Michael Donato is a Supervising Engineer, Emerson Network Power, Electrical Reliability Services. He previously wrote on Understanding Data Center Commissioning and Its Benefits.
Commissioning is a relatively new discipline in data centers, and as a result, many data center managers do not have a clear picture of the purpose or the value this important process offers.
One of the biggest challenges for data center managers investing in the commissioning process is the lack of a consistent approach from commissioning firms. Some commissioners primarily provide administrative oversight, creating a pathway for paperwork to flow. Other commissioners adopt a hands-on approach that can include a broad range of phased activities.
To further complicate matters, a general misconception exists that assumes commissioning and acceptance testing are one in the same. In fact, acceptance testing is a separate testing requirement—often reviewed by the Commissioning Authority (CxA)—that ensures individual components or pieces of equipment are installed properly and will operate according to the manufacturer’s specifications and industry standards. While certainly a critical step, acceptance testing is just one component of a much more comprehensive commissioning process.
In the same vein, commissioning has also been confused with equipment startup, another individual construction activity that is often overseen by commissioners.
Because of these inconsistencies and misconceptions, it is not uncommon for data center managers to request proposals from a handful of different commissioners and end up with a set of very different recommendations, accompanied by widely varying price points. It can be difficult to compare one bid to the next.
The Argument for Commissioning
In the midst of these discrepancies, how then, can a data center manager determine the appropriate scope of commissioning activities for their project? To answer this question, it is prudent to consider the reasons why more and more data center owners are investing in commissioning.
The major impetus behind commissioning data center systems and processes is the increasing complexity of the systems themselves. This complexity presents more opportunities for problems. At the same time, there is less and less tolerance for unplanned downtime. Due to the staggering cost of unplanned outages or failures, today’s data centers must operate reliably 100 percent of the time.
Appropriate commissioning activities can ensure uptime by identifying the culprits behind data center failures and outages. Nearly 70 percent of early equipment failures can be traced to design, installation, or startup deficiencies. Unnecessary outages are often due to improper coordination and calibration of protective devices, wiring errors, design errors, and human error. Commissioning can help to detect and correct these problems before the failures or outages occur.
Commissioning is also the answer to a wide variety of other owner concerns. Issues such as ensuring that the operations and maintenance (O&M) staff have adequate resources and training, improving the safety of the data center, and boosting data center efficiency can all be addressed by specifying the right commissioning activities.
The appropriate scope of commissioning, then, relates directly to specific data center requirements. A three-phase comprehensive approach to commissioning — one that encompasses a wide range of building systems and spans the entire design/build process, from pre-design through occupancy — results in the greatest value to the project owners.
Phase 1: Pre-Design/Design
During the pre-design/design phase of a project, the first priority of the CxA is to determine and document the Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR). Based on the OPR, the CxA will develop the written commissioning plan that will identify systems to be commissioned and define the scope and schedule for all commissioning activities.
Throughout the design process, the CxA will work closely with the design team to complete design reviews and make recommendations on design plans and documents, ensuring that the design of the data center meets the OPR.
During this phase, the CxA will make sure quality systems and acceptance testing are specified for execution during the construction phase and will also help to establish training guidelines for O&M staff.
Phase 2: Construction Phase
Installation, startup, and acceptance testing of systems, equipment, and assemblies within the data center occur during the construction phase of the commissioning process.
The CxA will review submittals of commissioned equipment and controls, and ensure that all systems and assemblies are properly installed prior to startup. The CxA may witness vendor startup of critical equipment.
It is the CxA’s responsibility to develop functional and systems testing procedures and conduct all functional and systems tests. The goal of the tests is to ensure that all systems and assemblies operate properly and work together in accordance with the OPR.
Late in the construction phase, the CxA will help prepare systems operating documentation and ensure that O&M staff receive training based on the requirements established during phase one.
Phase 3: Occupancy Phase
After construction of the data center is complete, commissioning activities can continue up to one year post occupancy. During the occupancy phase, the commissioning team will perform any deferred or seasonal testing that could not be completed during construction.
The occupancy phase also includes an adjustment period during which changes may be made to systems and equipment to ensure optimum operation. During this phase, and prior to the expiration of the original construction warranty, the commissioning team can conduct a warranty review to identify any issues to be corrected by the general contractor.
Finally, the occupancy phase should include a lessons learned workshop that involves the commissioners, design and construction teams, and O&M staff. The workshop is an opportunity to discuss the project’s successes as well as its challenges, and determine future improvements.
It is verifiable that commissioning is a critical step in the design and build of a new data center facility, system or addition. To glean the greatest value from commissioning, data center managers must first understand the full scope of potential commissioning activities, and consider the fundamental rationale for commissioning to ensure that project requirements are met. For a seamless process and ultimately greater availability, efficiency and reliability, data center managers should then look for a CxA like Emerson Network Power that offers a scope of services broad enough to encompass all potential requirements.
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