Why Retro-Commissioning should be your FIRST step in addressing problems in your existing building

November 5, 2018

 

Managing an existing facility? 

 

RCx needs to be part of your approach. Retro-Commissioning (RCx) helps change the reactive ‘Fix on Fail’ and ‘Wait for Complaint’ mentalities to a proactive and preventative approach to the operation of your building. This leads to money saved in energy costs and longer equipment life-span as well as fewer occupant complaints and headaches for building operators.  

 

Buildings are increasingly more complex 

 

The bad news is that due to the increasing complexity of BAS, if a building has not ever been commissioned, it is not running efficiently, and likely is not operating well at all. The good news is that Retro-Commissioning (RCx) is an extremely cost-effective solution to specific mechanical issues and high energy costs in general. Having your facility Retro-Commissioned will save you money, time, and headaches. 

 

If you own or manage a facility that has never gone through a commissioning (Cx) process, it needs to go through a Retro-Commissioning process. ASAP. Commissioning as part of your facilities management is absolutely necessary to prevent deterioration and catch little problems before they become BIG problems.  

 

If you are unfamiliar with Commissioning (Cx) or Retro-Commissioning, our FAQ and blog posts will get you up to speed. 

 

Cooper Commissioning FAQ Page

What is Building Commissioning post

Retro-commissioning: What I do post

Retro-commissioning: What is it post

 

Here I will outline exactly WHY RCx is such a vital part of getting an existing facility into good operating condition, but first let me compare the idea of RCx for your facility to a good professional mechanic for your car.

 

Over time your vehicle (and your building) drift from their original operational state. Though many of us know how to do routine maintenance on our vehicles, we still bring them to a professional mechanic to identify issues that we may not have the ability or knowledge to uncover. People bring their vehicles to a mechanic to get to the bottom of problems and prioritize repairs that should occur right away, and which can be put off for the time being. Overall, the goal is to keep a vehicle running at peak levels to ensure the longevity of one's investment. The same holds true when referring to an existing building. They drift from their original operational efficiency, problems persist that are outside of the Owner’s or Operator's expertise, and they need another set of eyes to help uncover deficiencies, recommended repairs, and prioritize solutions on improving the overall efficiency of its systems. 

 

 

In addition to this, both buildings and vehicles have become increasing complex and automated over time: each have vast numbers of sensors and automation run by computer processors. This increasing sensitivity and automation have the potential to vastly increase efficiency of energy use in both, if all the systems are working together as they should. In a building that not gone through a commissioning process, it is likely no one has ever CHECKED to see how all of your mechanical systems are interacting with each other. (This isn’t in any way meant to imply that Contractors have not checked their systems! It is the interactions among systems installed by many different Contractors, under all possible conditions, that won’t be checked unless commissioning is involved in the construction/renovation process.) 

 

A compounding factor in buildings is that, unlike cars coming off an assembly line, every building is unique. It is impossible to have a final quality-check for one building that will work for another. This is because no two buildings are the same. For example, I once completed energy benchmarking of two schools that went through identical renovations at the same time. Built the same year, in the same town, same size, same building automation system, and the same new equipment. The only difference between the buildings was the contractors installing the equipment and the Building Operators. What we found was that one year after construction was completed, one school was running efficiently, and the other was consuming almost twice the energy.  

 

Many factors play a role in how a building operates: the direction the building faces, types of air handlers, chillers, boilers, and terminal units in place, programmed sequence of operations. Also, how new and existing equipment will interact with each other are not entirely predictable. These factors compound to make every building unique from every other building even if they are seemingly identical. Without a thorough commissioning process at the start of construction, as well as ongoing or periodic commissioning, it is likely that an existing building’s systems never operated properly. Leading to huge amounts of energy being wasted, equipment under-performing or under more strain than necessary, and uncomfortable occupants. If your building has NEVER been commissioned, typically your utility costs are higher than they could be and your equipment life-cycle is shorter than it should be.

 

An additional factor leading to mechanical components not working well together is that most buildings and campuses have gone through renovations or changes to their original operation and occupancy. These changes can negatively affect the overall performance of the facility’s mechanical, electrical, and controls systems. As technology has evolved so has the complexity of building systems and with this complexity comes a much higher chance of problems. 

 

Let me remind you here of the good news: RCx is an extremely cost-effective way to address your building's performance. RCx can save you from being continually frustrated by high utility costs and mechanical problems that won’t go away. If you are thinking of costly upgrades to specific equipment or entire mechanical systems, RCx can first tell you if your current equipment/systems can be brought under control and alleviate the need for costly upgrades.  

 

Why RCx? (Spoiler: it saves you money)  

 

There are many reasons why an Owner, Facility Manager, or Building Operator would desire to Retro-Commission their building. Often, calls to our RCx team are triggered by persistent problems plaguing a buildings mechanical system, changes in the facilities function, changes in ownership or philosophy (seeing the value in being “Green”), unresolved issues from the original construction, and higher utility bills to name a few. The beauty of RCx is that the first things we identify for the owner are no-cost/low-cost fixes, this easy gold to mine can often be implemented immediately.   

Mechanical and electrical systems account for the majority of a buildings operating costs. Therefore, having a facility Retro-Commissioned can have a significant impact on an organization's bottom line. RCx is a results-oriented process that delivers substantial benefits (especially saved time and saved money) to everyone in a building. In every building I have ever entered as a Commissioning Agent, I have been able to deliver substantial, tangible results to Owners and Operators.  We do this by looking at the facility as an entire system in addition to the checking and testing of countless points in the system. By first looking at the entire system as a whole, the RCx team often identifies “the low hanging fruit,” these low-cost/no-cost improvement opportunities have a quick payback and instant positive results.

 

These quick fixes include things like: 

  • Calibration issues with sensors and thermostats 

  • Incorrect control sequences  

  • Simultaneous heating and cooling  

  • Economizers not working as designed  

  • Lighting controls and equipment not following schedules properly  

  • Overridden points  

  • Valves that are leaking  

  • VAV boxes not working correctly  

  • Balancing issues  

 

Identifying this low-hanging fruit can yield large positive results and cost little to nothing to correct. These issues when resolved have both Energy and Non-energy benefits and have the shortest payback periods. In a previous post, I stated that the most important aspect of going through an RCx process is implementing the repairs. You are not going to bring your car to the mechanic and have them tell you what to fix and then do nothing. The same is true for Retro-Commissioning: you must be committed to implementing recommendations and repairs or it doesn’t make any sense to start the process. 

 

How much will RCx cost? 

 

“It’s just not in the budget.” I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this. My typical response is, “Yes it is, it’s under utilities and maintenance. And you are already losing money in the form of energy wasted, labor hours spent trying to fix problems, and shorter equipment life.” There is no simple formula to estimate the cost of a specific Retro-Commissioning project because every building is unique. An experienced RCx agent needs to collect any plans, specifications, sequence of operations, O&M manuals and also interview the Owner and Facility Staff to come to an estimate for each project. 

 

Prices vary from project to project because of multiple variables: 

  • Equipment density 

  • Complexity of systems 

  • Scope of work 

  • Historical facility documentation available 

  • Building size 

  • Age of building’s equipment and systems 

 

As a ROUGH ball-park range, Retro-Commissioning will cost from $0.10 to $2.00 per square foot, on average it costs less than $1.00 per square foot. RCx typically costs less per square foot if there is a lot of square footage to cover or multiple buildings to complete. For example, an entire school district or college campus will be significantly less per square foot than a single building would be. The reasons for the price difference, depending on the scale of the project, include consolidated visits by the RCx team to multiple buildings, and for larger buildings (Rec Centers, for example), their square footage is high but equipment density is low. Another factor that can affect the overall cost to the Owner of a RCx process are possible rebates available from utility providers or the state. Some utility providers like Xcel Energy in Colorado and Minnesota help pay for the upfront RCx cost (up to 75% of the project cost not to exceed $25,000 for the planning and investigation phases alone) and provides rebates up to 60% of the measure cost for implementing recommendations found during the investigation phase1.  Not all states or utility providers offer rebates though.  

 

Make RCx your next step 

 

The average Return on Investment for a Retro-Commissioning process is less than five years and typically in the 1-3 year mark and the average energy savings is 15%2.

 

The benefits of proceeding with a retro-commissioning process are two-fold: 

  • Energy-Savings Benefits – Money is put back in the pocket of the Owner. Examples being reducing energy waste, optimizing systems operations, rebates from utilities, less time of Maintenance Staff troubleshooting, finding, and repairing problems. 

  • Non-Energy-Savings – Increasing equipment life cycle, improving employee productivity, improved indoor air quality, fewer occupant complaints.  

 

Whatever an Owners reasoning is for wanting to implement an RCx process for their facility, the benefits are often the same. Owners see a reduction in their building operating costs. Building operators see a decrease in overall complaints and spend less time dealing with issues on an emergency basis, and building occupants are more comfortable. It is a win-win-win situation.  

Retro-Commissioning is an extremely beneficial tool when executed correctly. This is why the selection of your RCx provider is so important. In my opinion a RCx provider should be a true 3rd-party representative to the Owner, and not someone who will try to upsell other services, upgrades, or repair recommendations that may be unneeded. Your RCx provider should be an unbiased, independent agent working with you and your team to achieve an overall goal of ensuring your building operates correctly now and into the future. Retro-Commissioning takes time to complete, looking at how the building operates during heating, cooling, and economizing seasons; it should not be rushed to ‘completion’ without taking seasonal differences into account. When RCx is done right, systems should perform the way they need to, all utility bills should lower, and occupants should be more comfortable.

 

Retro-Commissioning is not magic: it is a thorough and detailed look at all aspects of a building’s mechanical systems, and to be effective needs to be done by a team with clear processes and industry experience who will commit to onsite verification and oversight. This is a point you as an owner or operator shouldn’t take lightly: when done right, RCx will save you money, time, and headaches. In an upcoming post I will focus on how we at CCx believe RCx should be carried out to bring the greatest value to the building Owner.  

 

To conclude, if your facility has never gone through a commissioning process, has high utility costs (and/or utility costs that are increasing annually), your building has gone through multiple renovations, you are plagued with operational and maintenance problems, have complaints related to occupant comfort, or if you are considering equipment/system upgrades, Retro-Commissioning should be your first step in getting your building into optimal performance.  

 

For the latest blog posts from our team and information about Commissioning subscribe. Also, Like and Follow Cooper Commissioning on LinkedIn so you can stay up to date with us.

 

For more information about Commissioning check out the FAQ section on our website where we have answers to common questions related to commissioning. Thank you for reading.  

 

1. https://www.xcelenergy.com/staticfiles/xe/Marketing/MN-Trade-RCx-Info-Sheet.pdf 

 

2. https://www.bcxa.org/ncbc/2005/proceedings/19_Piette_NCBC2005.pdf 

 

 

 

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