Data centers achieve a new level of high-tech: Controls and building automation

Designing solutions for data center clients — whether hyperscale or colocation facilities — requires advanced engineering knowledge

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 22, 2020


  • Bill Kosik, PE, CEM, BEMP, senior energy engineer, DNV GL Technical Services, Oak Brook, Ill.
  • John Peterson, PE, PMP, CEM, LEED AP BD+C, mission critical leader, DLR Group, Washington, D.C.
  • Brian Rener, PE, LEED AP, principal, mission critical leader, SmithGroup, Chicago
  • Mike Starr, PE, electrical project engineer, Affiliated Engineers Inc., Madison, Wis.
  • Tarek G. Tousson, PE, principal electrical engineer/project manager, Stanley Consultants, Austin, Tex.
  • Saahil Tumber, PE, HBDP, LEED AP, technical authority, ESD, Chicago
  • John Gregory Williams​, PE, CEng, MEng, MIMechE, vice president, Harris, Oakland, Calif.

CSE: From your experience, what systems within data centers are benefiting from automation that previously might not have?

Peterson: The mechanical systems have been using a type of automation that considers hundreds of factors, including system reaction delays and time of use. Electrical systems are next in line to implement similar control logic, with the focus on electrical rates, smoothing processing spikes, closer monitoring of component outputs for predicting failures and better compensating for outages. Overall, this leads engineers to designs that favor more robust distribution and better scalability of the electrical components to match the data center loading.

CSE: Is your team using building information modeling in conjunction with the architects, trades and owner to design a project? Describe an instance in which you’ve turned over the BIM to the facility maintenance team for long-term operations and maintenance or measurement and verification.

Rener: We are frequently hosting BIM in the cloud not only for our design team members but later in the project for various delivery methods such as design assist, design build and IPD processes. The challenges are setting up models and where team members might share a design (say lighting) it is advantageous to set up separate worksheets so that the engineer of record design remains while a modified plan is proposed and accepted into the final model by the team.

Peterson: We use BIM with all our projects now, unless a client specifically requires otherwise. The higher level of design output with BIM has led to better output at the same or faster speeds. Software tools are being developed to assist with greater detail on components without bogging down the overall model. As many contractors are aiming to prefab where they can, we can use BIM to show preassembly break points that work for all disciplines which the contractors can then use to generate a bill of materials and more. For the owners, many of which also have engineering teams, the LoD400 BIM model can then become the go-to source for the existing conditions, after the contractor has made additions for site assembly changes.

CSE: In what way is the need for more smart technology and features in such buildings affecting your work on these projects?

Peterson: To meet current and future building technology client demands we design upgrades for existing buildings with additional sensors and controls and integrate system in new facility design.

CSE: What smart devices are data center owners requesting and how are you meeting these needs?

Rener: Advanced metering and energy monitoring are major requests. This requires careful specifications and design documents.

CSE: Cybersecurity and hacking are increasing concerns — are you seeing such concerns impacting your work on data centers?

Peterson: Security has always been a concern, with data centers being revised to new procedures at the equipment delivery zones as much as the main entrances. While subdividing can limit physical intrusions, at the cyber and hacking level there are still bridges that need to be guarded. It is important that data center software tools include robust security monitoring to sense abnormalities in building automation and supervisory controls systems.