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Data Center Fire Suppression Strategies

fire suppressionData centers power the world as we know it and that is why it is critical that we keep them safe. But, there are no two data centers that are exactly the same size, shape, layout, or that have all the same equipment and infrastructure. When a data center of any size experiences downtime, it can be incredibly costly. Whether that impacts one business, multiple businesses, governments, or individuals will depend on the specific data center but, regardless, downtime must be avoided at all costs. Typically, when discussing how to maximize uptime we talk about things like cooling systems, backup power, rapid scalability, etc. But, one important thing that should not be overlooked in the maximization of uptime is a data center’s fire suppression system.  Every data center must have at least one, if not multiple fire suppression systems in place to maximize safety and minimize the risk of damage to critical equipment.

Data Center Fires Happen More Often Than You Realize

Data center fires are far more common than many people realize. And, in just seconds, their damage can be catastrophic.  Mission Critical Magazine explains just how large a problem data center fires can be, “Data center fires often go unreported — to minimize insurer response, limit public knowledge, and various other reasons. This denial regarding risk can contribute to complacency when it comes to data center fire protection. However, according to UL’s Consumer Technology, ‘Fires are perhaps the least predictable cause of data center outages, as well as the cause that poses the greatest potential hazard to the health and safety of workers’…After IT-related issues, fire incidents are the leading cause of data center outages, and they account for the longest periods of downtime — in excess of 24 hours on average. After power issues, fire incidents account for 21% of data center outages, according to the company…The need for climate control to dissipate the heat generated by increasingly high-density servers is a major design (and energy consumption) factor for data centers. Most facilities still depend on air conditioning to combat server-generated heat. However, these HVAC systems can actually help a fire spread by transporting smoke and heat to other parts of the facility and feeding the fire with fresh air, literally fanning the flames. Furthermore, the system’s exhaust vents can remove smoke from a room before it can reach and activate detectors.”

When looking at what fire suppression system is best for your facility, it is ideal to consult an experienced professional to help you determine how to best protect your data center. Below, we take a closer look at 3 types of fire suppression systems to consider when choosing the best option for your data center.

3 Data Center Fire Suppression Systems

Waterless Clean Agent Systems

While water is a popular fire extinguishing method, different fires respond better to alternative fire suppression methods such as waterless systems and clean agents. The obvious problem with using water to suppress a data center fire is that, while the water may save some types of catastrophic damage from occurring, it may also cause its own damage since water on IT equipment is problematic. A waterless system is comprised of clean agent liquid materials stored in pressurized cylinders. The clean agent liquid materials flow through a piping network to a discharge nozzle from which it is deployed as a gas when suppressing a fire. It works very quickly and in under 10 seconds the protected area reaches a concentration level that will not support combustion which effectively suppresses fire without water. 

Waterless fire suppression systems have many benefits with few downsides, making them a popular safety option for many data centers. Waterless systems are small so they only need a small amount of space for cylinder storage, the systems are also able to minimize downtime due to fire and smoke damage, works in under 10 seconds to suppress a fire, evaporates into gas upon discharge which leaves no residue behind on equipment or facility, does not damage electronics, is non-toxic, doesn’t deplete oxygen in a room. is eco-friendly, and is very safe for humans because it is non-toxic.

Pre-Action Systems

A pre-action fire suppression system uses a dry pipe system, rather than a wet pipe system. Some pre-action systems use waterless fire suppression methods and some take the additional step to also install sprinklers for worst-case scenarios. Uptime Institute explains the advantages of a pre-action system and the different ways it can be deployed in a data center, “A more dramatic step would be to move to pre-action (dry pipe) water sprinkler or chemical suppression systems, but at least one insurance broker recommends the use of inert gas systems in conjunction with a water system as part of a two-phase fire suppression system. The use of water means that facility owners are protected against the total loss of a data center, and the dry-pipe feature—originally developed to protect against fire in cold environments such as parking garages or refrigerated coolers—protects facilities from the consequences of an accidental discharge in white spaces. In many applications, they are also the more economical choice, especially as local codes and authorities may require the use of a water suppression system, and the inert gas system then becomes not a replacement, but a fairly expensive supplement.” A pre-action systems primary advantage is the dual-action required to release water which prevents damage from inadvertent discharge 

Water Mist & Sprinkler Systems

Sprinklers seem like an obvious fire suppression method that should be in every building. And, while in terms of fire suppression options, they are an economical choice, they do pose a great deal of risk to electronic equipment. Water mist and sprinkler systems are activated not by smoke but by heat which can actually take longer to force deployment. Sprinkler heads can operate individually and deploy when sufficient heat reaches the bulb of the sprinkler head, causing it to shatter. And, while dispersed water will put out a fire it may destroy the IT equipment in the room. For this reason, it is better to use smoke detection and employ waterless and pre-action systems that deploy first before sprinklers are needed. This method of combination maximizes safety while minimizing the risk of equipment damage.

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