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Utilising data to avoid downtime and boost efficiency

Frank Grundholm

Frank Grundholm

Vice President, Global HVAC at ABB
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Image credit: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock.com

It is well-known that minimising data centre downtime is imperative because breakdowns are costly.

According to Gartner, every minute offline costs an average operator around $5,600. However, while operators build redundancy into their infrastructure supported by detailed contingency plans to address downtime risk, they often neglect to consider the role of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC).

Cooling efficiency is a critical requirement for data centre stability, as too much hot air circulating in the centre can cause equipment to overheat and malfunction. Several interacting factors may cause this to happen, ranging from the weather to automation or mechanical issues to system faults. The standard approach to cooling failure is reactive rather than proactive, which constantly exposes businesses to downtime risk. But there’s a better alternative.

Modern, digital solutions enable operators to make better decisions and take a more proactive, data-driven approach to adapting the HVAC system for optimal performance. Data centre operators can optimise energy usage, cut maintenance costs, and avoid failure by collecting, storing, and analysing detailed information on every fan, compressor, and pump in a powertrain.

Experts predict that data centre energy demand will increase drastically in the coming years as daily activities increasingly move to the virtual space. Given that the cooling system accounts for 40% of a data centre’s energy consumption, it’s critical to address the energy efficiency of HVAC systems. Fortunately, many forward-thinking data centre operators are already taking action to improve the energy efficiency of both their IT and HVAC systems.

Next-level efficiency with data-rich systems

More and more data centre operators are starting to explore digital-enabled solutions integrated with the electrical motors and drives at the heart of their HVAC systems, to better understand the equipment’s energy usage, performance, and overall condition.

While operating, such a system constantly conveys information about its condition. Sensors across the system collect data on variables such as vibration, pipe pressure, and humidity to gain in-depth, real-time information on a motor or drive’s performance. This helps identify the potential for energy savings, reduces risks related to unexpected breakdowns, lowers maintenance costs, and extends equipment lifetime. It even considers information about the weather: for example, if the sensor knows tomorrow will be hot, it can trigger pre-cooling of the building overnight when the power supply is typically cheaper.

The data-rich condition monitoring system also provides health indicators for detecting increased vibration, fan pump or compressor bearing failure, blade problems, looseness, imbalance, and motor or drive overheating. This reduces downtime as the operator can take preventive action before a critical system fails.

The data gathered from a drive’s built-in sensors and loggers, together with that collected from smart sensors fitted to motors, bearings, and pumps, can be collated, stored, and accessed via the cloud. Analysing this data can reveal information on the status and condition of equipment, enabling operators to schedule proactive services. Some digital solutions also offer a monitoring portal to view key operational parameters of individual assets as a unified system.

Being digitally connected enables operators to perform remote diagnostics and maintenance, receive updates in real-time, and predict failures over time. This ensures optimal performance at all times, while saving on time and logistics since engineers don’t have to be on-site physically.

Ensuring that the right person has the right information at the right time brings greater insight into various aspects of the data centre’s processes to improve system performance. It enables the appropriate response to any process challenges, thereby minimising operating costs and lowering the risk of process failure. In a nutshell, it turns reactive maintenance into predictive maintenance.

Keeping a check on security

Unsurprisingly, interconnected systems are much more exposed to safety and security vulnerabilities than isolated systems. Cloud connection can also add unwelcome opportunities for malicious actors to gain access – think of the risks associated with malware.

Targeted attacks on vital systems such as cooling can bring an entire data centre operation to its knees. An extended outage can result in lost data, corrupt files, and damaged equipment, so security is paramount.

In keeping with guidance from security organisations such as IEEE and IEC, security must be a fundamental design feature of modern equipment and services. For example, the requirement of a password to change a parameter value on a modern variable speed drive (VSD) or remote access tools that can only establish communication with recognised devices.

Moreover, data centre providers should be able to store information on system and component performance on local networks. The service providers can then access and analyse this information on-site by requesting it from data centre facility management without having to migrate it to their servers first.

Smart HVAC for exceptional uptime

HVAC is integral to modern data centres and requires thorough planning and investment. Unlike previous systems that reacted to cooling load change reactively, modern digital solutions put data centre operators at the forefront of technology. They have deep insight into every aspect of the HVAC system, allowing them to maintain uptime, reduce energy use, and manage equipment condition proactively.

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