Don’t Let Genset Commissioning Fall to Value Engineering
Traditionally, we focus on capital budget and schedule management for project delivery. But are we missing a critical element of the fundamental rationale for implementing a project initiative? This rhetorical question is not meant to diminish the importance of these elements, but rather, to broaden our horizons. A more strategic view of project delivery would include commissioning of critical systems such as backup generators.
Consider a specific case such as an emergency generator installation associated with a research laboratory. My suggestion is that the early programming concepts should include considerations of optimal capacity, life-cycle cost of operation and maintenance, all requisite system interfaces and a comprehensive commissioning process to verify functional performance prior to permanent occupancy of the facility. When capital budgets are “squeezed,” a value-engineering option might involve reduction of emergency generator capacity so that code-required life-safety loads are handled, but not all HVAC equipment loads. The problem with this scenario would be that environmental conditions within the facility would be so uncomfortable that occupants couldn’t continue working during an extended power outage. How does valuable research time lost compare to the capital cost savings in accepting the value-engineering option of reducing generator capacity?
Further, in the interest of managing the capital budget, a comprehensive commissioning program might be considered as unnecessary, due to “added” cost to the project. However, and especially if reliability of electrical utility service is a high priority in the owner’s project requirements, what if following a normal power outage, the emergency generator didn’t start because transfer switch settings and operation were not verified in a comprehensive commissioning process? What if an important clinical research project was critically damaged due to the resulting interruption of power? Wouldn’t the “added cost of commissioning” pale in comparison to the loss of this invaluable research? Virtually every industry has facilities that are critically reliant on uninterrupted power supplies. All too often we hear reports of these critical facilities and functions being interrupted because emergency generators failed to start or the expected transfer of power did not take place.
The point is that we should take a more long-term, strategic view of project cost when initiating the concept planning. Beyond the capital cost viewpoint, we ought to give equal consideration to the cost of establishing a seamless transition from construction to permanent asset management, as well as necessary life-cycle costs and equipment replacement. Returning to our example of emergency generators, we can reference a litany of instances where these failed to start or were not appropriately sequenced with various system interfaces when power failures occurred.
There are numerous potential problems, such as breaker settings, fuel supply piping discontinuities and control interfaces, that can go undetected unless a comprehensive commissioning program is implemented. While I suggest a financial “benchmark” for recommending a different approach to project budgeting, the reality is that life-or-death consequences could result from operational failures of emergency generators. Given this reality, isn’t the cost of comprehensive commissioning a defensible project investment?