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ECA: Fireproofing your data

Image: Adobe Stock / Connect world

Steve Martin, director of technical at ECA, considers the unique challenges and implications that come with fire safety in data centres.

Data centres are the factories of the digital age. Figuresshow that by 2025, UK-based data centres will be responsible for storing data worth over $135bn annually. As the UK’s digital economy grows, so too will the importance of constant and effective protection of data from the risks of fire damage.

What’s more, data centres can be particularly fire-prone environments – constant electrical activity in confined spaces between components and servers can quickly lead to overheating and combustion if they are not supplied by an adequate cooling system.

Data, which is sometimes called ‘the crude oil of the 21stcentury’, is exponentially increasing in value across all sectors. Everyone and everything produces more data, every day.

When a fire breaks out in a server room, some stopping methods can exacerbate data loss, rather than mitigate it. The considerations for fire stopping in data centres are therefore somewhat different to those for offices or homes.

One key difference is the presence of people – data centres typically see minimal human presence beyond occasional maintenance and installation work. This opens the door to using fire suppression methods involving oxygen reduction or chemical dispersal that would otherwise be dangerous to humans. Using these alternatives in an appropriate manner could avert the risks of further data loss and downtime after a fire.

gas fire supression system

New ways of working

The fire safety industry as a whole seems well-acquainted with the concept of compartmentalisation – that if a fire can be contained within building elements such as floors, doors and ceilings, then people can evacuate a building in safety. Best practice for tackling a fire contained within a room filled with servers and computers, however, is still being established.

Several fire stopping methods have been designed by suppliers with data preservation in mind. These include:

Inert gas fire suppression systems:These use Argon or Nitrogen and sometimes a small element of CO2 to displace the oxygen in the server room. The basis of this method is to reduce the oxygen level to below 15% and suppress the fire. However, the system must consider the safety of personnel and keep oxygen levels to above 12%.

Chemical or synthetic gas fire suppression systems: These systems generally use less gas and do not significantly reduce oxygen levels. However, as any synthetic or chemical agent, high doses can be toxic; therefore correct designs are absolutely necessary.

Leave it to the specialists

Specifications for fire stopping should also accommodate concepts such as the inherent natural reactions of different materials in different conditions, and the unique challenges presented by the potentially high volumes of noxious gases that can be emitted from burning computer parts, metals and plastics.

Substrates need to be sufficiently robust to accommodate the methods of fixing, but designers and installers may also need to consider the effects of ambient temperature and humidity.

It is for these reasons that fire-stopping overall (not just in data centres), in all but the simplest of cases, should be rightfully seen as a specialist activity, best assigned to specialist service providers. Ideally, a specialist subcontractor should always be involved – at the design, specification, installation and verification stages of construction.

As the data centre market grows, those contractors who are ready to provide clients with the right advice, systems and support could be in a position to capitalise on the opportunities this increased demand will create – and build long-lasting relationships with clients seeking better protection for their invaluable data. 

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