System Performance Criteria

Customers are increasingly using performance specifications to define power, communications and control systems for commercial, industrial and institutional facilities. These systems often require either the integration of equipment or subsystems from multiple vendors or the selection of one vendor’s proprietary system over several other proprietary systems. In either case, the electrical contractor is responsible not only for installation but also the design and performance.

This is particularly important when the electrical contractor is providing a state-of-the-art system for the customer where there is not a great deal of experience with the technology. Performance specifications, particularly for state-of-the-art systems, increase the electrical contractor’s risk. In order to limit the risk associated with a performance specification the electrical contractor needs to make sure that the system’s performance criteria are clearly defined and measurable.

One of the major risks faced by an electrical contractor that has an installation contract with a customer based on a performance specification is poorly defined system performance criteria. The key to managing the risk associated with a performance specification is having clear and concise performance criteria that are measurable. Measurable means that there is an objective way of actually quantifying system performance. Performance measurement can be done by the electrical contractor in the field or performed in a laboratory by a manufacturer or third-party testing organization. System performance criteria are very important. At the beginning of the project, they should be used as design criteria; at the end of the project they should be the basis for system testing and commissioning. Measurable performance criteria will eliminate ambiguity about installed system performance and should reduce customer disputes and increase customer satisfaction.

To illustrate the importance of this, consider a situation where a customer wants to upgrade the lighting system in a large conference room using state-of-the-art lamps, luminaires and controls. Lighting is subjective, and there are many different components to choose from that will all “light” the conference room. The customer’s performance specification should include information regarding how the conference room will be used, what tasks or activities are likely to be performed by occupants, average ages of occupants, facility maintenance program, any aesthetic or architectural lighting required, and other relevant needs. Using this information and industry standards and recommended practices such as those published by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IESNA), the electrical contractor can establish required light levels, visual comfort probability (VCP) for luminaires, lamp type and color, energy-use constraints, control system requirements, and other design factors. Alternately, the customer could provide the measurable performance criteria to the electrical contractor directly. At the completion of the project, the installation can be checked against the owner’s performance specification to ensure that it meets the owner’s stated needs and requirements.

The lighting example illustrates the importance and process of establishing measurable performance criteria. Even though lighting is very subjective, it can still be expressed in measurable terms. If the customer is unhappy with the light level or quality in the room after installation, the electrical contractor can demonstrate that the installed system meets the customer’s requirements as stated in the performance specification and that changes can be made to meet the customer’s revised requirements as an addition to the original contract. Very often electrical contractors find themselves in a situation where the customer is withholding payment and retention because they are not happy with the installed system. Without measurable performance criteria to prove otherwise, the electrical contractor’s only option is usually to make changes to the system at his or her own expense in order to get paid and close out the contract with the customer.

If the customer does not provide measurable performance criteria in the system performance specification, you should provide the performance criteria in your proposal. Electrical contractors often shy away from providing measurable performance criteria in their proposals because they are concerned about being held to the criteria. However, as illustrated in the lighting example, you want the owner to hold you to the performance criteria you provide in your proposal. This is how you demonstrate that you have completed the project satisfactorily and deal with those customers that think a performance specification means that you will keep working until they figure out what they really want.

This article is the result of an ongoing research project investigating the future of the VDV market that is sponsored by the Electrical Contracting Foundation Inc. The author would like to thank the foundation for its continuing support. EC

GLAVINICH is an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas and is a frequent instructor for NECA’s Management Education Institute. He can be reached at 785.864.3435 or



About the Author

Thomas E. Glavinich

Freelance Writer
Thomas E. Glavinich was an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Kansas. His tenure as one of Electrical Contractor's most trusted and reliable source of industry research end...

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