Designing efficient data centers: Fire, life safety

In today’s digital age, businesses rely on running an efficient, reliable, and secure operation, especially with mission critical facilities such as data centers. Here, engineers with experience on such structures share advice and tips on ensuring project success in regards to fire/life safety.



MEP Rountable RespondentsDoug Bristol, PE, Electrical Engineer, Spencer Bristol, Peachtree Corners, Ga.,
Terry Cleis, PE, LEED AP, Principal, Peter Basso Associates Inc., Troy, Mich.
Scott Gatewood, PE, Project Manager/Electrical Engineer/Senior Associate, DLR Group, Omaha, Neb.
Darren Keyser, Principal, kW Mission Critical Engineering, Troy, N.Y.
Bill Kosik, PE, CEM, LEED AP, BEMP, Senior Engineer – Mission Critical, exp, Chicago
Keith Lane, PE, RCDD, NTS, LC, LEED AP BD&C, President, Lane Coburn & Associates LLC, Seattle
John Peterson, PE, PMP, CEM, LEED AP BD+C, Program Manager, AECOM, Washington, D.C.
Brandon Sedgwick, PE, Vice President, Commissioning Engineer, Hood Patterson & Dewar Inc., Atlanta
Daniel S. Voss, Mission Critical Technical Specialist, M.A. Mortenson Co., Chicago

CSE: What are some of the unique challenges regarding fire/life safety system design that you’ve encountered for data centers? How have you overcome these challenges?

Voss: Certain municipalities limit a fire zone’s coverage area from approximately one-third to one-half of what the NFPA 101: Life Safety Code allows. This, of course, requires more fire protection detection and extinguishing zones. If after meeting with the AHJ, they are not flexible in their local code amendments, then the design must meet the municipalities’ stricter requirements.

While the exterior of the Harriman Dispatch Center is a brick building constructed in 1891, the interior features a ceiling composed of renewable materials and advanced air-handling equipment that uses UV antibacterial processes. Courtesy: DLR GroupCSE: What fire/smoke and security features might you incorporate in data centers have that you wouldn’t see on other projects?

Keyser: The most common fire-suppression approach is double-interlocked preaction suppression systems. This is a dry-type, water-based system, prone to corrosion that results from trapped water and/or moisture-laden supervisory air. Mitigating corrosion is a key feature. Beyond the cost associated with replacing sprinkler piping, actually replacing it in a live data center exposes the client to significant risk. As a standard, we implement a nitrogen generator system to provide the supervisory air required for preaction sprinkler systems. This is an inherently dry medium, eliminating the moisture that’s introduced by traditional compressed-air systems. Additionally, the science behind it also shows that the nitrogen inerts the chemical reaction that causes corrosion at the air/water interface. This provides additional protection when a system has been charged for annual testing.

Peterson: The data center’s security has increased as exposures, thefts, and other embarrassing leaks have surfaced. Because of this, our secure-workplace specialists analyze how the data center operates to prevent corporate or other sensitive information from being captured.

While the exterior of the Harriman Dispatch Center is a brick building constructed in 1891, the interior features a ceiling composed of renewable materials and advanced air-handling equipment that uses UV antibacterial processes. Courtesy: DLR GroupCleis: Fire alarm systems in data centers are often stand-alone and are connected to the overall building fire alarm. These systems typically consist of densely positioned smoke detectors or a pipe system that draws air and samples that air over the entire area. A data center’s stand-alone fire alarm system can be used as a releasing panel as part of a gaseous-agent fire suppression system. There are various types of gases that are currently available. Systems are designed to avoid any costly accidental release of these gases. Traditional water-based fire suppression systems can be wet- or dry-type. Dry-pipe systems are more common in data centers. These systems are designed to only flood when a “double interlock” occurs, with a loss of air pressure in the dry pipes indicating a melted fusible link and detection of smoke from a detector in the data center. These systems are designed to avoid accidentally introducing water to the data center.

Voss: Most commonly, the fire system uses a cross-zoned detection system with a dry-pipe distribution system connected to a deluge valve. Most data centers have a very early smoke-detection annunciation (VESDA) system that reacts much faster than standard fire alarm smoke detectors commonly found in other projects.

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