Secure IT

Published:  19 April, 2018

Q&A: Chris Wellfair reveals some of the challenges, technologies and trends in the selection, installation and maintenance of fire-protection systems for data centres.

What type of fire protection projects are you involved in?

We undertake a wide range of data centre projects from new commissions of modular and containerised data centres to smaller micro data centre installations and refurbishments. In all the data-centre builds we have conducted over the past two years, clients have opted for Novec fire suppression.

Why Novec 1230?

There are a couple of reasons for this in my opinion: first is the limited number of gas suppression bottles that is required compared with a system such as Inergen, which will require a vast number of suppression bottles and in many case a separate room to site them. Quite often this simply is not practical, but also as data centres are invariably built reusing old rooms, or there is limited footprint space for the data centre. Even if you had the room for it, would you want to pay for an additional storage unit just for the gas suppression bottles?

The other consideration is the preventative maintenance costs, which for systems such as Inergen can be very expensive, simply because of the complexity of the equipment involved. It is these hidden costs that can often catch people out.

Are there any other trends as regards fire suppression systems?

Until fairly recently data centres have always been protected by gaseous fire suppression systems but I have seen a very slight upward turn towards water mist as it is a very poor conductor of electricity, does not flood your building, has a significant reduced re-fill cost over gas and does not require the room to be sealed for the system to work. However, it should be said that clients are still nervous of this type of fire suppression and still tend to opt for the gaseous type system.

What about detection?

More clients are now incorporating VESDA [very early smoke detection apparatus]. The key benefit of this system is that they can detect smoke before it is visible to the human eye. Today, most optical smoke detectors are sensitive enough to cover most situations in a data centre but I have seen an upward trend for VESDA.

In addition, clients still use optical smoke detectors that are strategically positioned within the raised access floor, celling or suspended ceiling and work as first- and second-stage alarms.

What has been the most challenging project so far?

Generally, if the data centre and the associated fire suppression system has been designed correctly the installation is straightforward. When installing a system into a ‘traditional room, ie not modular or containerised, one of the challenges is to pass the integrity test. This ensures the gas will remain within the room for a minimum of 10 minutes. Unfortunately, in many cases service entry ducts are not sealed and general partitioning has only been installed up to the underside of the suspended ceiling, leaving an open space in the ceiling void for the gas to egress. Therefore, these all need to be sealed using intumescent fire sealer or fireboard.

How does fire protection rate in data centres as a priority?

IT teams spend a lot of time on protecting their data centre from the risks of downtime and justifiably so – but fire protection is not constantly reviewed in the same way cyber security is, for example.

The risk of fire deserves careful attention from both the data centre and facilities manager within a company. If a fire occurs, after ensuring all personnel are safe the next step is to ensure that equipment suffers minimal damage. Major fires may be rare, but even minor ones can cause significant disruption. Therefore, in the majority of DCs, we install Novec systems, which has taken over from FM200 as the halon replacement of choice. FM200 is now monitored under Kyoto Protocol due to its high global warming potential and to be avoided at all costs. Novec 1230 fluid has zero ozone depletion potential and the lowest atmospheric lifetime of the halocarbon alternatives. It is not only a long-term sustainable solution but meets today’s regulations and those expected in the foreseeable future.

These environmental factors matter greatly, not just because of the green credentials of those organisations, or the requirements of their partners, but because they make for a much more cost-effective solution.

We are also seeing a trend towards better remote monitoring and management across the data centre, and this also has an impact on all the safety features that are built into the environment.

What are the main considerations for a customer considering installing or upgrading their fire systems?

The primary goal in any data centre is to minimise operational interruptions and to protect people and property effectively. Fire safety is therefore a long-term investment to ensure the business continuity of any data centre. When installing any fire prevention solutions, consideration should be taken for the following:

• The room is a sealed environment ensuring it will pass the fire suppression integrity test. This is not just about doorways, windows and walls, it includes all service entry ducts, slab to slab walls, holes in walls etc.

• If you have a raised access floor or ceiling void ensure this is calculated into the volume of fire suppression gas required, whichever system you use. It can make a significant difference to the requirements depending on the structural layout of your data centre.

• Within a data centre if the client has cold/hot aisle containment, ensure that this enclosed area is suitably protected, with its own dedicated fire suppression.

• Ensure that the data centre fire control panel is linked back to the main house alarm, as well as to the remote monitoring solutions used by the IT team.

• Ensure you have a way of extracting the fire suppression gas into the atmosphere in the event of an incident. It won’t be possible to access the room until such time as the gas has cleared. Remember minimising downtime and risks to life is our key goal. Managing spent gas is a key part of achieving that.

• Ensure you have pressure relief vents installed as part of your fire suppression system, it is critically important.

• Develop a maintenance and test schedule with your designer – and stick to it. Effective proactive maintenance and testing will ensure your system is ready when you need it most.

Design-and-build project carried out by Secure IT Environments for the data centre in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, England.

Secure IT Environments is a UK-based company with a long history of delivering data centre solutions to the country’s National Health Service and Ministry of Defence, as well as commercial, education, hosting, and retail sectors throughout Europe.

  • Operation Florian

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