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Learn how to Limit Your Risk of a Data Center Fire

You’ll see a fair amount of coverage on this blog and elsewhere about natural disasters that can disrupt power and generally wreak havoc on a data center. But we don’t write all that much about another very real threat to data centers: fire.

Yet according to a Schneider Electric Energy University course called “Examining Fire Protection Methods,” 43% of businesses that close due to fire never reopen while 29% of those that do reopen fail within 3 years.

The most effective method of fire protection is, of course, preventing fires from starting in the first place. With that in mind, the course delivers some practical advice on how to help make your data center less capable of breeding a fire, which basically comes down to eliminating elements that can contribute to starting and/or fueling a fire. A few sample suggestions are:

  • Enforce a strict no smoking policy in IT and control rooms
  • Removing any and all trash receptacles
  • Use office furniture constructed only of metal (although seat cushions are allowed)
  • Don’t use acoustical materials such as foam or fabric or any material used to absorb sound
  • When building a new data center, ensure it’s located far from any other buildings that may pose a fire threat

While prevention is preferred, you’ve also got to have safeguards in place in the event a fire does break out. As the Energy University course explains, the main goals are to contain the fire without threatening lives and to minimize downtime. Achieving those goals means meeting three objectives: detect the presence of the fire, communicate the threat to authorities and building occupants, and suppress the fire to limit damage.

The course goes into great detail on each, particularly the suppression category. Along the way you’ll get some education on topics such as the “fire triangle,” which are the three elements that any good Boy Scout can tell you must be present in order for fire to exist: heat, oxygen and fuel. Take away any one of those elements and you eliminate the possibility of fire.

In practical terms, that means being careful about heat and fuel sources. Heat, of course, is a constant in data centers so you need to be careful about possibile interactions with fuel sources. Fuel is anything that can catch fire, which in a data center includes servers, cabling and flooring. (And also trash, which is why you don’t want trash cans in your data center.)

In terms of fire detection, you’ve got three main options: smoke, heat and flame detectors.  As the course makes clear, for a data center a smoke detector is the most effective option, as they provide the earliest warning of a fire, or potential fire. You may be surprised to learn, however, about the various types of smoke alarms you have to choose from.

Options include “intelligent spot type detectors” that use laser beams that can distinguish between smoke and dust and send information to a central control system – pretty useful in a large enterprise and for unmanned data centers. Another type, known as air sampling or very early smoke detection (VESD) systems, also use lasers to continually compare air samples that they draw in.

Check out the free “Examining Fire Protection Methods” course in the College of Data Centers at Energy University to learn more about all of these technologies as well as the myriad options for fire suppression. It will be time well spent in helping you prepare for this ever-present yet oft-ignored data center threat.

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  • Thanks for the rules of thumb for determining how to properly limit the risk of data centers against fire damage. The option to include “intelligent spot type detectors” that use laser beams that can distinguish between smoke and dust and send information to a central control, was really unknown to me. I will bring it up to my IT manager the next quarterly meeting that we have to discuss IT budget. Do you have any specific companies in mind that provide this type of option?

  • Thanks for writing the suggestion in this post. Nice post.

  • Laurence Rietberg

    8 years ago

    “Don’t use acoustical materials such as foam or fabric or any material used to absorb sound” – that’s an interesting comment in the context of acoustic damage that can take out in one stroke multiple hard disks ina data centre, all with very fine tolerances, by some types of fire suppression systems that dump gas into a room. This risk, ironically, may be mitigated by some form of material that actually absorbs sound from the gas dump shock wave, so as to prevent damage to these sensitive hard disks.

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