Data centers achieve a new level of high-tech: Fire and life safety

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

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 28, 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: What are some of the unique challenges regarding fire/life safety system design that you’ve encountered for such projects? How have you overcome these challenges?

Williams: How have you overcome these challenges? Fire safety is vital in data centers because of the catastrophic outcomes of data centers’ down time and the damage a smallest fire could cause to the expensive equipment and the information being stored and processed in data centers. Typical fire extinguishers like water and foam damage the IT equipment. So, special dry chemicals or inert gases are usually required to avoid damaging the IT equipment while extinguishing fire — these need complex ventilation systems interlocked to the controls. The large air flow rate being supplied to data centers by air conditioning systems can also exacerbate fire if they fan the flames or push the smoke away from the smoke detectors. It is worth mentioning that the large open spaces in data center do not help detecting and combating fire as quickly as in small spaces. So, some fire detection system might break the room into various spaces and only treat the affected space or other more sophisticated fire detection strategies such as thermal detectors or cameras.

CSE: What clean agent, aerosol, oxygen reduction or other fire suppression systems typically specified? Describe a project and the system specified.

Williams: Novec 1230 and FM-200 are clean agents that reduce the heat from fire through absorption. They are environmentally friendly with no detrimental impact on racks (no corrosion, no electrical conduction). This makes them a very popular fire suppression tool in data centers. Inert gases such as a mixture of argon and nitrogen gases can reduce the amount of oxygen in case of fire. However, the very load the system makes when deploying the gas into the data center could potentially damage the racks.