Tenants, building owners, and facility managers have long used closets, empty offices, and even mechanical rooms to stash their servers. These improvised data centers, which Energy Star states make up 40 percent of all data storage areas, are often scattered around a facility as space permits. While these small data centers are not going away any time soon, the increase in data collection in a number of industries is spurring growth in the size — and type — of data centers.

As John Peter Valiulis, vice president, North America marketing, thermal management, Emerson Network Power, noted, “Today’s data centers are in a variety of locations and in a variety of sizes, including enterprises, office buildings, hospitals, satellite offices, colocation providers, cloud hosting companies, universities, and retail spaces.”

Exploding Growth

There are many factors fueling the growth of data centers, said Valiulis, including the explosion of data, analytics, mobility, and connected devices, which is breaking down the walls of the data center and extending the edge of the network. “As technology and analytics continue to advance, data have become a strategic asset for businesses, and it’s important that all facets of the business have access to and visibility into those data — all of which is stored in servers located in data centers.”

As a result of this growing demand, more contractors are getting involved in the data center market, and there is a definite need for their skills, said Joe Capes, business development director, cooling line of business — Americas, Schneider Electric. “Contractors can perform a wide range of services — from design-build to installation, commissioning, controls integration, and start-up to preventive maintenance, on-site services, and emergency response. About one-third of the data center market is fueled by new construction or major expansion, while the balance is refurbishment and retrofit.”

Retrofitting and/or expanding data centers is a big market for Scot Morgan, CEO, American Cooling and Heating, Gilbert, Arizona, a company involved in the custom design, fabrication, installation, and service of mission-critical HVAC and precision cooling equipment for local, national, and international clients. “Data center growth is ever-expanding under current technology and trends, and there is always a demand for qualified and competent contractors and tradesmen for this type of work.”

But, Morgan cautioned, the data center market is not for everyone, as specialized training and experience are required. “There are many types of certifications required to become factory authorized for different brands and types of precision cooling systems and equipment, and an advanced understanding of HVACR is required.”

In addition, there are numerous challenges to designing, installing, or servicing data center equipment with time being the main issue. “Response time is a big challenge, as most building owners or managers want to know they can have a technician on-site to fix a problem within two hours,” said Tom Zadera, business development manager, Crockett Facilities Services Inc., Bowie, Maryland. “Incorporating redundancy into a system is important, too, in case a unit goes down or needs to be repaired.”

Many data centers are also packed with equipment, so space constraints may be an issue. Morgan noted that, in these situations, expensive mission-critical electronic equipment may be in close proximity to the work being performed and may become damaged, if not careful.

“Fire protection systems may also be triggered if not careful, which could incur enormous costs and expensive liabilities for those not competent or prepared.”

New Options

In addition to these challenges, data centers are unique in that they contain computer equipment that is highly sensitive to fluctuations in temperature, humidity, air movement, and air quality. While comfort cooling systems are designed for intermittent use to reduce temperature and humidity for occupants, precision cooling systems are engineered for precise climate control, year-round operation, and higher load densities, said Capes. “These demands require specialized component selections, an industrialized design, and unique control algorithms.”

Due to these precise demands, as well as the need for more space to contain a growing number of servers, many companies are looking for alternatives to housing data centers within their facilities. One option that is growing in popularity is the modular data center, a containerized solution that can be quickly deployed and installed in a parking lot. These prefabricated systems contain the racks, power, and HVAC, so they become almost a plug-and-play solution, said Zadera.

“Instead of dedicating thousands of square feet inside a facility, you can have a mobile container designed to your specifications and dropped off in the parking lot, where it takes up three to 10 parking spaces,” said Zadera. “That’s a very efficient way to expand, because you can standardize the design and then duplicate it as necessary as a company’s data storage needs grow.”

Another version of this modular solution is a data center in a box, which is a prefabricated system that is placed in an existing building. “This is essentially a room or pod that is fabricated in a factory. It has raised floors, all the electrical and HVAC, life safety, etc., all built within the container, which is then installed under an existing roof. It’s an interior deployment of owner-secured individual rooms in a big building, which is called a colocation, or colo,” said John Kuempel Jr., vice president of design-build, DeBra-Kuempel, Cincinnati.

Colos are popping up all over the country, as a growing number of data center operators are purchasing vacant shopping centers and big-box stores and turning them into data storage facilities. This is attractive to many companies, as they don’t have to operate the data room themselves; instead, they can rent space in a colo, and the data center operator oversees their data storage.

There are different types of colos with varying degrees of security. In some colos, companies can rent their own pods and no one else has access to them. In other colos, companies can rent a rack within a pod, and there might be 20 different clients within that pod, but the heating, cooling, electrical, and UPS equipment are provided for all the pods by that data center operator, said Kuempel. “Some sites have fences within them, separating one client from another. So, if somebody is working on their servers in the facility, they can’t pull the plug on someone else’s.”

Another trend that Kuempel is seeing is a rise in what he calls compressorless data sites. “More facilities are not using air conditioning; instead, they are using free cooling along with computer equipment that’s tolerant up to 95°F.”

This is in response to ASHRAE’s Standard 90.1, which states that, as of Jan. 1, all data centers must have an economizer, which means free cooling can be used whenever it’s cold outside. Not every jurisdiction will initially adopt the code, but Kuempel expects the market will eventually follow the lead of companies like Amazon and Google, “which are being creative with their data systems in order to squeeze every watt out of the mechanical systems.”

It’s an exciting time to be in the data center market, and there is no question that demand for services in this area will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, said Morgan. “It’s a great market for HVACR contractors, but it is not for everyone. This is a mission-critical environment that requires the utmost skill, expertise, and training, and entry into this market may be difficult for many, as it requires a great amount of credibility as well as experience.”

For those who are up to the challenge, though, the data center market can be profitable and extremely rewarding.

Publication date: 1/26/2015

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