Cedric Verstrynge, product specialist, and Don Mitchell, data centre division manager, at Victaulic, discuss why fire protection worries data centre operators as much as fire itself, and how that can change
It’s a counterintuitive idea, but for many data centre managers and operators, the thought of engaging their fire protection system causes as much anxiety as an actual blaze.
This is because the impact from fire suppression systems can be equal to or even exceed the damage caused by fire, due to the damage it causes to IT equipment and the data centre facility, and the resulting disruption to business processes.
This fear exists thanks to the nature of existing fire suppression systems, such as sprinklers. These systems are obviously wet and as such can ruin electronics. The alternative, gas systems, require a sealed room and are very expensive to run.
On top of that, due to high pressure in sealed environments, gas fire extinguishing systems have in the past damaged data centres and IT equipment, leading to the potential need to close entire data centres.
There are ways to address this challenge. Solutions have been designed that can offer the best of both worlds by combining a ‘dry’ cloud of water mist to clear smoke and cool the environment without damaging equipment, with nitrogen gas to extinguish fire. These systems can therefore quickly suppress fires without damaging expensive data centre equipment.
A dual approach to fire suppression
With a nitrogen suppression system, damaging effects can be avoided. These systems are stored at a lower pressure, tests can be conducted at a low cost, and without too much gas being expelled
The best way to tackle fire in the data centre is to combine strong fire suppression systems with effective fire procedures. There are a number of procedures to be considered – Method of Procedure (MOPs), Standard Operating Procedure (SOPs) and Emergency Operating Procedures (EOPs). These can all greatly reduce the risk of operation, maintenance and emergency responses if correctly followed.
Above and beyond these procedures, undertaking a full test of equipment (commissioning) will give operators confidence that their procedures and suppression systems are effective and won’t cause accidental damage.
Although all data centres will install fire suppression systems, most don’t fully test them, simply simulating a discharge instead. Without fully testing, there is a reduced confidence in the system’s effectiveness. This comes back to the fear of damaging the equipment or unnecessarily discharging gas, which is expensive to refill.
With a nitrogen suppression system, these damaging effects can be avoided. As these systems operate at a lower pressure, tests can be conducted at a low cost, and without too much gas being expelled.
Data centre technology has evolved massively in recent years, and as this continues, fire suppression technology must progress with it
As well as this, operator fears can be assuaged thanks to the properties of nitrogen – a naturally-found, breathable gas which can be easily, quickly and cheaply replenished.
Evolving data centres need evolving safety
Data centre technology has evolved massively in recent years, and as this continues, fire suppression technology must progress with it. In the first instance, sprinklers were commonplace, but these are known to cause equipment damage and aren’t the most effective extinguishers. Following that, gas systems were installed, which are effective in extinguishing fires, but are not the cleanest chemicals.
Consequently, as data centres have grown and the temperature produced by the equipment has increased significantly, hybrid technologies have now been introduced that support full testing without causing damage or creating excessive cost.
This is where the application of both water and gas comes into its own. The dual benefits create a significantly better fire suppression system, as water creates a naturally cooling cloud while nitrogen is a natural agent which doesn’t add any new chemicals into the mix.
Despite the advantages of this system, companies still rely on the systems that they know and often have to adhere to governmental restrictions and guidelines. As such, fire protection firms such as Victaulic have developed ‘water-free’ flexible hoses which prevent water from dripping above technology, alongside continuing work on sprinklers.
The double-edged sword of early fire detection
The prevention of fire, particularly through the aforementioned procedures, is a crucial part of any fire suppression policy. However, data centre technology is moving at a rate of knots. As they continue to be upgraded, voltage levels, temperature, power density, fault current levels, and as a result the risk of fire, are all higher than ever before.
The introduction of lithium-ion power storage, which is used to make equipment more robust, is particularly worrying from a fire prevention perspective, as it has created a new risk which is yet to be fully analysed and investigated.
For the best fire suppression firms, procedures and the early detection and activation of equipment are top priorities. This is unfortunately a double-edged sword. With early fire detection comes the increased risk of premature activation of fire prevention systems.
If the likelihood of premature activation is increased, it becomes increasingly important that fire protection systems do not cause damage and can be refilled at low cost. Data centre operators would be wise to look into solutions that can meet both of these requirements.
The consequences of poor fire suppression plans extend beyond the physical damage caused by fire or poorly designed extinguishing systems: it can extend to financial loss and the impact of downtime. A system that reduces both of these factors is the ideal solution for the modern data centre operator.
Since 1919, Victaulic’s pipe joining and flow control solutions have optimized construction productivity and reduced risk, ensuring projects are completed safely, on time and within budget. Driven by a spirit of continuous innovation, Victaulic’s portfolio of 100,000+ products and patented technologies promote freedom of design, as well as simplified inspection and maintenance for the life of any system.