Commissioning hydronic systems

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By Roy Collver

It’s the start-up time of year again with new projects completed and existing systems to get ready for the heating season. A proper start-up and commissioning process is a great opportunity for the contractor to show their customers that they hired the right people.

There are many levels one can offer a client depending on their needs and budget, from starting-up, testing and documenting the performance of a single piece of equipment, to a methodical and complicated full system commissioning and proving process, overseen by a commissioning authority – usually an engineering firm. ASHRAE has two documents available (for a fee, of course) that provide a painful but necessary amount of detail and instruction on the procedural and technical details of commissioning. One can make a whole career out of this process.

ASHRAE Guideline 0 is a 54-page document titled “The Commissioning Process”, and their Guideline 1.1 is a 150-page document titled “HVAC&R Technical Requirements for The Commissioning Process”. This article will not be dealing with this full-blown process for obvious reasons, but if you have trouble sleeping, they are a great read and help you understand how things like hospitals and aircraft carriers get built and handed over to their owners.

A proper start-up

This article deals with HVAC&R equipment and more modest system start-up and documentation. A start-up may be part of a formal commissioning process or a stand-alone procedure. The reasons for doing a proper startup are as follows:

Contractual obligation – Some customers demand nothing less than a certified factory technician in the direct employ of the manufacturer to perform and document a start-up, while others just require a detailed checklist be completed by a licensed tradesperson. These details should be formally spelled out in tender documents prior to bidding on a contract, or simply referred to verbally when a customer engages your services.

Best practice – Developing a routine to prove equipment is performing safely and to specifications is simply part of the job, and it’s not over ‘till the paperwork is done. This not only means equipment proving but also includes compilation and turn-over of equipment literature.

Cover your butt – Being able to provide a paper trail that shows how the equipment was tested, and that it was turned over to the owner in a proper and safe working order, can stop future disputes. Take lots of pictures and file them as well. We are living in an increasingly litigious society.

Show off your skills and market your expertise – Many tradespeople show up, perform some task, charge the big bucks, but are unable or unwilling to explain exactly what they did. Don’t be one of them. Unless the customer really doesn’t care, take the time to explain what you did for them. Go further, and provide them with documentation.

Set a good example and raise the bar – If comprehensive start-up and documentation practices become more of an industry norm, it will make it that much harder for fly-by-night operations to thrive.

Don’t make mistakes, be sure of yourself and sleep soundly – “Did I check that high limit? Am I sure the vent was working properly? What was the CO reading?” Prevent these and many other questions from popping into your head at night by developing a routine, and always doing things by-the-book.

Step one is to understand exactly how much detail the customer expects. There are things you should always do and then there are things that you can offer the customer as optional. When you price out a job, you should automatically include the cost of the “always do” stuff and explain to the customer what they will be getting.

If the customer doesn’t want the “always do” stuff, explain to them that these are code and safety requirements and are not optional. If they still balk, then you should politely decline the work as they are asking you to take unacceptable risks.

Critical steps

Those things that constitute a “proper” start-up, will always include:

  • Get the necessary permits and inform code officials when you will be ready for inspection.
  • Read and understand installation and operation manuals for each piece of equipment and look for anything that may be unique.
  • Ensure that the installation complies with the requirements. Pay close attention to venting details, piping and wiring schematics, clearances, etc.
  • Perform the start-up exactly as required, ensuring all equipment performs to specifications. Make up a checklist if the manufacturer hasn’t provided one. (It is useful to come up with a generic checklist of your own design with company logos. You may want to mark each item as “code requirement”, “manufacturer requirement” or “company requirement” to show your customer how you go above and beyond.)
  • Ensure that your test instruments are working properly and are calibrated. Some of the newest equipment can upload test data directly to a smartphone or a laptop, so you can provide files to the customer.
  • Write everything down during set-up, start-up and testing – follow the checklist and fill it out as you go so you don’t forget anything.
  • Gather the manuals together along with copies of your checklists and any print-outs (combustion tests and such). You may have to do some component labelling and “as-built” drawings as well. Present them to the owner and review how the equipment works, differences from previous equipment, and maintenance requirements.

Additional paid work

Here are some options you can offer your customer:

Complete system review and re-commission – you may be replacing just the boiler, but what about the rest of the system? This is an escalating process – bill for your time accordingly.

Step 1 is a complete system assessment where you climb all over the place looking into nooks and crannies and note what is there and check to see if there are any obvious problems. This first step is billable, but you should be gentle if you are only giving them a verbal report where you advise regarding further detailed examination, and how much each option might cost.

Step 2, a detailed examination, requires testing everything, not only to see if it is simply working, but also to prove how it is performing and how everything is working together or not (don’t forget exhaust fans, HRV’s and such).

Step 3 – provide documentation for everything – the internet is a great resource as you can often locate old I&O and maintenance manuals and download them for free. Step 4 – put together “as-built” drawings of their system. Step 5 – put together a maintenance manual for their whole system – filter change schedule, lubrication, cleaning, service checks – the whole meal-deal.

Enhanced documentation packages: With company computer expertise, you can offer to transpose everything to a digital format and provide electronic files or hard copy print-outs as a bound manual.

Planned maintenance programs: Discuss options for planned maintenance. You should provide a hand-out from your company of various programs detailing what is included, frequency and cost.

Insurance possibilities: Larger HVAC&R companies may self-finance equipment insurance plans, points programs, customer membership programs and the like. Smaller firms can work with third-party underwriters or manufacturer-sponsored insurance programs.

These programs can help you retain your customer base in long-term relationships and can enhance the value of your company when the time comes to sell.

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