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Q&A: Challenges Facing Data Center Energy Efficiency In 2017

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The management of data center HVAC technology requires a skill set distinct from the maintenance of systems in other asset classes, ones that is evolving rapidly as data streaming becomes more central to the global economy. Bisnow spoke with Boland account executive Mark Shell to explore his thoughts on what it takes for data centers to keep up with accelerating demand.

Bisnow: What is the most challenging part of designing and constructing new data centers that meet sustainability and efficiency goals? 

Shell: The challenge is twofold: breaking paradigms to transition from long-standing technologies to more innovative technology that achieves energy-efficiency targets and doing so on a compressed design schedule. Clients want more space and a quicker delivery at a reduced cost while meeting the security, reliability and redundancy needs of the unique tenants. This, along with other key parameters, has also been challenging.

Bisnow: How have changing energy-efficiency guidelines affected design plans for cooling systems in data centers? 

Shell: The ASHRAE Handbook, in 2011 HVAC Applications Chapter 19, required an operational temperature range from 64.4 degrees to 80.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In 2015, the range was expanded from 59 to 90 degrees. This singular change helped spur next-generation designs allowing significantly more free cooling hours of operation driving operating costs down. The higher chilled water temperatures that resulted from these changes made the use of conventional computer room air conditioning/air handler equipment more problematic as increased kilowatts in a single rack continue to grow.  

Bisnow: How are closed-loop, water-cooled systems more efficient than air cooling? 

Shell: The market is becoming more receptive to changing from air to water-cooled systems. Traditionally, data center space temperatures were kept at 65 degrees with air being forced through the servers to remove heat. With the ASHRAE guideline changes shown above this operating condition is no longer required. Maintaining 65-degree temperatures is as sensible as keeping an entire house at 40 F to keep food from perishing. Like refrigerators, closed-loop, water-cooled systems use cabinets or pods to keep servers cool more efficiently. Using elevated, chilled water temperatures maximizes free cooling and keeps the air above the dew point to avoid condensation. Higher-density cabinets from 15 kilowatts to 30 kilowatts and pods from 5 kilowatts to 10 kilowatts have racks supported by a smaller footprint, enabling more density in less space. 

Bisnow: What are the differences between a data center designed to meet only national and local codes versus one designed to meet national, local and additional certifications like LEED, Energy Star or Green Globes? 

Shell: The national and local codes drive designs to meet the minimum efficiency requirements. LEED, Energy Star and Green Globes drive power-utilization effectiveness toward lower levels. Higher-efficiency, lower-power usage and more sustainable designs require additional investments in first costs. According to IBM, the operating cost is forecast to be seven times the initial cost of construction over the life of the data center. System selection involves evaluating first cost vs. operating costs and assessing if the return on investment is sufficient to warrant additional first cost expenditure. We are seeing more designs that are scalable and often modular. These changes reduce initial investments while allowing expansion when there is an increase in demand.

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Bisnow: The prefabrication of construction materials is gaining popularity as a method of saving on cost, materials and labor. Do you see the same occurring in the construction of data centers? 

Shell: Prefabricated modular chiller plant designs, where systems are tested and commissioned off-site and then reassembled on-site, exist and are a popular option. Plant construction off-site can be accomplished while site preparation is progressing. We have project sites as close as Ashburn, Virginia, that are prefabricated. This approach allows owners and developers to get faster delivery and more accurate budgeting during design to reduce risk and compress the commissioning process, enabling quicker occupancy and expedited revenue generation.  

Bisnow: What is one best practice every data center property manager or owner should follow to keep their building running in accordance with the highest possible efficiency standards? 

Shell: Sophisticated Building Automation Systems provide the opportunity for optimizing system operations. Continued investment in this area, personnel training and intelligent services or retro-commissioning provide an approach to keeping system operation fine-tuned. Proper service and maintenance of equipment are also critical. Chillers, air handlers and air filtration/air cleaning systems all provide significant opportunities to save operating costs. Data center operators should be reviewing any and all energy conservation measures to assess return on investment.  

Bisnow: What is the biggest challenge facing data centers right now? 

Shell: I believe the demand is so high that providers are hard-pressed to deliver space fast enough. Talk to any large provider. They are doing everything they can to keep up with their clients’ demand for space. Whether we are talking about enterprise or co-location markets, the demand is increasing. The bottom line is that no matter what market segment the data center provider support is for, cutting-edge technology results in an exciting, innovative environment.

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