One of the problems with being an energy engineer is that it’s sometimes impossible not to think about my job even when I’m not actually at work. When I go into a store, I’ll frequently comment about all the inefficient lighting, HVAC equipment, etc. and watch my family give me the “there he goes again” look.

I had a similar experience a few weeks ago when I went car shopping with my son. After listening to the salesman, I was reminded about some of the similarities between owning and maintaining a car and operating a building. When purchasing a car, especially a previously owned model, many dealerships highlight that the vehicle is “pre-certified”. This means that it has been through a multi-point inspection, and everything has been checked out to ensure that it operates properly. As the mileage adds up, however, systems may begin to deteriorate and the vehicle needs a tune-up from time to time to ensure that it continues to operate at a high performance level and provides good fuel economy. Otherwise, it can end up costing you more money to operate over time. Similarly, buildings also need to undergo an up-front commissioning process and periodic “re-commissioning” to optimize performance and reduce energy consumption.

Buildings go through a life cycle – from initial construction through years of operation – which may include multiple occupancy requirements and renovations. To ensure that buildings are operated as efficiently as possible, the energy consuming systems should be evaluated and “fine-tuned” at various times throughout the life of a building.

A proverb says, “If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed”. Although this sounds like basic common sense, this is very true of commissioning in that the issues that affect building performance will only continue, or even get worse over time, unless systems are properly commissioned and maintained. If nothing is done to change the trend or direction, building owners and operators should not be surprised when the same problems and high operating costs recur year after year.

In order to optimize building performance, a systematic commissioning process should occur at the time of initial building construction to make sure the systems are installed correctly and to verify that everything functions according to the original design intent. Buildings are dynamic, however, and the building requirements can change over time. Building systems, even if originally operated properly, tend to degrade over time. As such, the building systems should be periodically evaluated to ensure they meet the current requirements of the facility. This provides the basis for building commissioning, retro-commissioning, and ongoing commissioning.

What Are the Types of Commissioning?

 Although there may be some differences depending on the source consulted, following are some definitions to provide a consistent frame of reference moving forward:

Commissioning – A quality-focused process for verifying and documenting that the facility and its systems are planned, designed, installed, operated and maintained to meet the Owner’s requirements.

  • Retro-Commissioning (RCx) – Commissioning applied to an existing facility, whether previously commissioned or not, to help the facility and its systems meet the Owner’s current and anticipated future requirements (not necessarily its original design).

  •  Ongoing Commissioning – A continuation of commissioning into the occupation and operation phase, or a continuation of retro-commissioning, to verify that the facility and its systems continue to meet the Owner’s requirements.

Based on the definitions above, commissioning takes place when systems are initially installed. This could include new building construction or the installation of new equipment. Retro-commissioning applies to existing buildings, and these buildings may or may not have been previously commissioned. If a building has been previously commissioned, the term “re-commissioning” is sometimes used in the industry, but the working definition of retro-commissioning also incorporates this option.

So why is retro-commissioning and on-going commissioning critical to the overall performance of a building and how do you get started with this process? Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we talk about these topics in more detail. In meantime, think about ways you can optimize building energy performance the next time you take your car in for an oil change or routine maintenance. After all, it’s hard not to think about these things sometimes.