Commissioning – the big questions

Keith Barker of the Commissioning Specialists Association introduces a series of articles that examine the what, why, when and who of commissioning. This month, we take a look at what the process is – and why it’s so important.

Commissioning is often a misunderstood aspect of building engineering that isn’t widely understood by those outside of specialist professionals. In this series of articles, we aim to highlight some misconceptions and remove some of the mystery by asking four quite simple questions about commissioning: what, why, when and who.

So, let’s start with the first question – What is commissioning? All of us in the building services industry know what commissioning is, don’t we?

The standard mantra often repeated by mechanical commissioning personnel is something along the lines of ‘the advancement of a system from the point of static completion to a fully working installation’. But to be fair, there are as many versions of this phrase as there are commissioning companies, most of which are all based on the CIBSE Guideline definitions.

However, this statement in its self could give rise to several key questions, such as:

  • What does static completion mean?
  • In a water system, do you include flushing and chemical cleaning in the installation phase leading to static completion or is it a commissioning activity?
  • In an air system, is checking that the fire dampers move and are held in the fully open position part of the installation or the first phase of commissioning?
  • What is meant by a ‘fully working installation’? Are we just talking about a specific air or water system that has been proportionally balanced and had the fan or pump performance tested? Or do we mean that the system has been shown to operate correctly when under automatic control?

These questions alone can keep a group of commissioning engineers arguing for hours. In addition, you need to ask yourself this – what is the optimum point for commissioning to be considered? Is it when you start on site? Is it when you get the contract? Is it when the consultant issues the MEP design drawings or when the architect starts to design the building?

And finally, is your definition of commissioning affected by when you think it should begin or by when the market thinks it should begin?

As the leading membership organisation in the UK, representing the interests of commissioning engineers, both individually and at company level, for the best part of 30 years, the CSA has first-hand knowledge of these conundrums. It would therefore offer the following viewpoint:

Commissioning is primarily the setting to work, testing and regulation of building services and demonstrating that those services operate correctly in the building. However, to provide a full picture – and help to ensure that Clients get the best possible environment in their building – it also has to include elements of design review (primarily for ‘commissionability’), installation monitoring and problem solving.

In addition, how the building works as a whole is ever more important. The increasing sophistication of the environmental management systems used means that the commissioning engineer also has to have an appreciation of how those building services interact with each other and within the building.

It is this viewpoint that drives the philosophy of the CSA – note its moto “Making buildings work” – and, of course, the CSA’s Members. It is also why the training courses provided for the Members are structured as they are. These progress from a fairly narrow focus on air and water system regulation for the early material through to coverage of the commissioning process in the widest sense for those in the later stages. Allied with the various technical memoranda and guidance notes that the CSA produces, there is now a comprehensive range of technical material available to help explain what commissioning is.

The CSA’s ultimate target is to arrive at a ‘standard’ definition of commissioning, which will provide a level playing field that all can work from.

Keith Barker is managing director of Tectonic Techniques Ltd and chairman of the CSA Marketing Committee.


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