Is Your Data Center Ready for the Polar Vortex?


Many data centers are used to working in cold weather, including the Facebook data center in Lulea, Sweden. (Photo: Facebook)

Is your data center equipped to ride out the Polar Vortex? This month’s unusual weather pattern has brought frigid air to parts of the U.S. that don’t normally see extreme cold snaps. Not to worry. Many data centers operate just fine in brutally cold weather, and your colleagues from these colder climates have tips on how to adapt.

There are many considerations to keep in mind when dealing with extended cold snaps. We’re not talking about 60 degrees in Austin; we’re talking Minnesota winters, here.

“Cold weather is hard on equipment, can create unique challenges for fuel and cooling and can limit access to a site for customers and staff,” said Matt Spencer, Chief Technology Officer of Cologix, which operates data centers across Canada and in Minnesota. “Operating in cold markets requires a different level of attention to details. If you don’t have remote capabilities and a contingency plan in every data center, then your time will be spent being reactive in an environment that requires stability and uninterrupted services.”

“There are several reasons why it’s necessary and important to prepare a data center for cold conditions,” said Kenneth Cooper, Field Project Manager for Facility Operations at Schneider Electric. “These are mainly personnel and equipment protection.”

Attention to Maintenance

A key component of operating in the cold is understanding the range of challenges the cold may present.

“Severe cold can cause a data center to operate outside of its specific design perimeters, which adds stress to the system,” said Cooper. “In addition, if the temperature gets too cold, it becomes difficult to heat any air taken in from the outside. Beyond this, freeze can set in on outdoor equipment, including drain lines, fuel systems that don’t have the appropriate cold-weather additives, HVAC heating coils, cooling towers and humidification units. Frozen HVAC units can begin to leak water, while snow and frost can clog intake vents. If this occurs, it can be difficult for air to circulate and the entire system can shut down.”

Attention to maintenance is critical. “We continually verify all block heaters, engine oil heaters, battery warmers etc. are all operating normally and follow a stringent maintenance schedule,” said Spencer.

Compass Datacenters also knows about cold weather. The company is building a facility in Minnesota, where temperatures drop to the point where you can throw boiling water in the air and it turns into steam and ice almost instantly.

Consider the Environment

“In the case of the Minneapolis build, we heat that building all the time,” said Chris Crosby, CEO of Compass Datacenters. “I’ve got $50,000 in budget just for propane during the winter construction period.”

Crosby says it’s imperative to take the environment into account with a data center build. “Whenever we go into a market, we take our product and we have adaptations to the design,” he said. “For generators, it means insulation and a heater for generator enclosures. We make adjustments for our air unit. There’s additional installation in how you work those dampers. And the lack of humidity in cold is also a big issue in terms of working with electricity.”

“Humidity issues are often associated with cold environments, so having efficient humidifiers in place is a must,” agreed Spencer. “The use of anti-static wrist straps or other protection is mandatory to protect customer equipment. “Use ultrasonic humidification when possible to achieve a 97 percent energy savings on humidification energy versus traditional methods.”

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About the Author

Jason Verge is an Editor/Industry Analyst on the Data Center Knowledge team with a strong background in the data center and Web hosting industries. In the past he’s covered all things Internet Infrastructure, including cloud (IaaS, PaaS and SaaS), mass market hosting, managed hosting, enterprise IT spending trends and M&A. He writes about a range of topics at DCK, with an emphasis on cloud hosting.

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  1. To guarantee the data center works correctly during freezing months, it’s best to get ready in the summer and fall. The saying “better late than never,” certainly applies if you’re having problems this winter. Thanks for the interesting read Jason.