Save servers from going up in smoke

Save servers from going up in smoke

The installation of proper fire detection and suppression systems is critical in hi-tech areas such as server rooms to protect costly equipment and valuable data in the event of any fire. So says Michael van Niekerk, CEO of ASP Fire – a Johannesburg-based fire detection and suppression equipment specialist that operates across the entire African continent.

Fire detection in such a critical environment must account for many factors, from the actual value of the equipment and the data it contains, to the potential sources of ignition, including the presence of electricity. As Van Niekerk notes: “More often than not it is the data and equipment you want to preserve.”

A gas fire-suppression system is the best option here, due to the sensitivity of the equipment. “Obviously, a sprinkler or water-mist system is not really ideal, due to the presence of electricity,” Van Niekerk says. “You want to ensure that you are putting in a suppression medium that is not going to create more damage than the fire itself.”

In terms of gas fire-suppression systems, there are several options. The first is to flood the server room with an inert gas such as carbon dioxide (CO2); Argonite (IG-55), which is 50% argon and 50% nitrogen; or Inergen, a mixture of 52% nitrogen, 40% argon, and 8% CO2. Clean, safe gases such as FM 200 or NOVEC 1230 will not cause any damage to hard drives, nor will they cause any noticeable adverse effects on humans at the designed concentration.

CO2, Argonite, and Inergen systems are high-pressure systems that flood the interior to a 60% concentration of the gas in question. “The problem, of course, is that if you have human occupants still inside and they cannot escape quickly enough, they will succumb to asphyxiation,” warns Van Niekerk.

Therefore, a key element of any fire-suppression system for a server-room environment is that, in the event of a system discharge, any occupants receive sufficient warning to escape, with a corresponding delay in the activation of the system itself.

Another issue that has to be considered is the potential damage that can be caused to equipment by these high-pressure systems, which can operate at up to 300 bar. A related issue is potential damage due to thermal shock caused by the rapid cooling of equipment running at a high temperature in the presence of the much colder, high-pressure gas.

Anything above 50 bar is considered a high-pressure system, and these are usually more expensive. “It should also be noted that you need to be certified by the Southern Africa Compressed Gases Association (SACGA) in order to be able to work on these systems,” adds Van Niekerk.

Low-pressure clean-gas systems operate at a much lower pressure of 20 to 25 bar. Here, FM 200 – a colourless, odourless gaseous halocarbon – is a popular option. FM 200 is deemed a clean, safe gas because it leaves no residue. It reduces the oxygen level in the server room from the normal 21% to about 12%, too low to sustain a fire but enough for humans to breathe while evacuating. 

Server rooms also face other challenges, such as sunken floor voids or roof voids with suspended ceilings to accommodate cabling. These volumes also need to be filled with gas, otherwise the required concentration will not be achieved. Therefore, the volume of space in a server room can be much larger than anticipated, which necessitates meticulous planning when choosing the right system.

An in-cabinet system is another option. These discharge gas into the server cabinet, containing the server itself, as opposed to filling up the entire room. Here, a common gas is NOVEC 1230, a low Global Warming Potential (GWP) halon replacement. An alternative is Pyroshield (a mixture of nitrogen and argon). However, an in-cabinet system does not account for other potential ignition sources, such as distribution boards or Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) units.

The size of the server room and the equipment installed in the room determine the type of solution needed, especially if there is a UPS installed in the room. Server rooms are required to be constructed from fire rated materials, so that a fire does not spread from within the room or from the surrounding area into the server room. ASP Fire conducts full fire-risk assessments in any server room environment to arrive at the optimal fire detection and suppression solution.

In terms of fire-detection equipment in server rooms, Van Niekerk recommends a monthly service inspection, as the building maintenance team often does not have the time to carry this out properly. “We activate the detectors to ensure they are all in proper working order and check all components such as solenoids so that the activation system is deemed 100% operational,” he emphasises.

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