Understanding Data Center Commissioning and Its Benefits

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Michael Donato, QCxP, LEED AP BD+C, is on the team at Emerson Network Power, Electrical Reliability Services.

MichaelDonato-tnMICHAEL DONATO
Emerson Network Power

Commissioning has existed as a discipline of the building construction industry for nearly three decades, yet it is continually evolving. Despite widely available standards, there is still considerable difference of opinion as to the definition of commissioning and the processes involved. As a result, commissioning is generally misunderstood and some of the most valuable commissioning processes are underutilized.

In the data center world, many owners don’t seem to have a clear picture of the purpose and value of this important quality assurance program. Commissioning is most often used to ensure a new data center process, system or expansion meets the owner’s needs. Specifically, the American Society of Heating,
Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) asserts that the focus of commissioning is “verifying and documenting that the facility and all of its systems and assemblies are planned, designed, installed, tested, operated and maintained to meet the needs of the owner.”

Because commissioning activities always tie back to meeting the owners’ needs, the owner is the best person to oversee the commissioning process. However, rarely does the owner have the time or expertise to fill this role, particularly in the middle of a large project. This is why owners typically hire a Commissioning Authority (CxA), such as Electrical Reliability Services (ERS), to provide building commissioning services, and oversee and execute the entire commissioning process.

Unlike a Commissioning Agent, who has legal authority to make decisions on behalf of the owner, the CxA does not have any decision-making power on the project. However, a quality CxA will offer the expertise, guidance, and direction the owner needs to make informed commissioning decisions. Another way to think of the CxA is as a quality assurance professional that keeps the project focused on the goals of the owner, from start to finish, in order to realize the following benefits.

Less Unplanned Downtime and Fewer Repairs

Preventing or greatly reducing the possibility of unplanned downtime, which can be devastating to a business, is perhaps the greatest value commissioning provides for data center facilities. Commissioning activities ensure that mission-critical equipment is properly installed and that systems are fully integrated. The process checks for redundancy and single points of failure. It includes comprehensive system testing to verify availability in all operating modes. These activities help identify potential system-related problems so they can be resolved before leading to major equipment damage or a disruption of service. Commissioning can also ensure a well-trained and well-equipped operations and maintenance (O&M) staff that is less likely to make mistakes that lead to system failure.

Reduced Life Cycle Costs

Done properly, commissioning improves system performance throughout the life cycle of a data center. Better system performance not only optimizes data center performance, it also decreases operation and maintenance costs and cuts down on energy consumption for smaller utility bills.

Fewer Change Orders and Delays

Under the oversight of the CxA, projects experience fewer change orders, delays, and rework, avoiding the considerable costs of late occupancy, liquidated damages, extended equipment rentals, and other costs associated with delays.

Cost-Effective Problem Resolution

The commissioning process helps identify system-related problems early in the project when it is most economical to correct the issues. For example, design problems can be identified during design reviews as opposed to late in the construction process when it is much more time consuming and costly to correct them. Installation issues are pinpointed before system startup, and O&M process problems are noted before a component fails.

Full System Integration

For maximum data center availability, all critical systems – power, cooling and IT infrastructure – must function together as a fully integrated system. Historical approaches to testing and startup verified only that each individual system components functioned independently. Today, a CxA employs more sophisticated processes and tests to verify that components work together as an integrated system.

Informed Workforce

One of the outcomes of the commissioning process is a robust knowledge base about the new system or process, which can be translated into quality training activities, training materials, and O&M resources. Involving the CxA in the training process and Systems Manual preparation ensures that the O&M staff is well prepared and well equipped to operate and maintain the newly commissioned system. In addition, both veteran staff and new hires will have quality references for future training, refreshers, or troubleshooting.

Benchmarking Data

Commissioning creates extensive documentation for benchmarking system changes and trends. The data can be used to identify future problems with the system or process, maintain optimal operations, and evaluate future maintenance decisions.

Improved Efficiency

If efficiency features have been designed and built into the new system, commissioning activities can verify that the features function as intended. Commissioning can also ensure that the O&M staff has the training and operating resources it needs to fully leverage the design efficiencies, thus realizing the resulting energy cost savings.

Enhanced Safety and Compliance

The commissioning process produces a safer data center and reduces owner liability by uncovering safety problems throughout the design, construction, and occupancy phases of a project. Commissioners can ensure that owners and O&M staff receive proper education on safe operating and maintenance procedures pertaining to electrical and mechanical equipment.

LEED Certification

Commissioning is a requirement for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED certification. Projects attempting the certification must complete fundamental commissioning activities and can complete enhanced commissioning activities for optional credit. LEED projects must involve the CxA mid-way through the design phase or earlier. Involving your CxA will help ensure your project is commissioned per LEED requirements.

Return on Investment

The benefits of commissioning often create a return on investment that far exceeds the cost of the commissioning project itself. In all recent ERS projects, cost/benefit analyses of key issues discovered and corrected during the commissioning process revealed value for the owner well beyond the cost of commissioning. These analyses took into account only material and labor costs and did not factor in the cost of data center downtime that likely would have occurred had the identified issues not been resolved.

Despite the differences of opinion in the data center industry as to what the commissioning process should entail, commissioning is verifiably a critical step in the design and build of a new facility, system or addition. Ultimately, commissioning leads to greater availability, safety, and efficiency while reducing project and operating costs throughout the life cycle of the data center.

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