Building Commissioning Yields Energy Savings - Hemphill

Rapidly spiraling electricity costs in South Africa have resulted in an emphasis on and research into energy saving systems.

A relatively new system, that of 'building commissioning', is proving to be an effective strategy in reducing long-term energy usage and costs, and decreasing global warming emissions from buildings.

A recent report from Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, a United States Department of Energy Office of Science laboratory, states that building commissioning is 'arguably the single-most cost-effective strategy for reducing energy, costs, and greenhouse gas emissions in buildings today.' 

"The process of building commissioning, which is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, can be beneficial in facilitating energy savings here in South Africa," says Bradley Hemphill, Managing Director of Electrical Engineering Solutions (EES), a Cape Town-based professional services company, which offers engineering, project management and business management solutions. 

"Building commissioning is the process of verifying that all the subsystems for HVAC, lighting, security, fire prevention, utility plants etc. are working at optimum efficiency, while consuming the least possible energy," Hemphill explains. This is not to be confused with the contractual commissioning and handover of the systems to ensure that they are operating correctly as per the specification.

Commissioning can be seen as a quality assurance service in the building industry. More and more engineering firms are considering commissioning services as a core business component, and integrating it into the construction process to ensure that owners get good return on their investment. 

An independent commissioning agent works with building architects and engineers in a synergy team right from the initial design stages, to help save money by specifying properly-sized, suitable energy systems, then follows the building through construction, trains the operating staff, and tracks energy performance in different seasons through the first year of operation. 

During this course of events, the team develops the owner's project requirements (OPR) and the commissioning scope and plan. This includes setting benchmarks for success, reviewing design documents and checklists for achieving the OPR, verifying a sample of construction checklists and submittals, witnessing and verifying construction phase tests, periodic site observations during the construction phase, and sometimes performing commissioning testing as the project nears completion. The project must reduce first cost of delivery as well as substantial life cost reductions. 

Commissioning of existing buildings, also known as retro-commissioning, is also valuable in identifying and fixing existing problems. 

"According to research conducted, as much as 20% of the energy used in an average commercial building is wasted due to poorly commissioned systems," says Hemphill. The systems may be underperforming because, for example, the original design did not account for all sources of building efficiency, or the use of the building has changed over time. 

"Commissioning can provide important information, and identify where and when a building is underperforming. It can identify mistakes which are resulting in wasted energy and are proving to be costly, yet these mistakes can in fact be fixed relatively easily."

Retro-commissioning, usually focuses on energy-using equipment such as mechanical equipment, lighting, and related controls, with the goal of reducing energy waste and obtaining energy cost savings for the owner.

It has been reported that a stumbling block to building commissioning is that it is perceived as being expensive. 

"While the appointment of an independent commissioning agent may initially be seen as an unnecessary, supplementary cost, the quality control and subsequent energy cost savings will prove to be of long-term benefit to the owner," Hemphill contends.

"At the end of the day, the owner can expect his building's energy consumption and costs to be reduced, and to achieve significant return on investment and an improved bottom line," he concludes. 

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