Retrocommissioning Reconsidered

Despite requiring a significant investment of time and capital, retrocommissioning can yield huge returns. A veteran consultant discusses how to tell whether the process is right for your property.

Technican & control panel_1008x756Whether it’s been a while since your “new” building opened or you’ve simply inherited aging infrastructure, retrocommissioning offers property owners and  managers a unique opportunity to unlock new levels of control, efficiency, and savings.

Even when they take a proactive approach to managing existing or legacy equipment, facility and building managers are sometimes hesitant to undertake retrocommissioning. There’s no denying that, depending on the state of the facility or equipment, the task can be costly. Facility managers may have to return to square one with some systems, and depending on the scope, this prospect can be daunting from both a financial and scheduling standpoint.

And as with every renovation, you can never be sure of the extent of a project until work begins. In the course of upgrading fluorescent lighting to LEDs, for instance, you may discover that older wiring, components and control systems may also need to be replaced, whether to make the new scheme functional or for safety’s sake.

Time to Upgrade?

Despite requiring a significant investment of time and capital, retrocommissioning can yield huge returns. Three situations in particular suggest that a property can benefit from retrocommissioning: 

  • Change in function: If an office building is being repurposed as a lab, for example, the new environment may require a recommissioned HVAC or control system.
  • Fixing malfunctioning or outdated control logic in a building management system: An older BMS often consumes too much energy or can’t be optimized for peak performance. Such aging equipment can’t meet the needs of long-term sustainability strategies.
  • Upgrading equipment (BMS, HVAC, lighting, etc.) that hasn’t been maintained: The current manager may not understand the property’s legacy equipment, so a retrocommission of new systems is the best way to return operations to effectiveness.

Fortunately, utility incentives may be available to help fund these initiatives and your efficiency solutions provider (ESP) should be able to advise you on the availability of financing.

The questions to ask before retrocommissioning vary considerably, depending on the property’s function.

Commercial Buildings

Technician on platform_908x1210Most managers of these properties require managers to evaluate equipment (both modern and legacy) and consider their potential for updating. The proprietary design of some systems might be too rigid for extensive work, but most facilities will have room for updates.

  • Can you use an existing BMS? If the BMS or building automation system (BAS) is in good working order, many retrocommissioning projects can use this platform and build in additional capabilities. However, an issue facing facility managers is that their team members come and go. Regardless of the system, a certain level of training is required to take advantage of more advanced capabilities and controls. Systems have gotten better and easier to use over time, but are still often tailored to individual facilities and have quirks that new recruits need to learn about.
  • Are you working in manual mode? Left to someone who is still learning the ropes, a BMS will sometimes have capabilities that aren’t being utilized, and a new facility manager might “jump out” or “put in hand” the system from its original controls set. This manual mode of operation can provide short-term stability to a system, but ultimately it doesn’t take full advantage of its capabilities, resulting in wasted energy, flexibility insufficient to run equipment properly, or both.
  • What other options can improve your system? With some knowledge and understanding, an ESP can help facility managers improve a BMS so it’s running at maximum efficiency and operating as intended. Key steps include training the staff, fixing and augmenting existing controls or protocols, and eventually enhancing the system with additions like wireless controls and lighting capabilities. These tools can integrate with the existing BMS and make intelligent base platforms much more powerful than the original.

Critical Facilities

Controls_1059x1412Hospitals, data centers and other critical facilities are a prime target for retrocommissioning because of the sensitive nature of their environments. Facilities staff can be apprehensive about modifying systems, as any downtime seriously affects operations. Yet that mindset only results in aging infrastructure that is inefficient and prone to failure. Unless kept in top condition, critical facilities pose a risk for the users of the space or data being housed.

  • Hospitals/Healthcare: These facilities present conditions that must be maintained because lives are at stake. Any problems like outdated equipment, systems, air filtration or poor lighting create obvious risks in an operating room, for instance. While such facilities must meet strict standards, they can also be retrocommissioned for improved efficiency while remaining safe for patients. For example, retrocommissioning HVAC in operating suites can adjust air changes down from a high change per hour rate—a measure ensuring that no bacterial growth is present during surgery—to a much lower rate that maintains static pressure when the rooms are unoccupied. This change can usually be implemented in most facilities with minor sensoring and programming, thus reducing energy use cost-effectively.
  • Data Centers: Uptime is the primary focus of the data center world, which means that managers are hesitant to optimize HVAC systems and typically run more equipment than necessary to have insurance in the event of a failure. However, these systems can be combined with sensors and other monitoring to reduce the number of units running, while backup units are on standby in case monitoring detects a problem. This strategy provides peace of mind to the data center manager while at the same time reducing energy use drastically and extending the life of equipment. When efficiency improvement or recommissioning projects at data centers are properly designed and installed by energy professionals, the work can be performed without risk to data center operations.

As these examples show, retrocommissioning can benefit many facilities that have outdated equipment or have recently taken on a new function. Among the potential advantages:

  • Lower maintenance costs
  • Increased energy savings
  • Better indoor air quality
  • Longer equipment lifespans (with proper care and updates)
  • Improved equipment productivity
  • Fewer change orders
  • Financial savings

Regular audits of a facility space can help staff identify determine situations or environments that would benefit from retrocommissioning. If you’re not sure, consult a qualified firm that can perform an energy audit. Retrocommissioning can be a big project, but there are many ways to achieve savings and more efficient operations—and you don’t have to do it alone.

KenR_876x1095Ken Rackowski is the executive vice president of Fairbanks Energy Services’ Controls Division. He has more than 30 years of engineering and management experience in control system and HVAC system design. He has performed hundreds of control system installations, and has worked with and modified almost every Building Automation System on the market.