James K. Stacy is Director of Product Management, Energy Business, Schneider Electric.
Of all the electrical and systems components supporting the proper functioning of a data center, switchgear has typically been considered the ‘red-headed stepchild,’ hidden (often literally) in the dark recesses of the data center facility. However, today, the rapid growth of digitization is evolving switchgear’s importance – and data center facility managers must take note.
As businesses harness the massive amount of data generated by mobile computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and other forces to drive competitive advantage, the role of the data center has never been more critical, with system uptime increasingly crucial to business success. Outages not only impact productivity, but can cause significant financial and reputational losses and affect market standing.
Although generators offer backup in the event of a short power disturbance, optimal facility uptime requires a reliable power distribution system – of which switchgear is the backbone. Consisting of a combination of electrical disconnect switches, fuses and circuit breakers used to control, protect and isolate electrical equipment, switchgear is directly linked to the reliability of the electrical supply that powers the entire data center facility. In many cases, both utility and generator power follows through and is controlled by the switchgear. As a result, downtime in switchgear means downtime of the data center.
Evolving Importance of Switchgear
Historically – and most particularly within the data center sector – switchgear provided mainly short circuit protection, making it a relatively passive piece of the overall facility infrastructure. Facility managers interacted with the equipment only when a failure occurred, which was rare. This is changing.
As data consumption explodes and the physical and computational size of the data center grows (the U.S. leads the world in number of hyperscale data centers), the need for active energy protection and electrical reliability has intensified, making it necessary for the entire data center – switchgear included – to become more interactive and adaptive. With new advances in technologies, such as automatic transfer capabilities, switchgear can (and must) handle more electrical operations, and when called upon to operate, must operate successfully. For example, when severe weather causes a utility outage, switchgear is responsible for auto-reconfiguring distribution pathways to switch from utility power to the secondary healthy sources of power i.e. generators.
So, with great “power” comes great responsibility? Absolutely. However, this paradigm shift is a difficult one. Having traditionally only worked with switchgear infrequently, if at all, many data center facility managers may not realize – or address – the shifting criticality of this equipment. With U.S. data center facility infrastructure rapidly aging, business budgets tightening, and staff and support numbers dwindling, ongoing switchgear maintenance is being deferred, putting proper performance at risk. This can open the potential for malfunction, failure, or arc flash issues that reverberate throughout the entire data center facility.
The Need for Maintenance
Because electrical switchgear has typically been considered a low-maintenance item, it’s often the most overlooked component in the electrical distribution system. However, as with any human-made, human-engineered device, switchgear face certain operational limitations and regular care is needed to avoid failure. Just as one would service a car or plane, so, too, must switchgear be serviced – and its lifecycle is directly proportional to its environment and how it is treated.
A tremendous amount of energy not only passes through but is actively routed and rerouted with switchgear. This creates stress on components particularly when environments are not ideal, such as when temperatures fall outside optimal performance zones, air quality is poor or the equipment gets exposed to excessive humidity (it’s worth noting that while rack and server environments within data centers are highly regulated, switchgear is often located in other parts of the facility that don’t typically receive the same level of environmental control). Depending on the switchgear type, some technologies can be more susceptible to the environment into which it is placed (air insulated being the most susceptible, with gas and shielded solid insulated the least).
When developing a switchgear maintenance plan, it is important to first define what that maintenance encompasses: the environment surrounding the equipment and the duty placed on that equipment. Typical questions to ask include:
- Are there any airborne containments?
- Is there a corrosive environment?
- Is there a possibility of rodent entry?
- Are temperature and humidity controlled within the requirements?
- How frequent is the switching?
- What level of current is being placed on the equipment and how close is it to the rating of the gear?
- What level of current is being switched?
Switchgear Innovation Increases Reliability, Saves Time and Money
As the industry continues to evolve, winning companies should look to switchgear as a competitive advantage, enabling them to deliver the highest levels of power availability, while also saving time and money.
Recent innovations in switchgear design are allowing data center personnel to install and operate medium voltage networks with lasting performance and lower risk. For example, the introduction of shielded solid insulation switchgear (2SIS) technology in the U.S. brings unprecedented levels of reliability and safety; providing protection against internal arcing by insulating the main circuit components with a layer of solid material encapsulated in a grounded shield. This design greatly minimizes the likelihood of damage to the system, protecting the live conductors from dust, water, humidity and other environmental factors that could cause failures, reducing the risk of maintenance worker electrocution, arc flash hazard and arc blast hazard.
Equipment cost is also a key factor, one that can be assuaged by committing to newer equipment. Contemporary infrastructure allows smaller devices to be used, enabling the concentration of the same amount of power in less space. Modernized technologies are also highly modular and require less frequent and less complex maintenance, considerably reducing associated costs. Additionally, while replacing the electrical infrastructure, one can evaluate increasing the distribution voltage which also greatly enables cost savings (smaller cable size, less cables per phase, reduced conduits/trays, less labor to install).
Switchgear is often the most undervalued component of any electrical distribution and backup system within a data center. But with aging electrical equipment in need of maintenance putting precious data center performance at risk, can data center facility managers really afford to ignore this often overlooked component when uptime is on the line?
The effects of a data center power failure can cost companies in numerous ways, and although backup systems like uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) and generators offer replacement power when main sources need to be turned off or single-point electrical failures take place, modern switchgear is the heart and soul of a reliable power network and must be taken care of properly.
Opinions expressed in the article above do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Data Center Knowledge and Informa.