On a mission to commission safer and greener buildings

Safer Offices

Employers were already putting a lot more effort into safeguarding the mental and physical well-being of their workforces even before the pandemic. Commissioning and recommissioning building services will now play an even bigger role in providing reassurance, safety and carbon reductions, according to Lochinvar’s Product Manager, Steve Addis

 

Many people were, understandably, anxious as they returned to offices and other places of work this autumn.  While the past 18 months have been far from business as usual, they have created a welcome motivation among building operators to give serious consideration to the re-commissioning of heating and hot water systems.

For some organisations, working from home has also become a more regular trend making building occupancy levels much more fluid. Recommissioning allows for the re-setting of controls and timers to suit new patterns of working and keep the heating and hot water systems operating energy efficiently.

Facilities managers are also extremely mindful of direct risks to health and safety such as the possible build-up of legionella in water systems that have been dormant for some months. So, a key part of any recommissioning strategy should pay close attention to the Health & Safety Executive’s L8 guidance.

For some building owners, the mothballing and reactivation of a building might also present an ideal time to consider a complete refurbishment and upgrade of heating and hot water systems. This will help to keep occupants comfortable, improve energy efficiency (especially in older buildings) and perhaps allow for adoption of low-carbon technologies such as heat pumps.

Support

The government was due to introduce its proposed Heat and Building strategy as this article went to press, but there have already been successful support mechanisms in place for a switch to low-carbon heating. For example, the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (operated by Salix) has completed its second tranche of grants for eligible buildings, and this may be extended in the future.

While health and wellbeing are an important focus for building owners, reducing carbon from the built environment is very much at the forefront of government policy. The Future Buildings Standard was published by government earlier this year and sets out potential policies for making buildings more energy efficient and less reliant on fossil fuels.

Although updates to Part L of the Building Regulations are not due to be introduced until 2022, it is already clear from proposals that government intends to push hard on mechanisms such as MEES (Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards) for commercial buildings. Currently, MEES rules require a minimum EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) rating for a commercial building of E. A commercial landlord cannot lease a property that only achieves an F or G rating. 

However, it is highly likely that this minimum will be raised to a C or B in the next few years. Since HVAC equipment is such a large energy user in commercial buildings, updating key services such as heating and hot water could be a wise investment for future-proofing commercial property values.

Alternatively, there is a very real danger that many commercial buildings could become so-called ‘stranded assets’ because if they fail to achieve EPC ratings of E and above they will no longer be lettable. According to the real estate management firm Colliers this could affect more than 10% of all London office buildings, for example.

Retrofitting existing buildings to make them more sustainable could cost developers about £200 per square foot compared with £300 per foot to build from scratch. Higher MEES for commercial premises could lead to many having to be demolished. As well as being more expensive, rebuilding from scratch has major embodied carbon implications, which also flies in the face of the government’s net zero ambitions.

Helping to create environments that give occupants a sense of security, safety and normality while also addressing longer term carbon goals is a great way for our industry to contribute to the country’s economic revival. Buildings play a crucial role in our everyday lives, from offices to shops and schools, so making sure they are ready for reopening is a big step towards getting our economy back on track.

But perhaps even more importantly than that, energy efficient technologies can help us deal with our environmental challenges. As the UK hosted this year’s UN COP26 conference on climate change in November, it seems appropriate to focus on a more sustainable future. Now is the time to put energy efficient and low-carbon building services at the top of the agenda.

Awareness

Ambitious low carbon targets and greater awareness of the impact of buildings on occupant health and wellbeing has raised the profile of the work of the building services sector. It has also highlighted the important role of the commissioning specialist in making sure the installation is set up correctly and, therefore, will continue to perform well throughout its operating life. 

One difficulty is that on many projects the time set aside for commissioning becomes squeezed as the timetable overruns. Other project team members keep stealing back days in order to meet their own targets, which makes it increasingly hard for the commissioning team.  

In addition, commissioning is not just a ‘tail end Charlie’ task. It needs to be considered from the outset so that easy access to the equipment is included in the design and comprehensive technical information is passed on to the commissioning team. This not only helps with the handover process, but also means the pieces are in place for ongoing service and maintenance to support better long-term building performance.

A more joined up process is more important than ever because commissioning engineers are being asked to carry out increasingly complex tasks. We are also at the forefront of the low carbon heat market with the use of heat pumps growing rapidly and both central and local government investing heavily in heat networks. How can we ensure all of these developments actually deliver what they promise unless they are fully commissioned and continually monitored?

The commissioning engineer is often expected to take on an integration role to ensure different technologies work in harmony. Continuous commissioning should also be a serious consideration; particularly for the lifecycle of complex and high-risk buildings.

Working with the manufacturer is a good way of achieving commissioning aims because they have intimate knowledge of their products. And their commissioning engineers will already have experienced most of the technical challenges they are likely to meet.

This allows them to quickly solve any operating problems, which can help mitigate some of the problems created by squeezed commissioning periods, and ensure the system is set up to perform well throughout its operating life.

For example, the service and commissioning team at Lochinvar is able to set up boilers and water heaters to operate at maximum efficiency from day one and can spot potential problems quickly because of their detailed knowledge. They will also issue a commissioning report, which is a valuable resource for facilities managers charged with keeping the system operating close to optimum throughout the building’s lifecycle. Our engineers are also able to assist on-site staff with the long-term operation of the equipment, including some targeted training.

The ability to closely match boilers and water heaters to predicted demand is an essential part of any modern energy saving strategy.  It is no longer acceptable to design for peak demand plus a generous margin for error because of the legacy of energy waste this builds into the system.

However, it is equally important that the system specified is flexible enough to respond to changing usage patterns as the use of the building evolves and is well controlled by making use of features like weather compensation.

Flexibility

The use of modulating burners that make sure the boiler is not just either on or off; variable speed drives that ramp up and down depending on demand; systems that can accept energy from different sources – such as a combination of gas and renewables – all build flexibility into a system without exposing the end user to excessive costs. This should ensure reduced long-term running costs and extended operating life, but only if the system is properly commissioned.

The protection and peace of mind provided by the warranty is another important consideration for an end user. If a manufacturer has been appointed to carry out the commissioning, the warranty period usually starts at that date, but this may not be the case when commissioning is carried out by a third party. In these instances, the manufacturer’s warranty may start from the date the product is supplied.

As buildings become more complex and performance challenges increase, the role of the commissioning engineer will gain greater attention. The secret with increasingly sophisticated solutions is to ensure the sophistication remains behind the scenes and the equipment is relatively simple to operate for the building occupiers; otherwise, the performance will drift over time.

Ultimately, commissioning engineers with detailed product knowledge will be essential to make that ambition a reality and help the sector narrow the performance gap and cut carbon while simultaneously making building users feel happier and more secure in their indoor spaces.

Steve Addis is sales manager for renewable products at Lochinvar.

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