Michael Donato is a Supervising Engineer, Emerson Network Power, Electrical Reliability Services. He previously wrote Understanding the Value and Scope of Data Center Commissioning.
In my previous two articles, I defined commissioning in terms of its scope and value in the data center industry, but the real value is achieved by working with an experienced Commissioning Authority (CxA) to navigate all phases of a data center new build in order to create greater availability, safety and efficiency. However, not all authorities offer a scope of services broad enough to encompass all owner requirements, so it’s important to understand or adhere to the following best practices, thus ensuring the highest return on your commissioning investment.
Hire an Independent CxA
Hiring an independent CxA allows owners to acquire the most comprehensive and well-balanced approach possible while avoiding potential conflicts of interest that would filter or limit commissioning communications to the owner. The commissioning industry recognizes that potential conflicts of interest may be difficult to avoid entirely, considering the possibility of relationships on past projects, connections to other companies involved on the project, and other factors. It is recommended that, regardless of affiliation, the CxA have a direct line of communication to the owner.
Choose a CxA with the Right Credentials
In addition to being an independent third party, the chosen CxA should have experience commissioning critical spaces or mission-critical facilities. The CxA should have specific expertise in project documentation as well as field commissioning of the equipment in the project scope. Ideally, the CxA should participate in major industry associations and be staffed with individuals with the appropriate credentials such as Certified Qualified Commissioning Provider (QCxP).
Ideally, the commissioning process should begin during the pre-design or design phase of a project. Beginning the process well before construction starts — or better yet, before an engineering firm has been hired or design specifications determined — allows the CxA to help determine the Owner’s Project Requirements (OPR) first and foremost, and provide detailed guidance to all project teams, beginning with the design team. Aligning the design with the OPR gets the project off to the right start and reduces re-work and schedule delays later in the process. Additionally, involving the CxA early ensures better collaboration and can motivate the teams to fully participate in commissioning activities.
Invest in an OPR
The importance of the OPR document cannot be overstated. It represents the true purpose of commissioning — meeting the owner’s needs — and serves as the foundation upon which all commissioning activities are based. The document also provides a way to measure project success. Ultimately, system design, construction, and operation schemes should all map back to the OPR.
Despite the critical nature of this document, only a small percentage of projects actually utilize one. Owners may generalize their expectations and desires for the new data center process or assembly such as needing increased availability or the use of a specific type of equipment, but often, they fail to invest the time and effort to generate a comprehensive OPR document.
Typically, a quality OPR document will include the project schedule and budget, commissioning scope and owner directives. In addition, the owner may stipulate requirements based on the priorities of the project such as energy efficiency goals, system integration, benchmarking or future expandability needs.
A good CxA will be an expert at helping owners articulate their requirements for the data center and should be able to provide insight and recommendations, including lessons learned from previous projects.
Involve the Right People
Commissioning efforts are the most successful when they have full "buy-in" from all critical parties, beginning with the owner and including the design team, general contractor, subcontractors, and equipment vendors.
When owners are truly invested in the commissioning initiative, their support will filter down and help ensure everyone’s involvement. If both the owners and the CxA promote a team approach, where all parties are working toward the common goal of accomplishing objectives successfully the first time, it greatly increases the chances for collaboration and a successful project.
Establish Priorities for the Commissioning Budget
Industry experts agree that the ideal commissioning budget for a complex data center should be about 1.5 percent of total construction costs. In reality, however, budgets are rarely this liberal making it nearly impossible to commission all building systems, equipment and assemblies. It falls to the owner — with help from the CxA — to prioritize the budget to determine which commissioning activities will deliver the greatest return on investment.
In typical office buildings, owners are most concerned with the comfort, health and productivity of employees and will, therefore, commission related systems. However, in data centers, where downtime can cost literally millions of dollars per second, availability is almost always priority one, followed closely by safety, efficiency, and cost cutting.
Once the top priorities have been addressed, a number of other commissioning activities can add significant value to a data center project including development of systems manual and operating procedures, training, and warranty review. These activities are requirements for projects seeking LEED certification, but even if a project is not attempting this designation, data center owners may want to strongly consider including them in the budget.
Dedicate Enough Time to the Occupancy Phase
Data center owners sometimes make the mistake of shortchanging the occupancy phase. However, this phase is critical to the commissioning process. The commissioning team cannot verify that systems are actually operating in accordance with the owners’ requirements until those systems are fully operational, which doesn’t occur until this phase of the project.
The occupancy phase provides the final opportunity to perfect all commissioned systems and assemblies. The CxA will help identify problems that must be fixed under the warranty agreement, and will fine-tune and optimize system performance.
It’s clear that commissioning the design and build of a new data center facility, system or addition ensures that the owner’s goals for the project are met. However, deciding on a CxA is not always as clear. To get the most out of your commissioning investment, be certain to partner with an organization like Electrical Reliability Services which has a broad scope of services, is abreast of commissioning best practices, and understands how to implement them based on years of experience.
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