Finding clear-cut numbers around the amount of money spent on Commercial Construction in the US annually is difficult. But one thing that all of the estimates have in common is the word “Billion”. In other words, we spend a lot of money on very complicated and large projects in this country and this has created a need for a service known as “Commissioning”. Commissioning is a process in which an engineer uses whatever tools are made available to them to verify the correct operation of the components within a building and is typically the final “seal of approval” given to a building owner, and the associated contractors that allows everyone to agree via a third party that the project is complete.
Commissioning agents in this industry are an expensive but necessary “evil”. I say evil, not because there’s a group of engineers out there trying their best to drag out projects and cost everyone more time and money, but because the building owner must pay these professionals to verify that they receive what they are already paying for. You may ask yourself “why am I paying professional contractors so much money for an AHU if I have to spend thousands more just to have another person from another company certify that it works?”
The answer to this is simple!
Buildings and especially their HVAC Systems are complicated…
Commercial buildings and the equipment that supports them are complex and increasing in complexity. At the end of the day, our buildings in 2021 do far more than they have in the past because of sustainability efforts, air quality requirements, and more so customers need help when it comes to determining their correct operation.
This has been brought to the forefront of my mind after two recent experiences. In the first example, we had connected our analytics and reporting software to a new customer building in the Midwest. This building had a new Entry Pavilion area that was completed in late 2019 (roughly 1.5 years old at the time of our connection) and we were tasked with using our software to ensure its proper operation and maintained efficiency/optimization. Once the data was available and I compared the equipment’s actual sequences of operation against the engineered design, it led me to some questions. I am not an engineer, but I am lucky to have a Resolute colleague, Ed Pfannes PE, with who I reviewed the operational data and design, and we began to pick out multiple areas of the BAS programming that were not performing to the design. These issues were affecting the efficiency and lifespan of the equipment, but the area was maintaining its comfort setpoints so nobody within the building was aware of the lack of completed programming that they had paid for.
I was surprised by this and looked at Ed to say, “can you believe that this was left incomplete?” To which he replied, “this happens every day and I have seen things like this many times over my career”. As a result of the findings, we reached out to the contractor that had performed the installation, and they were surprised but told me that they would investigate the situation. Within a couple of days, the data we saw changed and the sequences began being followed, airflow setpoints were modulating correctly based on mode statuses, metrics in Celsius were changed to Fahrenheit, and perimeter heaters began staging correctly.
These changes did not take place because we were dealing with an irresponsible contractor that was “busted” and scrambling to save face, these changes took place so quickly because the contractor simply overlooked some details upon completion that were not made readily apparent for them during their own “punch list” process. I am a firm believer that contractors do in fact care a great deal about the projects they complete, but I am also a firm believer that construction projects involve a ton of pressure to “get off the job” as soon as possible and allow for occupancy.
In my second example, we were helping a customer to understand why their humidity levels have been so high this year. When reviewing the data, it was clear that the humidity was in fact high. I was asked, “what changed since last year?” The answer to that question was “nothing”, it turns out that the building has experienced high humidity last year as well, and I would suspect that it has only been felt and reported this year. Upon investigation we had found that the units supplying tempered air to the space were intended to use modulating cooling to dehumidify, the actual operation showed a staged on/off cooling valve which was allowing for the humidity to spike when the cooling valve closed. This solution was engineered into the design based on the drawings but missed by the installing contractor as they commissioned on a very hot day that required full cooling from the terminal devices. This was not a malicious cost save by the controls contractor and they made the corrections quickly as they care quite a bit for this customer. They do not want to give the impression that they want to skate off a job quickly.
These experiences caused me to call Chad Ruch, a friend of mine from IB Group Dynamics who used these words to describe the problems I had seen,
“Most HVAC controls jobs are ‘substantially complete’ because most jobs do not begin with the end in mind working with the customer to realize their goals for their environment and their occupants. It keeps guys like me in business, sure, but ultimately it stifles innovation and wastes and the customer’s money where it could be better spent on things that ultimately better the occupants experience and creates a more valuable asset to the owner!”.
If this is the problem, how do we solve it? I think that the solution is relatively simple; we create a virtual panopticon in our buildings. A panopticon is a type of institutional building system that creates an ability for very few to monitor a very large and busy area through a centralized hub, it also creates a feeling for the tenants that their activities are being watched…. Sounds dystopian right??? Well with the advent of digital services, like Resolute, we can create the environment without any more bricks and mortar as our software provides just that, a way for a very small group of people to view large sets of information quickly and easily. In the examples above, I would hazard a guess that each contractor involved will spend more time ensuring a completed scope of work in the buildings that we support through one easy to understand the concept; the building operations are being watched. This knowledge alone provides another level of accountability to everyone within the building, and in my two cases would have prevented the final “seal of approval” from being attached to these projects before they were validated as well as over the course of any warranty period and beyond.
We are in an age where the narrative for Chad’s statement is changing and I believe it is time that we move past the “substantially complete” portion of our industry’s evolution and begin the era of “complete”.