The Million-Dollar Question: What is Commissioning?

Headshot of HAWA engineer Andy Fouss
Andy Fouss, PE

The work we do in the HVAC industry always raises interesting questions. In addition to questions like, “How much cooling load do I need for my data center?” or “How much heating load do I need for my entry vestibule?”, people also often ask us, “What is commissioning?” It seems like such a simple question that we should easily be able to answer, but there is so much to commissioning that it can mean many different things to different people.

ASHRAE defines commissioning as creating a set of goals for a project, then creating a process to ensure those goals are met. This includes setting goals for performance, energy efficiency, environmental, budget, schedule and training – not to mention the quality, reliability and constructability that we typically think about when trying to answer that “What is commissioning?” question.

Even in the traditional sense of commissioning, where systems are checked out to validate that the operation is per the design, the definition of the word can vary as well. Some feel commissioning should be a complete checkout of every system, while ASHRAE’s commissioning guide indicates a sampling of systems and equipment rather than testing every device. ASHRAE also indicates problematic systems should be investigated at a higher sampling rate – but everyone has their own opinion on problematic systems, which leads to even more questions. When it comes to sampling, how much is too much? How little is not enough?

As part of improving our business, I’m not as interested in what we think the commissioning process should be, but rather, what is commissioning to you? After talking to a few industry partners, building owners, maintenance personnel, contractors and construction managers, I’ve gotten a wide variety of answers to that question. Most of us think of it as a quality control process to make sure the system is operating properly, which is definitely part of what commissioning is (and may also be the biggest part). However, few are aware that it can also mean setting goals for energy efficiency, environmental conditions or sustainability, or setting up procedures along the way to validate those goals are being met.

Having these conversations with industry partners has really piqued my curiosity regarding the subject. What are your thoughts on that deceptively simple question: “What is commissioning?”

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