Understanding the potential dangers of green construction methods
Friday, Mar 21st 2014

A team of researchers from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute were recently awarded a grant to further study a potential link between environmentally-friendly construction methods and fire risk. Should a link be found, how data centers approach business continuity and environmental monitoring could be fundamentally altered.

In 2012, a team from WPI published a report noting they had anecdotal evidence that certain green construction elements - most notably solar photovoltaic panels, some types of insulation and building materials like lightweight engineered lumber components - may cause fires. However, at that time no exhaustive study had ever been conducted to determine a potential link between the two.

"These changes to building design and materials are an opportunity for safety improvements but may also include building performance, fire and safety challenges that have unintended consequences for sustainability from property damage as well as life safety," the research team wrote. "An assessment of fire performance (among other considerations) of green buildings, and focused research on the primary changes affecting building performance, fire and safety, are required."

Now, the WPI team finally has a chance to further study it and potentially identify a link between eco-friendly construction and fire risk. Earlier this week, Buildings.com reported that the Department of Homeland Security awarded a group led by Brian Meacham, associate professor of fire protection engineering at WPI, a $1 million grant to conduct a three-year study on the matter. In particular, the effort will toward looking at how green building elements affect occupant and firefighter safety.

"This research will begin to quantify the fire hazards and risks associated with green building features, identify ways to mitigate those hazards and risks, and prepare the fire service to fight fires in buildings with green features and elements," Buildings.com noted.

How this research potentially impacts data centers
While the only link between green construction and fire risk is anecdotal at this time, should Meacham's team discover a definitive link between the two, then it could dramatically reshape how data centers approach sustainability and business continuity.

Ever since a 2012 New York Times report claimed that data centers use and waste enormous amounts of electricity, energy usage and eco-friendly practices have been pushed to the fore in the data center industry. As the costs related to keeping mission-critical hardware running rise, many facility owners have begun looking at new ways to reduce resource use and become more environmentally friendly. This helps to explain why a March Markets and Markets report predicted that the green data center market would have a compound annual growth rate of more than 27 percent between this year and 2019.

But, if the WPI report eventually find a solid link between green construction and fires, then this market growth could be severely curtailed. After all, data centers are first and foremost concerned with uptime, and if sustainability features are seen as an impediment, then they will be quickly discarded. While saving money and the environment are great goals for a data center to have, they will be rendered moot if the facility goes up in flames.

Still, this puts data centers in a tough position. Facilities want to reduce energy costs, but those efforts should not put the entire operation at risk. In order to balance the two, data centers should consider adopting temperature monitoring equipment like the WatchDog 100-PoE from ITWatchDogs. With an environmental monitoring sensor in place, facilities management professionals can stay on top of the server room temperature at all times and be immediately alerted by email and text message when conditions shift. This way, incidents that would normally lead to fires can be stopped before they ever cause any damage.

"It is like a hardware insurance policy - our devices protect equipment and give [data center managers] a cost-effective and less expensive way of doing that than our competitors," ITWatchDogs president Charlie Mayne said.

Plus, temperature monitoring equipment can help data centers reduce their annual energy bills. In many facilities, the air conditioning unit is on at all times to keep the server room temperature cool. By replacing this methodology with a temperature sensor, facility operators gain more granular control over data center temperature and can avoid devoting so much electricity to blanket cooling policies. According to Energy Star, sometimes even raising the server room temperature by just one degree Fahrenheit can help a facility reduce its energy costs by up to 5 percent in a year.