The EC as Detective

By Jeff Gavin | Feb 15, 2011




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While the term “retrocommissioning” (RCx) is being heard with more frequency, electrical contractors (ECs) may not fully understand what it is or what it entails. Evan Mills, Ph.D., of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has a useful analogy.

“For centuries, shipbuilders have ‘commissioned’ vessels to ensure that they are ready for service. After initial commissioning, ships are routinely inspected and serviced (‘retrocommissioned’) to maintain their performance,” Mills said.

Apply that idea to optimizing an existing building’s energy usage and performance, and the retrocommissioning concept makes sense.

The California Commissioning Collaborative defines retrocommissioning as “a process that seeks to improve how building equipment and systems function” and “may resolve problems that occurred during initial design or construction.”

RCx is an existing building’s first commissioning. The collaborative breaks down the process into four phases: planning (building survey and retrocommissioning plan); investigation (diagnostics, review, findings and priorities); implementation (performing operational improvements, verifying results) and hand-off (final report, plan and training of operational staff).

At first sight, retrocommissioning may seem the sole purview of an engineer, but it’s the EC who is best equipped to analyze a building’s energy usage and discover its shortcomings. Though regular commissioning has lately been affected by the lack of new construction, retrocommissioning appears ripe for expansion as owners turn to their existing building stock and reconsider the structure for best possible performance and usage.

John D. Villani is an associate with Grumman/Butkus Associates, an engineering and consulting firm in Evanston, Ill., that focuses on energy efficiency and sustainable design. He is the Central Chapter president of the Building Commissioning Association (BCA).

“I wish we’d hear from ECs when we do a retrocommissioning project,” Villani said. “Commissioning agents need their expertise. During the retrocommissioning process, the retrocommissioning service provider (RSP) is typically required to calculate energy savings associated with the measures they propose. Many are consulting engineers who may not have the equipment, gear or training. An electrical contractor can be a valuable member of the RSP team, taking electrical power measurements including voltage, amperage, kilowatts and power factor on three-phase equipment. Measurements are typically taken during the investigation phase of an RCx project for accurate energy-savings calculations as well as after the retrocommissioning measure to verify achieved electrical reduction and savings. Electrical contractors have the requisite protective equipment, three-phase testing tools, proper training for opening electrical panels and precise measurement expertise.”

ECs might investigate a building management system, emergency power system, fire alarm system, electrical distribution, or voice and data distribution all within an office building, manufacturing plant, medical facility or hotel. They might recommend the addition of such systems if they don’t exist to improve the building’s performance or safety.

“Existing building commissioning is very ‘forensic’ compared to new construction commissioning,” said Lia Webster, senior engineer for Portland Energy Conservation Inc. (PECI), based in Portland, Ore. “ECs are systematic. It’s the nature of their job. They can be enormously helpful during an initial building investigation that will direct actions to be taken. Lighting and other control systems are huge areas of dysfunction that can benefit from an EC’s attention. Other ideal areas for their service include instrumentation for measurements, wiring smart metering, adding wireless technology and helping the team gather spot measurements. In fact, the owner may prefer an EC doing this work. We’ve utilized ECs on our projects bringing them in as subcontractors.”

PECI provides energy conservation services, including research, program development and RCx.

The benefits of RCx
In his 2009 study, “Building Commissioning: A Golden Opportunity for Reducing Energy Costs and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Mills writes, “There is no national census defining how many buildings are candidates for commissioning, but practitioners say they are hard-pressed to find buildings that would not benefit from the practice. Commissioning ensures that building owners get what they pay for when constructing or retrofitting buildings, it provides insurance for policy-makers and program managers that their initiatives actually meet targets, and it detects and corrects problems that would eventually surface as far more costly maintenance or safety issues.”

Lutron Electronics Co. Inc., Coopersburg, Pa., has been engaged in commissioning and now retrocommissioning for a number of years. Thomas Ike, vice president of commercial sales for the lighting controls manufacturer sees the benefits.

“Commissioning and retrocommissioning help buildings use energy more efficiently and become less expensive to maintain and operate,” Ike said. “Building occupants also gain greater comfort. By reducing the energy consumption and operating costs in buildings, either practice increases the resale value of buildings, improves the productivity of its occupants, and can increase the net operating income realized by building owners who rent out space.”

In Mills’ study of 643 commissioned commercial buildings in 26 states, 334 were retrocommissions of existing buildings. Mills found the results compelling.

“The median normalized cost to deliver commissioning was $0.30 per square foot for existing buildings (0.4 percent of the overall construction cost). The commissioning projects for which data are available revealed over 10,000 energy-related problems, resulting (once addressed) in 16 percent median whole-building energy savings in existing buildings with payback time of 1.1 years. Projects with a comprehensive approach to commissioning attained nearly twice the overall median level of savings. Contrary to a common perception, cost-effectiveness is often achieved even in smaller buildings.”

Bolstered by his findings, Mills believes commissioning (which he uses as an all inclusive term to include retrocommissioning) is the most “cost-effective strategy for reducing energy, costs and greenhouse gas emissions in buildings today.”

From a process to a market
Retrocommissioning popularly began as a series of pilot projects on the West and East Coasts in 2001 and 2002. Today, its application is quickly spreading throughout the country.
“It’s a time of building reinvention rather than new construction expansion,” Ike said.

Mill’s study and others appear to bear out the potential for a robust retrocommissioning market, akin to the growth seen in commissioning. Other movements may further drive this market. For those pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification for existing buildings, commissioning is required. A number of utilities across the country are providing cost incentives to encourage commercial and industrial customers to consider retrocommissioning. For example, ComEd in Illinois provides RCx services to its commercial and industrial customers.

States have also created programs providing financial incentives and guidance. New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) promotes RCx by helping direct interested parties to commissioning talent, to state cost sharing programs, and performs energy audits for small commercial clients.

“Retrocommissioning is emergent,” said Todd Baldyga, assistant director of Energy Efficiency Services for NYSERDA. “It’s established and expanding in New York state. Our programs now address a growing marketplace in the commercial and industrial sector, including healthcare and hospitality businesses.”

On a local level, New York City requires existing buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to undergo retrocommissioning if directed through mandatory energy auditing every 10 years under the city’s Greener, Greater Buildings Plan. Mandatory retrocommissioning is also being seen on the federal level. All existing federal building stock is required to undergo retrocommissioning per the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (Section 432). RCx is also included in a proposed 2010 revision of ANSI/ASHRAE/IESNA Standard 90.1.

“It’s been an evolution,” Webster said. “Once it [RCx] was ‘incentified’ by electrical utilities, retrocommissioning had a place to prove itself as a tried-and-true practice. Today, we’re well past the ‘toe in the water’ phase. The process is starting to streamline and will reach its maturity I think sooner than later. While commissioning is certainly more established, retro is rapidly advancing. PECI has done several projects to develop tools for California Energy Commission and others to make retrocommissioning more accessible.”

A need for trained professionals
In his study, Mills noted that an effective scale-up of commissioning depends on the number of trained service providers, including electrical contractors.

“To achieve the goal of keeping the U.S. building stock commissioned would require an increase in the work force from about 1,500 to 25,000 full-time-equivalent workers, a realistic number when viewed in the context of the existing work force of related trades.”

The quick evolution of retrocommissioning also is naturally expanding the team of players.

“There’s always opportunity for improvement in building performance,” Baldyga said. “While retrocommissioning initially addressed HVAC systems, information technology folks got involved as building automation took hold. Lighting controls, daylighting and other strategies have all opened the door for ECs to participate.”

“More people need to get into this business,” said Andrew Lawler, national sales manager, Contractor Services, for Lutron Electronics. “The biggest mistake ECs can make is viewing commissioning as someone else’s business. They can really carve out an adviser role. Some of it is just observation. Look around and note where an occupancy sensor is needed or needs to be reset. Note when the cleaning crew makes their rounds and what lighting is being used at that time. There are multiple business opportunities in new lighting controls, other building automation and their reprogramming. I’m a firm believer in energy contracting becoming the next frontier for contractors.”

For ECs, it may simply be a matter of leveraging their skills to a commissioning world.

“I call it retooling your skills to suit an investigative process,” Villani said.

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author

GAVIN, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction and urban planning industries. He can be reached at [email protected].





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