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Industrial Facilities Commissioning

At first blush, one may ask what’s the difference between industrial buildings and other types of buildings – a building is a building, isn’t it? Yes and no. Although industrial and non-industrial buildings can have the same facility HVAC&R systems, i.e., air handling, steam, chilled water, compressed air, hot water, etc., the purpose of those systems and their relative importance varies greatly.

I like to think of commercial/institutional facilities as being built to house people, while industrial facilities are built to house processes. Although “people” requirements need to be taken care of in industrial facilities, the first and foremost purpose for the HVAC&R systems is to support the production process. Developing the Design Intent Document for an industrial facility involves understanding the requirements of the equipment used in the production process. As such, the role of compressed air, steam, exhaust, and humidity control systems may be of primary importance. In non-industrial buildings, ventilation, cooling, and heating are often the most critical systems. In all buildings, life safety systems are of the utmost importance, but in industrial buildings, the life safety systems can be quite different and more complex due to the typically-more-hazardous conditions imposed by the production equipment and raw materials.

Because industrial facilities are often intensive energy users, the drive to optimize energy use often leads to creative, if not, complex operational control strategies. Again, these strategies tend to be different from (but not necessarily less rigorous than) strategies incorporated into commercial and institutional facilities for energy conservation. Energy reduction opportunities typically revolve around occupancy patterns in the latter types of facilities, while energy reduction opportunities in industrial facilities revolve around the production schedule. In either case, however, the importance of commissioning those strategies can not be emphasized enough in order to realize the benefits of including the energy conservation measures in a project.

During the construction/implementation phase of an industrial project, schedule is an even more important concept than for non-industrial projects. Getting a production line up and running means an opportunity to start creating revenue instead of simply spending money on the new facility and production equipment. It is absolutely critical that new processes be complete on time and function properly on day one. That means the facility systems on which those processes depend must be fully and properly operational even before then. Hence, the importance of commissioning for industrial projects – there is a direct and very clear impact on the bottom line.

Of course, it is important for the integrated production systems themselves (i.e., the proprietary processes used to make products) to function on day one, as well. In the manufacturing/process technology world, the concept of commissioning, especially functional performance testing at the end, is business as usual – they just don’t use the term “commissioning”. “Startup” is what they call it, and there is always time scheduled into every project for the entire team, i.e., equipment manufacturers, design engineers, operators, etc., to put the new system through its paces and to confirm that the production line works as intended. Team members plan to spend 2-6 weeks full time on site at the end of a project in order to accomplish this.

Their “design intent” goals are typically well defined during the conceptual/product development stage of any new project. Some examples include customized definitions of quality, certain measurement tolerances, rate of production (i.e., units per hour), flexibility for “changeover” from one version of the product to another, etc. In most modern manufacturing businesses, these criteria are measured and tracked from the moment the first “unit” rolls off the end of the line. If the intent is not met, it usually means lower production or higher cost of production (i.e., smaller profit) and the project manager in charge of getting the line up and running is held accountable.

It does not take long to draw the parallels between the industrial and non-industrial facility worlds. I believe, however, that the impact of not commissioning industrial facility systems will be felt much quicker and at a higher level of management than the impact of not commissioning most commercial/institutional facilities. Also, management’s appetite for taking months to “work out the bugs” of a new system is pretty much non-existent in an industrial setting.



Engineered Systems, September, 2003

Rebecca Ellis, PE, LEED AP, CCP, CxA
Questions & Solutions Engineering
1079 Falls Curve
Chaska, MN  55318