Fire Risk Needs Close Attention in Data Centers

  August 25, 2011

I'm Casey Laughman, managing editor of Building Operating Management. Today's tip is to pay careful attention to fighting and preventing fires in data centers.

Organizations spend a lot of money protecting data centers from the risk of downtime. And those investments — whether in uninterruptible power supply systems, powerful air conditioning systems or emergency generators — are justified by the greater costs the organization would bear if the data center were to go down. But the risk of fire also deserves careful attention from facility managers.

Should a fire occur, it is most important, after securing the safety of personnel, to ensure that equipment suffers a minimum of damage. In the past, of course, data centers could use Halon to put out an electrical fire. But, once it became known that Halon was destroying the ozone layer, it was phased out. Those with existing fire-suppression systems that use Halon can still buy tanks of the gas, but it is illegal to install new systems that use it.

Halon alternatives generally fall into two categories: clean agent systems, many of which use halocarbons, and inert gases. Clean agent systems extinguish fires by removing heat from them. Inert gases essentially suffocate the fire by depriving it of oxygen.

Both clean agent and inert gas systems can be reliable if they are properly designed and commissioned. If everything works properly, including the alarm system, electronic equipment won't be destroyed by fire and water damage will be avoided, although there may be smoke damage.

Facility managers should keep several factors in mind when considering Halon alternatives. One is space. Inert gas systems use a higher concentration of gas to extinguish a fire than halocarbon systems, so they require more storage space. One consideration with halocarbons is potential environmental impact, particularly with regard to ozone depletion. Because different halocarbons have different environmental properties, it's up to facility managers to investigate their options thoroughly.

Enclosure is another factor to consider in ensuring maximum functionality. Regardless of whether it is an inert gas or a clean agent, the room has to stay tight to maintain the required concentration of the fire suppressant.


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