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Are data center fire suppression systems set to become green-friendly?

Basic maintenance and safety protocols can significantly reduce the chances of a fire occurring in your data center, but no one should neglect developing a solid fire suppression strategy. 

Going green with fire suppression? 
Managing the risk of fire in data centers is a tricky endeavor, but one with numerous options – one of the most popular involving hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Also referred to as Halon-based systems, while they have been the go-to solutions for fire suppression, organizations across the globe have regarded the compound as harmful to the environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Halon is a chemical comprised of flourine, carbon and bromine, the latter of which causes ozone depletion. 

This sparks an interesting conversation about what alternative fire suppression methods are available. That being said, because Halon production ended in the U.S. in 1993, it's unlikely that many of today's data centers are using Halon-based systems that are particularly harmful. Before discussing the latest fire suppression technology, let's assess systems that are currently in place. 

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FM200 
This particular system is Halon-based, but is regarded as being a more environmentally-friendly, safer version than conventional Halon solutions. According to Janus Fire Systems, FM200 extinguishes flames by absorbing heat, and leaves no residue after the system is triggered. As opposed to Halon that contains bromine, this particular compound is made up of carbon, fluorine and hydrogen.

The reason why data centers use FM200 (our own IAD4 facility has FM200 under the floor for electrical fires) is that electrical components, aluminum, lead, copper, rubber and plastic are unaffected when exposed to this chemical. Components typical of FM200-based fire suppression systems include:

  • Cylinder assemblies that serve as storage containers
  • Discharge nozzles and piping that are activated to distribute the compound
  • Connection fittings, pressure gauges and electric valve actuators are just a few parts used to adjust the release of the chemical

Dry pipe pre-action 
In many ways, dry pipe pre-action systems operate exactly as you would assume – when dormant, the pipes throughout a data center are not holding water. As opposed to preventing water from entering the system by using pressurized air or nitrogen, an electrically operative valve (known as the pre-action valve) controls water intake. 

"While post-cleanup is needed, dry pipe pre-action is arguably one of the safest fire suppression methods available."

How do these systems actually work? In our own data centers, two sensors (a heat and a smoke detector) must register simultaneously before the pre-action valve allows the pipes to pressurize. From there, individual sprinkler heads release water when the temperature gets high enough to meld the "stopper" like a normal sprinkler system. While post-cleanup is needed, it is arguably one of the safest fire suppression methods available. 

One question some may ask is why a colocation facility would employ a system that uses water – wouldn't that cause damage to equipment? Water is one of the safest ways to put out a fire, which will actually do more damage to the equipment.

Are any 'new' systems in sight? 
As of now, there aren't necessarily any major new innovations on the horizon as far as fire suppression technology is concerned. If there are, they're most likely in the experimental stages. In regard to alternative, eco-friendly systems, DatacenterDynamics contributor Bart Goeman acknowledged two types of fire management agents that require completely different design configurations than dry pipe pre-action and FM200 systems:

  • Inert gases are typically compounds of argon and nitrogen that remove oxygen from an area. In order for this substance to take effect, large amounts of the gas need to displace the air within an enclosed area. 
  • Synthetic extinguishing agents (non-HFC) evaporate cleanly after being discharged, are non-corrosive and typically contain a compound called FK-5-1-12. The advantage of using these compounds over inert gases is that fewer cylinders and pressures are needed to support these systems. 

While the future of fire suppression in data centers is largely uncertain, what can be asserted is that next-generation systems will likely abide by eco-friendly standards. However, that doesn't mean that current implementations are inherently harmful to the environment. 

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