Home > Latest   +   Structures

Retro-Commissioning and Commissioning K-12 Schools

Retro-Commissioning and Commissioning K-12 Schools

By Chris Duranceau

Upstate New York received the proverbial shot in the arm recently in the form of legislation that allocated millions of dollars for capital improvement projects. It is clear to anyone who has traveled through the many small towns along the highways of Upstate New York which most towns and schools would benefit from capital improvement projects.

Many of these school districts haven’t received help of this caliber since the 1960s and 70s. In some cases it has been even longer. School mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems are usually covered in a patchwork of minor repairs, which were made to keep the various units running. Who suffers in the end? The answer is pretty simple.

Systems that are antiquated do not perform as they were designed. In fact, in many cases the designs no longer meet current energy codes and requirements. Rooms are too cold, too hot, too humid, or overly dry. Often, the environment differs greatly from room to room. Students, teachers, and staff suffer the daily frustrations, while taxpayers face the ever-increasing burden of paying for inadequate systems.

Retro Commissioning

School superintendents rely heavily on their facility staff to operate systems and to be involved in the decision-making process when updating and renovating systems. They are, in essence, the front line when it comes to updating mechanical equipment. When the facility team determines that updates or upgrades are essential, there is a second step that many schools are still unaware of: bringing in a third-party commissioning firm to perform a system assessment, which can lead to tremendous savings for the district. This service is referred to as retro-commissioning. The commissioning engineer provides observations and facts on systems that can build upon the information provided by the facilities staff. This knowledge is based on extensive experience with numerous mechanical systems across a broad range of makes and models.

Commissioning Engineers work with facility operators as a joint team to assess and perform testing on existing equipment. The commissioning engineer then writes the assessment report on each piece of equipment, providing a detailed summation of the current system’s operation. Recommendations are included in the report based on what was found during testing and on the input of the facility operators. The retro-commissioning report then can be used as evidence of need for the sake of securing government funds. Furthermore, the report makes it easier to appropriately budget for approved capital improvement projects.


Once capital improvement budgets are finalized and approved, the hiring process can begin. Project management teams, engineering firms, mechanical contractors, and construction contractors are brought to the site. The capital improvement project can begin. Hopefully, the school district has retained the services of the commissioning firm once again.

New boiler installation. Replacement of low effecient boilers with high effeciency boilers allows for better turn down ratios during shoulder seasons.

Phase I: Planning

During the capital improvement planning process, the commissioning engineer can be utilized to help write owner’s project requirements (OPR), perform basis of design reviews (BOD), and coordinate engineering activities with the design firm. Who benefits from this process? The entire community wins—administration, students, staff, and, of course, the tax payers.

By retaining the commissioning engineer during the design and capital improvement planning process, the school district has ensured that all the items that were identified during the retro commissioning process are being addressed and implemented in the most effective manner. The commissioning engineer also keeps the facility operators engaged in this process. This helps to ensure that preventative maintenance programs are implemented, and that there are no “exotic” pieces of equipment being designed into the project. Accessibility, workability, parts availability, and cost of operation are all assessed during the capital improvement planning process by the commissioning engineer.

All commissioning activities, including system acceptance, are outlined in the commissioning specifications. In this way, the project manual provides an air tight document that protects the owner and clearly identifies milestones for the contractor. Each and every line item is reviewed with all involved parties at the start of the project in the form of a commissioning kick off meeting. The commissioning plan, along with the project manual requirements for equipment and systems are reviewed and discussed at length with the engineer of record, facility operators, contractors, project management team, and school representatives. Question and answer sessions are included in these meetings as well, and minutes from the meeting are distributed for record afterward.

Existing pump tested during retro commissioning. The pump was kept in the new project. This saved the district money.

Phase II: Construction

During construction, the commissioning engineer ensures that the equipment purchased by the school district is installed properly, and that the specification requirements are being met throughout the entire process. This includes the verification that startup paperwork is submitted for record and that warranties aren’t started until the school district accepts the newly installed equipment.

Equipment warranty is another area with which the commissioning engineer can assist the school district. Contractors want to turn equipment over to the school the minute the equipment is started, and do not want postpone the initial effective date of those warranties. Commissioning engineers help write the specifications, and commissioning engineers that have been around K-12 projects before know to write in the specification that equipment warranties will not be started until the equipment has been properly commissioned by the owner’s representative. This is critical to protecting the owner from damaged equipment that may have been operating improperly after start up. Specifically, when newly purchased equipment is used for temporary heating and cooling during construction.

Phase III: Functional Testing

After all equipment is properly started and the test and balance on the systems are complete, the commissioning engineer can functionally test the systems with the controls contractor. Recall that, during the design phase of the capital improvement project, the commissioning engineer helped write the specifications and reviewed the sequence of operations with the facility operators. At this point of the project the commissioning engineer is holding the systems to those standards and making sure they operate to design. All open issues are tracked and bird-dogged by the commissioning engineer to completion.

At the end of the project, the school district receives the final commissioning report, which outlines all of the work that was done during the project. Depending on the scope of work that was purchased by the school, the commissioning engineer may even perform energy assessments of the newly installed equipment. Doing so can provide a direct comparison between the old- and new systems as well as a payback analysis for the school.

In Conclusion

Retro-commissioning provided the assessment of existing conditions and a pathway forward for the capital improvement project. The retro-commissioning process ensures that the capital improvement project addresses all or most of the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing system issues.

The new construction commissioning process ensures that the owner receives all the deliverables that were purchased with the project. The commissioning process also ensures that the systems are operating as per design, and that the end user can operate and maintain the systems long after the capital improvement project has been completed.

Chris Duranceau, Senior Engineer, has over 15 years of experience designing, operating, maintaining and troubleshooting mechanical systems. His professional history includes managing the construction process, formulating and executing testing procedures for small and large unitary equipment, and overseeing the commissioning process for various projects. Mr. Duranceau specializes in system operations and has experience working in all aspects of mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.