Monitoring-based commissioning (MBCx) may not be a popularly known practice in the building community right now, but it may be soon. Maintaining efficient building performance is the goal and electrical contractors will be needed.


MBCx involves monitoring the performance of just about everything in a building from lighting and heating and cooling to plug loads and whole building systems. It is also referred to as performance or continuous monitoring. Fault detection, submetering and diagnostic equipment are all part and parcel of this latest practice, and installing them is within the purview and expertise of an EC.


“In essence, MBCx is ongoing commissioning for an existing building,” said Mark F. Miller, P.E., CCP, CEM, president of the Building Commissioning Association, headquartered in Beaverton, Ore. Miller is also the principal of East Coast-based Strategic Building Solutions LLC.


“Monitoring-based commissioning gives you real-time data of your building’s operation,” Miller said. “It helps owners and their operation managers troubleshoot, ideally before a problem arises, and also discover additional energy-saving opportunities.”


The move to measuring and reporting a building’s energy consumption may serve as one driver for MBCx. Cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., require building monitoring. For example, under New York’s Local Law 84, buildings larger than 50,000 square feet (public and private) need to be benchmarked annually.


Miller said he sees more progressive and sophisticated clients doing performance monitoring. In fact, new ASHRAE Guideline 0.2, The Commissioning Process for Existing Building Systems and Assemblies, recognizes and includes monitoring-based commissioning.


Different levels of monitoring


At its simplest level, monitoring might start with utilities and whole-building energy metering. Depending on the utility, a user-friendly software or energy dashboard might be offered to help building owners understand their energy usage. Breaking it down further, an owner might install submeters. But to truly get a handle on building performance, an operations manager may need to dig deeper and capture a more complete and detailed picture. MBCx can do that through automated monitoring, starting at an equipment level and offering fault-detection diagnosis. Maybe an alarm function is added. An engineer might go further, monitoring temperatures within spaces, carbon dioxide levels and other system- or occupant-level measurements. Placing the monitoring infrastructure will fall to an EC. In fact, the EC could become the monitoring agent for an overburdened facility manager.


“The EC is an important participant in any commissioning process,” Miller said. “At my company, our projects are most successful when an EC understands what needs to be done in commissioning and becomes an active participant. For monitoring-­based [commissioning], the installation of the metering and necessary infrastructure requires some sophistication. An EC may need to create a network to monitor any level of building systems operations. Though a building engineer may be working with HVAC and control contractors, it’s the EC who has to get the monitoring system in place and up and running.”


MBCx can also lay the foundation for return work through maintenance contracts or service agreements. Miller said plant managers are asking for help and guidance.


“The EC can be that go-to regarding electrical infrastructure, implementation and follow-up,” he said.


Embracing performance monitoring


So how would an EC get into the game? Let’s look at Seattle-based McKinstry Electric, which has offices around the country and bills itself as a “full-service design, build, operate and maintain (DBOM) firm.” “Maintain” is a tip-off to how it defines full-service. McKinstry started as a mechanical contracting firm in 1960 and evolved, adding electrical to its services. Its blended background has made it an ideal firm to offer commissioning—
performance-based commissioning, in particular.


“If you believe in a total-cost mentality of a building, as we do, facilities need to be maintained and serviced,” said Mike Porter, director of operations—Smart Building Solutions for McKinstry. “The most sustainable building is one that will last as long as it can and serve its occupants at a responsible cost. In our design/build work, we get better at what we do because of commissioning. We see how our design is really serving the customer and have the opportunity to continually maintain and improve it through MBCx.”


In the early 2000s, McKinstry began formally offering commissioning services both independently and as part of its design/build projects.


“We ask clients to think about monitoring-based commissioning this way: The money you don’t spend on repair and service calls allows you to extend the life of the capital investments you’ve made while decreasing operational and energy expenses,” Porter said. “That’s a big payoff.”


Porter said his firm doesn’t sell MBCx in and of itself but as part of a continuous commissioning service.


“At a minimum, we commission every design/build project we do,” he said. “We demonstrate the value of continuous monitoring and the return on investment in hopes our clients think full-term when it comes to their buildings.”


McKinstry takes ownership of its MBCx by offering its own remote-monitoring service that tackles data management, the identification of building operation issues and the management of intelligent building technology.


“We offer to do the monitoring for our clients,” Porter said. “It can be whole building systems down to components. We have a lot of talented service and system engineers who work to ‘move’ data for customers [analyzing it in a useful way]. Our service can only succeed if it’s collaboration between us and our customer’s building engineers.”


For McKinstry’s team, the challenge lies in “unlocking” the monitored data.


“You need to analyze data and get it flowing,” Porter said. “That requires a few steps. First the data has to be consistently received, and you have to know and decide what to target. Then you have to know how to read and examine it so you can make decisions from it. It’s a tough task, but we are finding analytics getting easier as we keep up with technology and software.”


Porter said his firm reports back to its clients sometimes daily, explaining what it has discovered through its monitoring. 


“If you can capture a system going out of bounds early, that’s your opportunity to bring it back in line before performance is affected,” Porter said.


The company has a call center in Seattle and backup center in Spokane, Wash., serving clients across the country. Twelve system engineers remotely monitor client facilities using management software and dashboards, which are also provided to the customers.


“Perhaps smart building systems are where you grab onto this work as the EC,” Porter said. “If you have the ambition, you can take on a new role in maintaining your customer’s high performing buildings. MBCx is an active energy management service.”


All buildings have potential


MBCx is ready-made for large commercial buildings, such as hospitals, larger hotels, high-rise office buildings and educational facilities. Porter has served those and other clients, including K–12 schools, municipal and state government buildings, and data centers and casinos.


Miller added that MBCx has potential for any building size.


“While monitoring tools are being employed on larger buildings, we have a huge stock of buildings less than 50,000 square feet equipped with lighting controls and other smart devices. There’s real opportunity in figuring out how to cost-effectively touch those properties and identify fault and building issues in a cost-effective way.”


For Miller, buildings submitted or having earned green certification are also ideal for MBCx.


“We’ve been able to produce significant savings with any Energy Star-scored building,” he said. “Having a low Portfolio Manager score would seem to indicate larger opportunity, but a building with a 60 or higher score still offers plenty of opportunity for savings. An owner might be able to earn a 75 score or better and have a building recognized with the Energy Star label. For buildings that have earned a LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] or similar certification, MBCx is an opportunity to maintain that high performance.”


Commissioning certification and the future


The Building Commissioning Association offers two levels of certification: the Certified Commissioning Professional and its new Associate Commissioning Professional. Its certifications are considered a standard recognized within the building community and governmental agencies.


“The associate level is one pathway for those new to the commissioning industry,” Miller said. “ECs ... have earned our certification at both levels. I think we’ll also see the creation of commissioning agents subdivided by specialty including electrical.”


He added that ASTM International, a leader in standards development, is, in fact, driving the evolution of commissioning specialization though it may be several years before such a concept comes to fruition. Several McKinstry employees are certified through the association.


“We are now at the point where clients approach us regarding MBCx,” Porter said. “We are in a growing world of smart buildings. Imagine how MBCx can fit in as we see more interest in measuring building performance. While monitoring-based commissioning is still new enough that we need to educate first, I think this practice is on the brink of a rapid acceleration.”