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14 aspects to consider in equipment selection

Mechanical engineers should consider these key aspects when specifying systems
for a building owner.
Seth Pearce, PE, Southland Energy, Garden Grove, Calif.


echanical engineering is a science relatively unchanged over the past 50
years. Conversely, equipment selection for a mechanical engineer is as much
an art of application as a science of technology. Today, refinements to
manufacturing, increasingly advanced controls, and changing end-user needs
determine both the science of technology and the roster of equipment for
selection. Compounding this, over the past 15 years, a strong increase in
customer needs related to best-value considerations, such as risk, aesthetics,
longevity, maintenance, and efficiency, have added complexity to the
determinants that need to be evaluated in equipment selection.

To provide maximum value to customers, mechanical engineers must have a

strong understanding of owners' needs and the ability to evaluate key aspects
of mechanical system selection to meet those needs. In other words, there is
an art and science to defining and evaluating key aspects in order to choose
the proper equipment.
Demystifying the "wants" and "needs"
An interesting paradigm exists when defining the aspects that should be
evaluated in equipment selection. The typical pattern involves building owners
and/or end users simply expressing their "wants," from robust to redundant to
inexpensive. Difficulty can arise when these wants are discussed and
prioritized against the needs identified to drive evaluation aspects. Core
aspects exist that often are purely technical variables that require evaluation
and satisfaction. Additionally, engineers' needs sometimes vary from the
owners', which can create another complicating factor. Regardless, the
subjective or intangible wants should not be ignored because of difficulties in
quantifying the value. Instead, they should be distilled into needs and
evaluated as key aspects in equipment selection.

This can be a hard reality for building owners (customers). For example,
owners typically desire brand names and advanced equipment that will
integrate into their building system, but they want it to be inexpensive to buy
and operate and easy to replace. Brand equity is not so much a need as it is a
method of ensuring a reputable warranty, parts availability, proven application,
and a wide field of technicians able to service the equipment. The most
advanced equipment is not a need, but quality isand, unfortunately,
sometimes top name brands include cheaper heat-transfer materials,
unreliable bearings, or statistical quality control rather than start-up and testinspection techniques.
While inexpensive is a want, the first cost or perhaps total cost of ownership is
the need. For example, heat pumps are not very expensive to buy and install,
but they do require invasive and time-consuming maintenance (versus a fan
coil or variable air volume box); and they become loud and clunky over time.
So would noise criterion levels or minimal interruption of the benefitted space
trump costs? Not absolutely, but relatively to a point. Those needs must be
emphasized and prioritized as necessary for evaluation in equipment

Creating the roadmap for equipment evaluation

The best roadmap for what to consider, and how, results from the lifecycle
cost analysis (LCCA) approach and its sum total of satisfying aspects. A total
cost-of-ownership approach that identifies needs and assigns values to be
evaluated can balance the limitations of first-cost considerations on total
comfort, satisfaction, and long-term costs. To perform this, engineers must be
able to specify the best equipment for a design as well as be subject matter
experts on constructibility, operations, maintenance, human behavior,
economics, and manufacturing. One challenge is identifying aspects for
consideration. This diverse knowledge is necessary to create the roadmap for
equipment evaluation.
The single greatest pressure on any evaluation is typically cost, and more
commonly first cost.The first cost is comprised of the capital costs to design,
furnish, and install a specific piece of equipment, and it is affected by project
speed. Engineers are the subject matter experts that select based on the
criterion to be evaluated, not only first cost.
In many instances, an owner structures and selects engineering firms,
architects, and contractors to satisfy first cost. Therefore, there is no better
arbitrator than the engineer to educate, evaluate, and recommend the
selection of equipment that considers all aspects rather than only first cost.
The engineer must have a good grasp of these aspects for equipment
selection in the factors of their evaluation.
Factors of evaluation
A multitude of varying factors exist for every project and owner, including but
not limited to:
1. First cost: Budgets are a strong consideration, and engineers must
limit the equipment options to meet first-cost requirements. The total
cost of installation including time, material, infrastructure, and
opportunity costs must be evaluated.
2. Suitability: Equipment selection must be suitable to the application and
building. For example, variable refrigerant flow or chilled beams are
technologies that either do or do not work well. An example of
unsuitability is chilled water in a data center. It is efficient at moving
heat, but the presence of water (even with containment) is a risk that
must be evaluated.

3. Constructability due to schedule, lead time, start-up/commissionability: Aspects such as equipment procurement or tradesman
installation time must be evaluated. For example, a piece of equipment
that requires a highway shutdown so it can be transferred to the site will
have an impact, as will the job site if the equipment must be moved via
crane into place. Also, consider whether a piece of equipment can
reside in the factory for an extra week if the construction schedule is
unexpectedly impacted. Additionally, once the project is launched and
commissioned, can the equipment sit unoccupied and not used for 3
months before occupancy?
4. Ease and cost of operations and maintenance: Do the evaluated
equipment-selection aspects account for how preventive maintenance
technicians will access the equipment? How accessible are the filters?
Does special attention need to be placed on the design of the strainer
locations? If the reversing valve fails in year eight, how dire will the
beneficial space be to replace it? Are the economizer/outside-air
dampers easy to access for maintenance?
5. Total cost of ownership: This entails first cost and all other major fixed
and variable costs associated with the lifetime of the equipment
evaluated at net-present value (NPV) against alternatives for selection.
This aspect allows engineers to look at incremental factors, such as the
benefit of variable frequency drives (VFDs) on the condenser water
pumps or whether 1/10 less kW/ton material affects the NPV versus
6. Experience and reputation of the equipment manufacturer: This
aspect examines the potential of sourcing partners for equipment.
Engineers, owners, and contractors have preferred partners. These
manufacturers have gained favor through positive experiences. An
engineer must understand the needs and be wary of marketing or
prejudiced specifications.
7. Impact on other building design elements (size, location,
interference): Engineers refer to this as coordination, or developing a
method of evaluating the coordination with mechanical, electrical,
plumbing (MEP), and other system design and installation. Engineers
evaluate the risk of change orders, time delays, and other impacts in
equipment selection that must be foreseen. For example, the contractor
may have to reroute or core a hole in the floor because elevator

hydraulic lines are already in the proposed path for the chilled-water
supply and return.
8. Noise criteria (NC): This is a key aspect to be evaluated. Different
scales for different frequencies of noise should be understood and
evaluated, especially if equipment starts and stops routinely. Engineers
must understand ambient noise, and come in under recommended or
specified NC targets.
9. Lifespan: The average age of commercial or school buildings is slightly
more than 40 years. Mechanical systems with proper maintenance can
last more than 20 years, and others even longer Evaluating the requisite
lifespan is an important aspect of equipment selection. A chiller can
easily provide service for 15 years, while cooling tower life varies. A new
programmable thermostat may need to be replaced in 8 years due to
persistent button pushing. Realistic evaluation is important to achieve
the project needs and secure return on investment; it affects total cost of
ownership assumptions greatly.
Energy benefits (code requirements, energy efficiency, or
value of the property): These types of evaluation variables are
abstract and can be difficult to quantify, albeit not to be over-looked. A
curious example exists in the Bank of America Tower in New York City,
which is a notoriously energy-consumptive building despite having
achieved the highestU.S. Green Building Council LEED certification
available. Still, the building attracts major environmental-advocating
tenets, demonstrating the value of its purported energy benefits.
11.Scalability, staging, and modularity of equipment: This involves
aspects of future planning and optimum use. A cooling unit that runs
near full load reaches peak efficiencies and likely achieves good
investment economy of scale. However, the same unit that runs at part
load does less so. And a unit that short-cycles may not be ideally
efficient or cost-effective, but necessary. For projects with phased
development and occupancy, perhaps evaluate for what is needed soon
and consider scaling. For owner projects with wildly varying load
requirements, consider evaluating the equipment needs to satisfy only
85% of those needs. For projects such as data centers with abrupt and
rapid expansion needs, consider evaluating what equipment will work
over time with the equipment selected now, and vice versa.

Redundancy and failure-node risk: Evaluate areas where
weakest-link scenarios arise. There may be value in robust equipment in
areas where a failure could lead to difficulties in the facilities. For
example, valves, chillers, and pumps associated with a large thermalenergy storage system may require special consideration because the
failure of any point therein could result in a facility unable to meet
cooling requirements early the next afternoon.
Environmental health attributes (i.e., R-123, ammonia): These
evaluation criteria should be evaluated with owners, factory reps, and
other authorities having jurisdiction (AHJ) requirements. For example,
R-123 refrigerant has been a phenomenal performer through a wide
range of compressor load levels, but it is unfavorable by some who cite
its potential damage to the environment if leaked. Contrary, ammonia
refrigerant is specialized and deadly, but favored by a few for its unique
properties and relative friendliness to the environment.
Safety: This is an area every engineer must consider in
equipment selection. What is safe to construct, operate, and maintain
must be evaluated. For example, discussions with owners and
contractors over what and where with regard to safety concerns can
integrate project delivery and increase health and safety.

Every project is different, and equipment-selection aspects for evaluation must

be specifically developed to meet each project's unique needs and complexity.
The main factors for evaluation can vary from a half dozen to hundreds. An
engineer working on equipment selection can methodically develop that
criterion and evaluate it to provide optimum choices.
Calculation of factors
Once identified from the project needs, key aspects an engineer should
evaluate in equipment selection can be summarized in the simple math of
weighted scoring, then mapped to money in LCCA, and reinforced for
posterity in logic statements. The process assigns reasonable quantities to be
evaluated to the variety of aspects. This transforms subjective qualities of a
project's needs to numerical analysis, considered the "art" of the process. An
engineer can consider abstract wants and distill those into concrete needs,
which are prioritized with weighting and used in a scorecard for equipment

An example can be illustrated in three owner "wants": a cutting-edge working

environment, budget conformity, and reasonable operating costs. This could
be described as cool, quiet, unobtrusive, inexpensive, efficient, and lowmaintenance; or three wants summarized in six needs. Of those, five are
subjective and one is objective because inexpensive typically correlates to a
number. Once prioritized, these rank as inexpensive, cool, quiet, efficient, lowmaintenance, and unobtrusive. In selection, engineers must find the least
expensive equipment that will be cool and quiet enough; but once satisfied,
every additional dollar for extra cooling or added quiet is a luxury. However,
additional benefits in efficiency and low maintenance, even at the expense of
low cost, can be evaluated to find an ideal cost/benefit ratio. After that,
degrees of obtrusive can be weighed at the expense of the other needs and a
final selection can be made. In the real world, there will be another half dozen
purely technical requirements included in the selection, but the point can be
seen: methodically eat this elephant, one bite at a time.
The biggest difficulty in evaluating so many characteristics in complex projects
is the overwhelming degrees of freedom. Linear algebra offers advanced
means to reconcile huge interrelated equations, but equipment selection is
best served by a simpler routine. The design engineer should identify as many
aspects that should be evaluated as possible, but only evaluate a dozen or
fewer factors in equipment selection. Reviewing the big list frequently while
limiting the number of parties involved provides good perspective on overall
priorities, and many synergetic criteria are actually met by coincidence.
Reviewing a significant list of evaluation criteria also enhances creative
thinking and ensures selected equipment does not have a fatal failure for
critical considerations not reviewed in a purely limited evaluation.
The limited aspects chosen for evaluation in equipment selection can be
applied to different design options, or simply different brand names of
equipment. Simple weighted scoring can potentially identify ideal equipment,
and a LCCA can validate or re-evaluate that potential. Choose a realistic
discount rate, relative to the owner's approximate return on investment or cost
of money. Select realistic escalation rates for energy, labor, or equipment.
Assign annual occurrences, such as large overhauls or other anticipated
repairs or replacements. The net-present or net-future values from a LCCA will
ensure the total costs associated with a particular equipment selection have
been considered. Comparing alternative LCCAs for different potential
equipment pieces is fast and routine, but the output is very telling.

Once a conclusion is reached on a particular equipment selection, document

a summary of the evaluation, the peer contenders, and three reasons the
selected equipment was chosen. In circumstances where others will be
procuring, if options between equipment choices will still be made, it is
important to rank two to five of the highest evaluated equipment, with short
comments why.
The key aspects that mechanical engineers need to consider in equipment
selection are nuanced. It can be as simple or complex as necessary, but
regardless, it must be comprehensive. An excellent understanding of owners'
wants is required, in combination with a good network of experience and
peers to draw upon, and a methodological system of scoring and evaluation. It
requires an engineer to communicate efficiently and reinforce conclusions,
and should result in ongoing collaboration with the owner to ensure desired
attributes are captured. Both the right and left brain will be activated to
achieve both the art and science of evaluating abstract conditions and
technical applications. It requires financial sensitivity and analysis. Most of all,
a good foundation in engineering is needed, along with common sense and
the ability to understand how important these nuanced selections are to
achieve many years of comfort, safety, and performance.

Seth Pearce is director of design and development for Southland Energy, a

division of Southland Industries. In this role, he helps to develop and
implement solutions to conserve energy, waste, and water; integrate generation; and incorporate renewable energy.