By Steve Newton, SET
In the construction of electrical distribution systems, acceptance testing, commissioning and start-up is a critical step in assuring the system is safe and will function correctly.
Acceptance testing is done at the component level to verify the specifications of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM). Commissioning is looking at the system as a whole and how the components interact to the design intent. Start-up is turning the system on for the first time to see if everything is functioning as it should. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to all these services collectively as commissioning.
Engaging a third party for commissioning is considered an industry best practice. In this context, a third party is someone hired by the end user of the system that has no financial interest in the outcome of the commissioning other than representing the owner.
Error — It's Only Human
One of the most difficult challenges to high-quality, zero-defect operations is human error. We have developed programs such as "human performance measures" and the like to try to combat human error. And no, computers are not the answer as long as the programs are written by the humans subject to error. Many of us have spent a lot of our time troubleshooting firmware and software problems with programs released too early.
As I write this document, I realize it will be proofread and reviewed by at least a couple of people. They will find some errors, they will miss some errors, and they may even create some new errors. There are some places in our lives where errors are completely unacceptable; more often, there are those circumstances where minor errors are acceptable but major errors are not.
When I had my open heart surgery, nicking a nerve while harvesting a vein in my leg was not only an acceptable error — it was pretty much expected. Forgetting to remove a clamp while sewing me up would not have been so acceptable.
There Will Be Mistakes
A good quality program involves many levels and aspects of individual quality tools. Tools such as quality assurance are only part of a good quality program. In the world of electrical systems there are many interested parties interacting at different times of the project.
Take a power generation plant that is under construction. The facility was designed by an engineering firm. Did they make mistakes? Absolutely. The equipment was purchased from manufacturers. Did they make mistakes? Absolutely. The plant was constructed by one or more construction companies. Did they make mistakes? You bet. They all have quality tools that are part of their quality system, yet mistakes persist.
Why do mistakes still manifest themselves? In the end, each entity has its own interest, even though they all have integrity and mean well.
Avoiding Conflict of Interest
So often, commissioning is relegated to the engineering firm, construction company or some entity other than the end user. Many of these entities do not understand how to properly specify and oversee this function.
In order to achieve the most reliable end product, the third party commissioning is best applied under the direct hire of the end user. What you end up with is an advocate and owner representative who is ensuring your entire electrical system is what you expect it to be with zero conflict of interest. Any other way and there will exist, at a minimum, the appearance of a conflict of interest.
In fact, the industry consensus standard, ANSI/NETA ATS-2017, states: "The testing organization shall be an independent, third party entity which can function as an unbiased testing authority, professionally independent of the manufacturers, suppliers, and installers of equipment or systems being evaluated."
At National Field Services, our professional opinion is that third party commissioning is the best solution. If you think third party testing makes sense, drop us a note.
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