contractors respond to the action items identified in reports issued so that a legal record of work completed/decisions made is available. Commissioning oversight after corrective actions may also be required depending upon the nature of changes.
  • Verification of reprogramming controls etc. may be required if complex issues are encountered and fixed.
  • Significant value from commissioning comes from having the building operators work with the commissioning agent directly as part of the commissioning process. This helps building operators to better understand the operation of equipment while providing onsite training. This also assists the commissioning agent with remotely checking equipment, understanding changes/updates and can reduce time spent verifying equipment. Working with the commissioning agent also gives O&M staff a greater familiarity with the new facility and allows them to test equipment moving forward while providing a higher likelihood that the building is operated as intended. The depth of learning during training is dependent upon the participation and enthusiasm of the operations and maintenance staff that participate in the commissioning process.
  • It is generally recommended that Thermal Imaging of the building assembly is completed at construction completion and equipment is inspected using thermal imaging during cold weather conditions to verify construction techniques and provide a report of findings.

Future Proof My Building Consulting – Commissioning Experience

Shane Wolffe an Electronic Systems/Software Systems Engineer will take the lead in implementing the commissioning process.  As a former Automation Technician with Honeywell, Shane gained extensive experience testing and repairing mechanical equipment and control systems in approximately 50 buildings across Saskatchewan and Northern Ontario. Shane’s education and experience working with and testing software have been very beneficial while commissioning/recommissioning facilities as well as for developing and implementing commissioning plans and verifying compliance for several large projects including:

  • Andrew A. Phillipsen Law Center, Whitehorse, YT – Recommissioning mechanical systems, electrical systems, control systems and providing functional atrium recommendations
  • Credit Union Center, Saskatoon, SK – Recommissioning of mechanical systems
  • Moose Jaw Multiplex, Moose Jaw SK – Fundamental Commissioning for LEED
  • Buffalo Pound Water Pumping Station North – Buffalo Pound, SK – Commissioning
  • City of Saskatoon Raw Water Pumping Station – Saskatoon, SK – Commissioning
  • Banff Cave and Basin Welcome Facility – Banff, AB – Commissioning
  • Meadow Lake Provincial Court House – Meadow Lake, SK – Fundamental and Best Practice Commissioning for LEED
  • Red Deer RCMP – Red Deer, AB – Fundamental and Best Practice Commissioning for LEED
  • Humboldt Health Services Redevelopment Project – Humboldt, SK – Commissioning
  • Irene and Leslie Dubé Centre for Mental Health, Saskatoon, SK – Commissioning

Initial Requirements Gathering for Commissioning LEED projects:

  • Prince Albert Parkland Health Region Pineview Project – Prince Albert, SK
  • Prince Albert Parkland Health Region Shellbrook Hospital – Shellbrook, SK
  • Prince Albert Parkland Health Region Family Treatment Center – Prince Albert, SK

Shane has further provided support for commissioning the following projects:

  • Co-Op Administration Building – Saskatoon SK – Initial System Creation and Project Management
  • Saskatchewan Level 3 Disease Control Lab – Regina, SK – field commissioning
  • Stem Cell Addition, Royal University Hospital – Saskatoon, SK – field commissioning
  • Spruce Grove Letter Carrier Depot – Spruce Grove, AB – Commissioning for LEED
  • Edmonton South Letter Carrier Depot – Edmonton, AB – Commissioning for LEED
  • Rona Sherwood Park – Sherwood Park, AB – Commissioning for LEED
  • Airdrie Post Office – Airdrie, AB – Commissioning for LEED

As a former project manager for the Yukon Government, Shane has also project managed/worked on:

  • Mount Lorne Transfer Station Solar Installation and Attendant Shack – Mt. Lorne
  • Judas Creek Water Treatment Plant – Marsh Lake
  • SCADA System Upgrade for 8 Water Treatment Plants spread across the Yukon
  • Ross River Recycling Depot
  • Burwash Landing/Destruction Bay Recycling Depot
  • Dawson City Waste Water Treatment Facility – Review of Commissioning/Project
  • Dawson City Buried Infrastructure Assessment