Preparing Your Data Center for the Polar Vortex

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March is upon us and in February the groundhog said there would be six more weeks of winter. That is not good news for those who have been living through one of the strangest winters we’ve seen in some time, if not ever – especially those of us responsible for running data centers.

Freezing temperatures are to be expected in places like Minnesota and Idaho, although not quite the 50 below wind chill effects that some states saw in January. But places like Georgia are simply not supposed to see temperatures in the single digits, as they did on Jan. 7 – not to mention snow and ice that had commuters stuck for hours on Atlanta area highways.

With these oddball weather patterns in mind, the folks at Data Center Knowledge had a fine idea: ask some experts what effect cold weather has on data centers and what steps folks need to take to protect against the effects of the polar vortex. I was honored to be among those the publication asked for advice and was happy to provide it. And given I already had my advice written down, I thought I might as well share it here as well.


First of all, severe cold can cause a data center to operate outside of its specific design parameters, which adds stress to various components of the system. If temperatures get too cold, it becomes difficult to heat air taken in from the outside. Outdoor equipment can also be subject to problems, including frozen drain lines, HVAC cooling/heating coils, humidification units and fuel systems. Frozen HVAC units can begin to leak water once the thaw begins, while snow and frost can clog intake vents. If this occurs, it can be difficult for air to circulate and the entire system can shut down.


Cooling towers, air conditioning units and generators are the main components of the data center affected by adverse weather conditions. If not well sealed, air conditioning units can allow snow into the facility. Also, water lines located inside walls, which are often ignored, can freeze and break without proper insulation.


To prepare, managers should turn on a heat trace and check heaters to make sure they’re properly prepared for winter. Water systems and drains should be checked or drained so they don’t freeze. Fuel systems need additives to prevent freezing. Once cold weather sets in, data center managers should also make sure to operate the data center within its specific design specifications.


Other contributors to the Data Center Knowledge story suggested conducting routine maintenance on things like block heaters, engine oil heaters and battery warmers and to ensure they’re all working properly. Some also insulate and heat their generator enclosures.


To ensure the data center works properly during colder months, it’s best to prepare in the summer and fall. Of course, the old adage “better late than never,” certainly applies if you’re having problems this winter.

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