Top 3 ways to prevent data center fires
Friday, Jul 26th 2013

Although data center fires are rare occurrences, they can cause enormous damage and shut down a network in seemingly no time at all. Macomb County, Mich., learned this lesson the hard way in April, when a fire destroyed their core IT infrastructure.

However, in comparison to other external threats to data center operations, preventing fires can be somewhat difficult since traditional fire prevention methods such as sprinklers and fire extinguishers can damage critical hardware. As such, data center operators need to take special care in crafting their fire prevention strategies, using some or all of these environmental monitoring options.

"Like data centers (once called computer rooms or electronic data processing centers), the approach to containing a fire in what is now the nerve center of your organization has significantly changed," TechRepublic contributor Tom Olzak wrote. "It isn't enough to simply install a smoke alarm and a few sprinkler heads. This only works if you don't mind having your business down for days or weeks after a fire."

1) Fuel cells
While many facilities have started using temperature monitoring equipment to lower their annual energy bills, others have begun utilizing more disruptive technologies to lower power usage effectiveness. In particular, large technology companies like Apple, Google and Facebook have turned to everything from solar power to outside air to become more eco-friendly, but only one alternative energy source purports to help stop data center fires: fuel cells.

According to GigaOM, one major data center has begun employing fuel cells at its facilities. They work by combining a fuel such as natural gas with other elements to generate electricity and heat on site. Fuel cells are more efficient that traditional power sources because they utilize cleaner burning fuels and their proximity ensures that less power is lost in the transmission process.

In terms of fire prevention, GigaOM noted that the key benefit that fuel cells offer is nitrogen-filled air, which is a byproduct of the technology. So, instead of using water to put out a data center fire, facilities managers can instead pump in this nitrogenated air to suppress any flames.

2) Moisture monitoring equipment
Although humidity monitoring may not be the first fire prevention-related measure a facilities manager considers, it is crucial in this regard. Typically, most data centers worry about humidity levels being too high, as then moisture collects on hardware and potentially causes it to malfunction. However, too little humidity can lead to equally disastrous results.

The Data Center Journal reported that when the air inside a data center or server room is too dry, static electricity can begin to build up in dangerous amounts. The main concern presented by this scenario is the discharge of electricity that causes equipment to short circuit, but that static electricity can just as easily lead to a data center fire as well.

To prevent these scenarios from coming to fruition, data center managers can leverage humidity monitoring equipment such as water sensors. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers recommends that server rooms have a relative humidity between 45 percent and 55 percent, although that range can fluctuate depending on the temperature of the facility. By using humidity monitoring equipment, managers can make sure that the data center is always within this ideal range.

3) Temperature monitoring
When it comes to fire prevention, data center managers need to have mechanisms in place to alert them when a potential incident is in progress. In this regard, temperature monitoring equipment is vital. By installing in a server room a temperature monitor that sends out real-time alerts, facilities managers can instantly know if a fire is causing internal temperatures to spike and take immediate action to prevent as much permanent damage as possible. Granted, this equipment won't necessarily help data center owners prevent fires, but it will go a long way toward limiting unplanned downtime and ensuring business continuity.