How to design data center fire, life safety systems

An expert panel provides engineering and design tips for fire and life safety systems in this Q&A

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer April 28, 2021


  • Peter Czerwinski, PE, Uptime ATD, Mechanical Engineer/Mission Critical Technologist, Jacobs, Pittsburgh
  • Garr Di Salvo, PE, LEED AP, Associate Principal – Americas Data Center Leader, Arup, New York
  • Scott Gatewood, PE, Electrical Engineer/Project Manager, Regional Energy Sector Leader, DLR Group, Omaha, Neb.
  • Brian Rener, PE, LEED AP, Mission Critical Leader, SmithGroup, Chicago

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?

Brian Rener: The use of “hot aisle containment” is common these days in most modern data centers. Essentially these are a large walk-in enclosure for hot air collection on the backside of the IT racks. Conventical pre-action (dry) sprinklers and heads used in data centers needs special consideration when penetrating these hot air enclosures due to the high heat that would normally trigger a sprinklers head. Close coordination with the local authority having jurisdiction on both the enclosure, sprinklers and ratings of the containment enclosure.

Garr Di Salvo: In most data center cases, the value of a data center’s IT and infrastructure equipment far exceeds the value of the core and shell structure. This means the priorities are typically the notification of potential events and delayed deployment of fire suppression is desirable to the greatest extent possible. Aspirating smoke detectors and double-interlocking preaction systems are common in data centers as a result.

How have changes to codes, BIM and wireless devices/systems impacted fire and life safety system design for these buildings?

Garr Di Salvo: Stored energy battery systems represent a dynamic area in building systems development and have routinely been active areas for code modification. Lithium-ion batteries have gained popularity as they provide robust high-capacity storage in with low footprint and weight. Both the International Fire Code and NFPA have made changes to address these developments in each of their last two code cycles. A dialog with AJHs is essential to deployments of new technology.