Health care facilities, and hospitals in particular, collect huge amounts of electronic data on patients, from general medical records to digital images, to insurance and billing information. And the growth in data collection is expected to increase, particularly as more providers move to electronic medical records, as well as offer complex digital services, such as genetic mapping, remote medicine, and video surgery.

All those electronic records need to be safely stored somewhere, and, as a result, many hospital data rooms are bursting at the seams, driving a need for larger data-processing areas. With this expansion comes the need for more precise cooling equipment, which is designed to keep the data safe through critical temperature, humidity, and air quality control.

Comfort Verses Precision

Electronic equipment housed in data rooms or centers is very sensitive to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, which is why dedicated precision cooling systems are recommended for these spaces. While it may seem cost-effective to use a facility’s existing comfort cooling systems to keep data rooms cool, it may not a good idea in the long run.

“Comfort cooling is not designed to function 24 hours a day, seven days a week like precision cooling, nor is it designed for the high-sensible heat loads generated by a data center,” said John Martin, marketing manager, Data Aire Inc. “In addition, comfort cooling has wide tolerance limits, compared to precision cooling’s tight limits, and comfort cooling is not equipped for redundancy.”

For those who think that comfort cooling systems can be used for smaller data rooms, Martin stated, “The first question to ask is, ‘How important is the data center to the operation of the facility?’ If it is not important, and the facility can afford to have the center down periodically and/or for a long period of time, then the response is ‘sure.’ However, if the data center is providing critical services to the proper function of the hospital, then the response is ‘no.’”

Another issue is longevity, said JP Valiulis, vice president of marketing, thermal management, Emerson Network Power. “If you install a portable unit or mini-split system in a data room, it will probably only last several years. And these units do not have the monitoring or controls needed for these spaces. Precision cooling systems are more likely going to last 10-15 years, and they have the controls and monitoring, as well as the ability to provide more protection in terms of humidity and temperature management.”

There are a variety of precision cooling options to meet just about any data storage need, including air- and water-cooled chiller systems, and water-cooled, DX, and dry cooler systems, said Earl Keisling, CEO, Inertech LLC. “Installations can include packaged circuits that are stand-alone, or they can be added onto or attached to a main-system chilled-water circuit, or condenser water circuit. While they can be tied into a building automation system (BAS), in most cases, they will have a separate emergency power monitoring system (EPMS). For redundancy, computer room air conditioning (CRAC) units are often installed in hospital data rooms as extensions of their chilled-water loops.”

Growing Pains

Most larger companies have centralized data centers where the entire IT infrastructure is housed and cooled, but hospitals are very different. In many cases, they have racks of servers squirreled away in closets or small rooms. “In a large hospital, there could be numerous small closets around the facility, and each will hold one or two racks of servers, and possibly even brooms and pails,” said Valiulis. “In most hospitals, you’re going to see the demand for precision cooling in a number of these closets, as well as in a few small data rooms and possibly one larger data center.”

Regardless of the location within the hospital, added Valiulis, requirements for basic data are growing. “The heavy computing needed for procedures such as high-density genetic mapping requires more robust servers, and those usually need to be located in large data centers or fairly good-sized computer rooms.”

That robust electronic equipment drives higher computing power, causing the cooling capacities (watts per square foot) to increase accordingly, said Keisling. “In hospitals, we see that higher densities per square foot are often a better solution for IT growth than expanding a space. From a capital and logistics perspective, it is often far more cost-effective to ‘densify’ an IT platform in a hospital than attempt to take on a huge construction growth project.”

Given the enormous amount of computing that hospitals now require, this is a prime growth opportunity for contractors. Special training in precision cooling equipment is, of course, necessary, as mechanical contractors need to be familiar with the manufacturer’s proper installation and set up of the equipment, including controls and communications, said Martin. “Failure to set up the equipment properly will result in improper performance of the system. But I believe it is a niche market that could provide additional income, providing that it is staffed and managed correctly.”

Keisling also sees a growth trend, noting that the entire world relies on data centers, and the health care industry is no different. “There is exponential growth in storage requirements as mandated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), as well as massive growth in server capability and network capacity. Health care organizations require a refresh of their data kits to stay current with government mandates, as well as keep up with competitors.”

There is no doubt that as big data merges with health care, there will be a huge amount of computing and data storage required, said Valiulis. “We still have a long way to go in terms of data, connectivity, and how it is used.

“Contractors should be thinking about data centers because they are, and will continue to be, a growth market. A large percentage of commercial construction over the past several years has been in data centers. Contractors have been very eager to talk to us and learn more about data centers because of the opportunity it affords them.”

Publication date: 11/4/2013

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