Site-Specific Industry Best Practices
Owner input is key.
The mission critical industry is well known for advocating the use of industry “best practices.” Most owners and operators will claim they use or otherwise comply with these practices.
On the other hand, there is no formal, published set of best practices that are universally recognized within the industry. This is further complicated due to the introduction of new technologies and capabilities available for use in this constantly evolving industry, and the resulting impact this can have on how critical facilities are designed, built, and operated. So, how are best practices determined?
In many cases, owners will rely on engineering firms, professional societies, facilities management firms, and consultants to inform them of what the current industry best practice is. These entities will often cite independent, third-party sources such as ASHRAE, IEEE, TIAA/Telcordia, and others as the “recognized” authority on best practices. It is my experience that this over simplifies the process and can result in decisions that may not be in the owner’s best interest. The reality is that industry best practices vary based upon site-specific needs and conditions including the site’s mission, location, staff, budget, and preferences.
Let’s start with the site’s purpose, or mission. Most businesses, corporations, organizations, etc., have a data center (or multiple data centers) and other critical facilities that are necessary for sustaining critical operations. But the inherent differences in required uptime between say a large financial corporation vs. a social media company for continuous operations can be significant. Some of the most advanced super-computer facilities can tolerate planned outages where financial institutions would have zero tolerance for any outage and require true “7x24x forever” operations. Social media companies rely on virtual redundancy within the IT hardware and software that reduces the need for redundancy within the facility infrastructure. This alone can have significant effect on what practices and protocols should be deployed for a given site.
The site’s physical location can also have a large influence on what constitutes a best practice. Water cooled chilled water plants are typically more efficient than air cooled plants which are more efficient than distributed direct-expansion (DX) cooling units. But if the site is in an arid or desert region the choice of a water cooled plant can be difficult if not impossible to justify. If the same site were to be located where makeup water is plentiful the “best practice” may be the water cooled plant. Another example is whether to use static (battery backed up) uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems vs. rotary UPS systems. A location that has a history of extremely stable and reliable electric utility service may accept the use of a rotary UPS with 10 to 15 seconds of stored energy. The same site located where the electric utility service has a history of frequent or extended power outages would be best served by a static UPS with 30 minutes of stored energy.
Another location-related variable can be the local technical support available to the site. In almost all cases there are multiple manufacturers of a given technology. Consider the various building automation and monitoring products available today. Most of these products are comparable and have similar quality and capabilities. The best choice may be determined by which vendor has the best technical service staff and response time.
The site’s staffing and facilities management strategies and organization can also affect what constitutes as a best practice. If the staff is already well trained and experienced with the operation and maintenance of air cooled chillers and have little or no experience with water cooled plants, then other things being equal it may be best to stick with the air cooled strategy. Likewise, if the staff is already familiar with and trained on using a direct digital control (DDC) system, then a more powerful and technically challenging system control and data acquisition (SCADA) system may be overkill, and without the proper on-site technical expertise, could put the site at a disadvantage.
Budget considerations can also influence what constitutes as best practices. Start-up companies and other entities that are short of capital funds may opt to use less expensive and less efficient or maintenance-heavy solutions than established companies that can focus on overall total cost of ownership solutions. After all, the facility, no matter how critical, exists to support the mission. Sometimes the corporation’s short-term business goals and limitations can override the long-term facility operations and maintenance goals. It is impossible to claim success when building the most efficient facility results in bankrupting the business.
Lastly (at least for this article) are the owner’s preferences. A corporation that places a very high value on their brand and public reputation may see great value in being able to tout their embrace of innovative or “green” technologies even when other factors (reliability, familiarity, cost, efficiency, etc.) would point toward more traditional solutions.
So back to the original question. How are industry best practices determined? The answer is that best practices should be determined by the owner based on each site’s specific needs and requirements. My collective experience has found that the one universal best practice is to choose strategies and solutions that marry the facility needs and goals to the overall business and mission goals, stick with these strategies over the long-term (or until external forces require revisiting these strategies), and execute these strategies in the highest quality manner possible.