An Existing Building Commissioning Learning Opportunity

The picture above is a panorama I shot earlier this year in a recently renovated central chilled water plant serving a large high-rise office building in down town San Francisco. The people in the picture are students in the Existing Building Commissioning Workshop Series that I help Ryan Stroupe of the Pacific Energy Center teach. The workshop is a year long, hands on class that is designed to allow the attendees to learn and apply existing building commissioning skills. We have been doing it for 13 years now; time sure flies when you are having fun. (Not to be confused with what frogs are known to say, which is time sure is fun when you are having flies).

The point being that we are about to start the 14th year of the class, so if you are interested in a hands-on, field-based learning opportunity to help you develop existing building commissioning skills, then this may be something you want to consider.

The class is structured around the ten key commissioning skills. Our goal, as the instructors, is that by the end of the class, you have had a chance to try your hand at all of the skills by applying them to a project you work on over the course of the year in a building you have access to.

The work on your project is supplemented by hands-on lab sessions and field activities using the systems in the Pacific Energy Center, SketchUp models, spreadsheets and other software based tools, and even an escape room.

If you are thinking of taking the class, it is important to realize that it is not a casual undertaking. In signing up, you are committing to:

  • Fourteen day long class sessions consisting of twelve regular classes and two site visits to student projects,
  • Completing what amounts to the scoping and investigation phase of a retrocommissioning project in the facility you choose to work on,
  • Monthly homework assignments that are targeted at helping you learn and apply the 10 key skills, and
  • Self-study as needed to hone your expertise, initially on basic concepts common to all projects and then on the skills you need to successfully carry out your own project.

So it is a significant commitment in terms of time and effort.

But most, if not all students indicate the undertaking is well worth it as you can see from the analysis below and the quotes in the updated flyer Ryan recently put together.

Don’t let the Level of class’s fear of Ryan data series scare you off. Much of the success of the class can be attributed to Ryan’s dedication to making it a learning experience of the highest quality. And experience has shown that for that happen, we need a small group of dedicated people with a fairly strong basic skill set. Such a group allows us to focus on developing the more advanced skills with a low student to instructor ratio for the lab sessions.

For Class 8, what the fear was really driven by was the necessary process of winnowing down the group of 60 to 80 people who initially sign up for the class to about 20 to 25 people, a manageable size for the interactive, hand-on focused lab and field activities that commence in earnest around the third session. Ryan is an excellent judge of who is ready for the class and and who is not and gently but firmly manages the task. So the fear was not so much of Ryan as it was of being winnowed out of the class.

The fact is that most of the time, we find ourselves at the appropriate number of students simply by attrition. During the first few sessions, we go through a number of exercises, including a basic skills quiz, an Excel skills quiz, and mystery graph quiz, all of which are intended more to be learning opportunities than test. But the scores also help Ryan, and the students themselves, assess where they stand relative to what it will take to successfully complete the class. If you aren’t quite there yet in terms of your readiness, then it is in everyone’s best interest that you defer for a year and take advantage of some of the other learning opportunities at the Energy Center to become better prepared.

My point is that winnowed once does not mean banned forever. Ryan has put together a very comprehensive set of classes that are offered annually at the PEC and targeted at helping people prepare for the year long class in addition to providing general knowledge on various topics including Excel Skills, HVAC basics, and common HVAC system types.

As a result, anytime Ryan suggests that perhaps a student is not quite ready for the rigors of the class, he also suggests an appropriate course of study that the students can follow so that they are more fully prepared to succeed in the next class series. Several of our most successful students have followed this path; i.e. voluntarily or at Ryan’s suggestion, dropping out for a year, pursing the suggested course of study and re-enrolling the following year to deliver stellar project results.

The class is taught at the Pacific Energy Center, which is in San Francisco. And because of the hands-on, field experience-based approach taken for delivering the class, unlike some of the other classes I am involved with at the PEC, this is one you have to attend in person. So, obviously, living in the Bay Area would be a plus in terms of participating given San Francisco traffic. Sometimes, I think I get back to Portland faster than the folks who attend from Sacramento.

Having said that two of our most enthusiastic participants last year took it upon themselves to travel all the way up from Southern California each month, never missing a session. A number of other students have done the same thing in other years.

Technically, the class is funded by public benefit money from the California Utility System rate payers. As a result, people living or working inside that system are considered first in terms of who can attend. But that does not mean that people from other areas are not considered. In past years, we have had students from Oregon, Illinois, and even New York City come and complete the class.

If you want to get a fuller sense of what the class will be like, consider attending the RCx 101 class on June 6, 2018, either in person or via webinar (select the “Internet” location when you register to take it as a webinar).

For one thing, the RCx 101 class is a prerequisite for taking the workshop series. And even if the year long effort does not seem like something you are ready for or are willing to commit to, the RCx 101 class will get you up to speed on the existing building commissioning process and the basic skills you need if you want to work in that field.

In terms of gaining additional perspective on the class and existing building commissioning, once you have reviewed the Series 14 Class Flyer, you may also find some of the following resources to be of interest.

If you want to take it a step further, then you may even want to consider the following. For an number of years now, we have been working with 3D SketchUp models as a tool for providing a virtual field experience in the classroom and for self study. Pulling that off is taking some time, but in terms of self study, there are two offerings that you might want to explore.

  1. The Chilled Water Plant System Diagram Exercise lets you try your hand at developing a system diagram for the chilled water piping in a central chilled water plant. The system concept and system diagrams are key design, commissioning and ongoing operations Tool.

In fact, my very first assignment when I entered the industry in 1976 was to draw a system diagram for a chilled hot water system serving a pharmacy school in St. Louis, Missouri. It was a great experience and I have been honing that skill ever since.

  1. The Ballroom Air Handling Unit Scoping Exercise uses a SketchUp model of an air handling system mechanical room to allow you to perform a virtual scoping exercise where you try to identify the 21 or so potential EBCx opportunities in the model based on the clues that you see as you explore it.

You can download the model, a Scene’s Guide and an answer list from FDE’s commissioning resources web site and explore to your hearts content. While not as much fun as an actual mechanical room, we hope that working with the model will get make you more productive on your next visit to the real thing

If you are new to SketchUp, The website also has a page where you also will find instructions regarding how to obtain a copy of the free SketchUp software you need to work with the model along downloads of legacy versions of SketchUp and links to tutorials that will expose you to the basics of working with it, which is all you need to do the exercise.

So, if you have found all of this intriguing, follow the link and register for the RCx 101 class. Worst case, you will have spent a day learning about the Existing Building Commissioning process and the skills it takes to work in the field. And you may just find your self “hooked”, opening the door to a very interesting and rewarding career. At least that has been the case for me.

David Sellers, P.E., Senior Engineer

Facility Dynamics Engineering

Visit FDE’s commissioning resources website at

Visit my non-technical blog The Other Side of Life at

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