Going Back to Get Ahead

Improving energy management in existing facilities

By Stephen R. Wiggins  

Retrocommissioning institutional and commercial facilities properly can deliver a host of benefits to organizations. But starting the process can be intimidating for engineering and maintenance managers, in part because so much misinformation has been circulated about the process of commissioning existing facilities.

Managers cannot expect accurate and maximum results from the process without properly identifying the project’s scope, carefully selecting a retrocommissioning professional at an appropriate time, and defining the success of the process.

Preparing a Project’s Scope

A suitably written scope of work should clearly define the goals of the project, their due date, their format, and a manager’s definition of a successful project.

Before selecting an outside retrocommissioning professional, managers must define the scope of the project. A few examples of reasons to retrocommission include improving poor building or system performance — especially critical-use facilities — reallocation of space, political considerations, and high energy costs.

Another element to consider in developing the project’s scope is whether an organization plans to pursue LEED-EB certification through the U.S. Green Building Council. If so, a manager must evaluate the facility against LEED-based criteria.

Next, managers should identify, prioritize and rank their criteria for the project. For example, having a healthy indoor environment is one of the most critical criteria that managers use to assess a facility. Whether the facility is an office building, a learning center or a data center, facilities have to provide an environment in which clients can achieve their goals.

Each facility is critical in its own way. A data center that does not operate properly can result in significant loss of worker productivity and elevated energy use. But an unhealthy learning environment in a classroom can be just as costly for students, teachers and the school’s staff.

Next, managers must identify the systems to include in the project. In general, any facility system that experiences chronic problems should be part of the process. Most projects involve the HVAC system, and many include at least one of these systems: electrical, plumbing, fire alarm, vertical transportation, information technology, nurse call, pure water, and medical or laboratory gases.

After identifying facility systems, managers should determine the specific work limitations that might affect the project. These limitations might include: when technicians can perform the work, such as after normal hours, or only on weekends; security, such as clearance requirements for workers; and building-component issues, such as hard ceilings with limited access.

Finally, the scope of work should identify the process a manager expects to use. Each project has unique features and requirements that managers must assess separately, but a project matrix defining responsibilities serves as a good starting point. An experienced retrocommissioning professional can assist managers in this process.

Once managers have clearly identified these items, they can begin to write a proper scope of work. Visit the NEBB web site — www.nebb.org — for more information and examples of scopes of work.

Developing an RFQ

If a manager does not have a relationship with an experienced retrocommissioning professional, the next step is to develop a request for qualifications (RFQ). This document outlines the qualifications a manager is seeking in a retrocommissioning professional, such as experience on similar projects, experience, and references from other projects.

This document also should include the scope of work, as well as a request that the retrocommissioning professional provide a proposed implementation plan. Managers should evaluate all responses to the RFQ for their thoroughness and practicality.

When issuing an RFQ to multiple potential partners, managers should consider including a scoring matrix in the RFQ. Again, examples of retrocommissioning RFQs are available from a number of organizations, including NEBB.

Managers can identify a successful retrocommissioning professional through technical questions in the RFQ and a proper experience evaluation. They should contact each reference to ask detailed questions as a way of ensuring that facilities used as project examples by the applicant have continued to operate properly.

Selecting the right retrocommissioning professional can determine the success or failure of a project, so managers must be thorough and careful. The industry is rife with individuals claiming to be retrocommissioning professionals. Unfortunately, in evaluating their competency on technical issues, their credentials do not hold up.

True retrocommissioning professionals must have field experience in the proper startup, setup, and calibration of equipment. They also must have significant knowledge of system, subsystem, and system-to-system operations.

Without this experience, the retrocommissioning professional cannot properly test systems, identify deficiencies, make proper recommendations for corrections, and evaluate the appropriateness of the repairs. Theoretical training alone is not enough to provide an individual with the tools required to be a successful retrocommissioning professional.

Defining Success

Many organizations use savings generated by one retrocommissioning project to fund future projects. For example, one manager established a retrocommissioning program by funding initial projects directly out of an existing maintenance budget. For the first three years, as operating costs declined in these facilities, one-half of the savings went to retrocommissioning, and the other one-half went back to the general maintenance budget.

For the next two years, one-fourth of the savings went to the retrocommissioning project and three-fourths went to the maintenance budget. As a result, the manager created a self-funding program that returned much larger benefits than just financial rewards. So when implementing such a program, managers must be certain that top management agrees in principal to the funding process.

If funds from energy savings are going to play a large part in the retrocommissioning program, managers need to measure and verify the levels of past and current energy use. Without historical data, no baseline exists from which to measure improvement. Historical data includes factors such as weather and occupancy levels, which then can be used to evaluate energy use.

Most retrocommissioned facilities see annual energy savings of at least 10 percent, and energy savings of 20-30 percent are not uncommon. But saving money is not the only goal of the process.

For example, to achieve a healthy, comfortable indoor environment, ventilation air quantities often need to increase. Perhaps the outside airflow has been completely shut off, the air volume has been reduced, or building operators have used improper control sequences. But re-establishing required ventilation rates can drive up energy use.

So, instead of focusing solely on cost, the overall goal should be facilities that provide healthy indoor environments while using the least energy possible.

Retrocommissioning can be an incredibly powerful tool for managers. It can provide large financial benefits from energy savings and occupant productivity. By clearly identifying a project’s scope, turning results of the process into actual savings, and finding a means of sustaining a healthy and comfortable indoor environment over the life of the facility, retrocommissioning can yield an array of long-term benefits.

Stephen R. Wiggins is a senior associate with the Commissioning and Operations Group of Newcomb & Boyd — www.newcomb-boyd.com. His work with the firm involves commissioning, retrocommissioning, operations and training activities for institutional, commercial, government and industrial projects.

Finished Project as Training Tool

A central element in maintaining quality results from retrocommissioning over the long term is to use each project as a training class for an organization’s maintenance technicians.

If this maintenance team is not involved in the process from the early stages through completion, a retrocommissioned facility will not function properly for very long.

So rather than having retrocommissioning teams constantly returning to a facility to fix problems, it is much more cost effective to implement training classes for the technicians who work daily in keeping these facilities operating efficiently.

These classes then will enable the retrocommissioning process to have longer-lasting effects on both a specific facility and other facilities in the organization.

— Stephen R. Wiggins

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  posted on 6/1/2006   Article Use Policy

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