By: Nicole Imeson

Mission critical / data center commissioning providers (CxP) have relied on commissioning levels to track the testing progress of critical equipment within the facility for many years.  Although these levels are not as widely understood in commercial construction, they can still aid the construction team in gauging progress.  However, the levels offer only a partial perspective, not the complete picture.  “When we talk about the levels of commissioning, we should call it the levels of acceptance testing.  I tell clients to consider the “levels” as analogous to commissioning a pizza.  The levels make up the slices, but you buy the whole pizza,” explained Terry L Rodgers, Vice President of JLL with over 40 years of mission-critical experience.

Levels of Cx

The levels of commissioning comprise five standardized levels.  Level 1 entails factory testing to ensure the equipment meets the owner’s project requirements (OPR) and applicable specifications before leaving the factory.  Upon delivery to the site, level 2 testing confirms the absence of damage during shipping and storage and correct installation.  Level 3 involves starting up the equipment to ensure safe operability before beginning functional testing.  Level 4 entails running the equipment through its sequence of operations to ensure functionality during various cycles. 

Each piece of equipment can progress independently through the levels, at its own pace, up to the completion of level 4.  However, progress through the levels must be sequential for a given piece of equipment, or the process could be compromised.  In mission-critical construction, colored tags are often used to show when each level is complete on a piece of equipment.  Some CxPs use seals on equipment panels to control access and ensure the process stays on track.  Level 5 involves testing the interconnections between systems to ensure the overall facility operates and responds to anomalies as intended.  This happens near the end of construction after all equipment has finished level 4. 

BCxA Commissioning Phases

The BCxA New Construction Commissioning (NCCx) Best Practices outline four phases of NCCx commissioning.  In the pre-design phase, the owner’s project requirements (OPR) are developed, the commissioning scope and budget are initiated, and the commissioning team is identified.  During the design phase, contract documents (drawings and specifications) are verified to meet the OPR and basis of design (BOD), and engagement with project team members is established.  The construction phase involves reviewing and testing equipment and systems at various stages of installation.  Finally, the occupancy and operations phase includes training, fine-tuning the systems, and handover to the owner. 

The construction phase contains all five levels of commissioning, but there are no levels in the pre-design, design, or occupancy phases.  Although, some commissioning providers refer to the design reviews as “level 0” commissioning.  “When we talk about the levels of commissioning, it’s a misnomer because the levels are more directly related to acceptance testing than to the overall complete commissioning process,” explained Rodgers. 

Owner Education

CxP education is necessary to help owners understand the value of commissioning throughout all project stages, beyond the commissioning levels, and why involving the CxP before schematic design is beneficial.  “A lot of value is added for a relatively small amount of effort on the front end in the pre-design and design phase before people start buying equipment.  If you miss those opportunities and you end up with conflicts in construction, then it’s change orders, big numbers, and usually delays because you bought the wrong piece of equipment or it won’t meet the requirements,” explained Rodgers.

In the mission-critical / data center world, facilities are purpose-built with clear operational criteria and expansion plans.  Because the facility is critical and downtime is costly, they are commissioned thoroughly during initial construction.  The staff receive extensive training and are very familiar with daily operations.  Because of the constant monitoring and trending of operational data within the facility, data centers are continuously commissioned, referred to as ongoing commissioning (OCx), to optimize and sustain performance.

System Criticality

Understanding and defining the criticality of each component and system is another crucial aspect of data center commissioning.  Data centers are categorized into four tiers, ranging from tier I with no redundancy to tier IV with 2N+1 redundancy, where 2N is twice the required operational capacity and +1 is a full backup of the necessary operational capacity.  Some organizations use software backups and redundancies so that if one facility fails, another can step in and restore information from backup.  Others insist on substantial redundancies to prevent facility failure. 

Servers are not always the only critical components; for instance, in energy command centers, maintaining operations during emergencies requires critical elements like water to enable people to remain inside.  Depending on the data center’s location, it may face various natural or manufactured disasters, necessitating additional redundancy levels to ensure continued facility operation. 

The standardized levels of commissioning serve as a valuable framework for tracking the acceptance testing progress of critical equipment within mission-critical facilities.  However, it’s crucial to recognize that these levels represent only a portion of the comprehensive commissioning process, akin to just a slice of the entire commissioning “pizza.” While they offer clarity and structure within the construction phase, they do not encapsulate the entirety of commissioning.

Moreover, in the realm of mission-critical facilities such as data centers, ongoing commissioning (OCx) plays a vital role in optimizing and sustaining building performance over time.  Understanding the criticality of each component and system, as well as implementing appropriate redundancies, is essential to mitigate the risk of downtime and maintain operational resilience in the face of potential disruptions.

As emphasized by industry experts like Terry L Rodgers, commissioning should be viewed holistically, with each phase contributing to the successful operation of the facility.  Engaging commissioning providers early in the project lifecycle can prevent costly conflicts and delays by ensuring alignment with project requirements and avoiding procuring unsuitable equipment.