Commercial HVAC Equipment

How retrocommissioning can optimize a building's energy performance, improve comfort

Tuesday, May 23 2017 3:41 PM
By Jon Goering

Retrocommissioning brings a holistic approach to your building, tying together the design, construction, and operational phases to optimize building functionality.

Most everyone owns a vehicle these days. And what’s the one thing we’ve been taught to do to our vehicles every 3,000 miles?

Change the oil.

Our vehicles are man-made mechanical wonders, and that means one thing: if it’s made by man, it will either quit running efficiently or eventually break down if not regularly serviced. Being the big investments they are to us, it’s important to take care of them.

Buildings are no different – they are big investments. Over time, if not properly maintained they begin to “drift,” meaning their systems begin to operate less efficiently. In other instances, building systems have never operated correctly since installation for any number of reasons.

That’s where building retrocommissioning comes in.

In this post, we’ll discuss how retro commissioning can return a building to its original operational intent, potentially saving an owner significant money as a result.

What is Building Commissioning?

Commissioning is a process that occurs during the design and construction phases where quality assurance measures are carried out before a project is completed. The term originated in the shipping industry. A ship was considered “ready for service” following commissioning, which included testing systems, training the crew, and identifying and correcting problems.

In retrocommissioning, a building’s systems are made to operate like they did when they were new, or even improved upon. This might include making changes to heating and air conditioning, building automation controls, lighting, acoustics, and security.

It’s not a given that all buildings have been commissioned following construction, however. Building owners should discuss with their architect, engineer or contractor if uncertain whether commissioning was performed. Ask questions about the process, what it looked like, and what was done.

The commissioning process is not an energy retrofit, although significant energy savings can be realized through retrofits. Replacing windows with more efficient models or installing motion detector sensors for lighting are examples of energy-savings applications.

These practices are far more visible, unlike commissioning, which is conducted outside the margins. And time and labor generally make up retrocommissioning’s costs, not materials or equipment.

Retrocommissioning brings a holistic approach to your building, tying together the design, construction, and operational phases to optimize building functionality. Instead of asking, “Can this pump operate more efficiently?” commissioning would ask, “Do we it?”

While optimized building performance alone makes a strong case for the importance of retrocommissioning, the potential for earned savings can be just as compelling. 

The Candidates

Retrocommissioning can be applied to most buildings, although indicators such as age, condition, equipment, comfort issues, and utility costs can make the process more cost-effective than others. Buildings with these issues are the best candidates for retrocommissioning:

  • Low ENERGY STAR performance rating and excessive or unexplained increase in energy consumption
  • Equipment and controls systems fail frequently
  • Comfort issues

Building owners with any of these issues should consider contacting a retrocommissioning professional to discuss options.

Studies have shown that poorly operating building systems can account for as much as 20 percent of a building’s energy consumption.

A Dollar Saved is Two Dollars Earned

Studies have shown that poorly operating building systems can account for as much as 20 percent of a building’s energy consumption. That’s astounding, considering 54 to 71 percent of energy consumption in a typical office building can be attributed to lighting, heating, and air conditioning – the very systems to be optimized through retro commissioning (in the case of lighting, commissioning can occur only if tied to a controls system).

Building owners can expect to save energy for three to five years in the future following a commissioning project. What’s more, experts say commissioning an existing building can pay for itself in just over a year and a little more than four years in new buildings, due to anticipated energy savings of 5 to 25 percent.

Think about this: if an owner spends $100,000K on electricity and gas annually, a 15 percent reduction in use would equal $15,000. The savings alone could help fund new textbooks, office furniture or medical equipment. That’s a big deal!

If owners are wondering at this point if retrocommissioning is right for their building, the answer is probably “yes.” Next, we’ll define the different types of commissioning for the sake of comparison.

Ships Ahoy

In commercial buildings, commissioning can be divided into three categories:

New Building Commissioning: just like a new ship, a new building should receive intense scrutiny throughout design, construction, occupancy, and operations. As a result, owners should expect their buildings to operate as they had intended and that employees have been trained on operation and maintenance. As we said earlier this doesn’t always happen, so it’s best that owners ask questions of architects and engineers to learn more.

Retrocommissioning: the focus of our post. Think of this as a “building tune-up.” Retrocommissioning is commissioning done to an existing building with the intent to improve overall building performance. The process looks to align and improve building equipment and systems functions. It also may correct design or construction problems or issues that have developed throughout the building’s life.

Recommissioning: similar to retrocommissioning, recommissioning is performed on buildings that already have been commissioned and are prepared to undergo the process again. The reasons for doing so include a change in building use, operational problems, or new ownership. It’s a good practice to plan for recommissioning down the road while a new building is being commissioned.

With the various types of commissioning identified, let’s now walk through the process.

How it Works

Since no two buildings are identical, retrocommissioning agents don’t undertake the process with a “blanket approach.” Rather, they treat each building as a singular entity, looking for unique problems and applying the process to the whole building, its specific systems, or the energy systems it utilizes.

Imagine Sherlock Holmes investigating a crime scene, where he meticulously covers every square inch of the area with a magnifying glass in search of information. The same approach applies to buildings. Through careful study, buildings yield valuable information about their systems, which can be used to attain remarkable results.

Generally, retrocommissioning involves five steps:

Design: the retrocommissioning agent first gathers building information including design criteria, system documentation, and performance guidelines.

Action Plan: armed with the necessary building information, the retrocommissioning agent prepares an action plan outlining objectives and timelines that will be met throughout the process. Ideally, the agent identifies who sold the job’s heating and air conditioning equipment and controls and works with those companies to ensure the client’s wishes are met. 

Testing Phase: here, the retrocommissioning agent tests system equipment in two stages. First, equipment is examined on its own. This might include adjusting belts, adding fluids, calibrating sensors, or balancing voltage. Next, all equipment and systems are tested to ensure they interface properly based upon building design criteria. Testing procedures will vary slightly between new construction and existing buildings.

Just Fix It: this step is tied to the testing phase, where an agent tests a building’s systems to identify problems. It differs by correcting “simple fix” issues immediately without waiting to complete the testing process, which can be lengthy.   

Reports: once testing has been completed, the retrocommissioning agent prepares a report on his findings, including what was checked, the results, possible issues, potential solutions, and an overview for implementing changes. The results will act as a guidebook for completing the retrocommissioning process.

Testing Seasonally: although the retrocommissioning process has been completed, building owners should commission their facility’s systems continuously to ensure proper operation. Doing so will help to identify potential problems before they become larger issues.

For a detailed description of the retrocommissioning process, visit the EPA’s ENERGY STAR recommissioning document.

Beyond Energy Savings

We discussed earlier how retrocommissioning can deliver energy savings of up to 25 percent. Apart from this, commissioning delivers additional benefits:

  • Occupant comfort improves, along with productivity
  • The lifespan of building systems increases
  • Systems perform at peak efficiencies
  • The documentation of operational processes improves
  • Buildings meet and adhere to energy regulations and codes
  • Asset and rental values increase

An Alternative Approach

The retrocommissioning process, while effective at improving building performance, can be lengthy, depending on the size of the facility and the complexity of its systems. One way around this is to take a “targeted commissioning” approach to a building.

Targeted commissioning looks for issues with only the biggest, most critical building systems, where even small improvements can yield signifiant financial and comfort benefits. Once complete, a building owner can decide if and when additional commissioning should occur.


Retrocommissioning is regarded as one of the best energy-conservation procedures today. Owners can ensure their building systems operate efficiently by returning them to original design intent or even improving upon it. Studies have shown that the savings earned often offset the original costs.

If owners doubt if their building was commissioned, or if performance and comfort issues have been an ongoing problem, they should ask questions of design and construction professionals.

Consider contacting a building services professional today to discuss how your building could benefit from retrocommissioning.

Does your building consume too much energy? Has your utility spending steadily increased over the years? Is comfort an issue in your building? For more information, please email Jonathon Goering by clicking here or call 316-265-9655.

Knipp Services works with commercial and industrial building owners to lower operational expenses and increase building comfort. We provide services that enable owners to have high-performance buildings. “Making Buildings Better” sums up the mission statement of Knipp Services.

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Building Commissioning

EPA Building Commissioning Guidelines

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