Adding data center customers to a contractor’s business mix is like adding hot dogs and hamburgers to an ice cream menu. Although both categories are food, there is a whole new set of procedures and equipment needed in order to purchase, prepare, and serve these lunch menu staples. Contractors looking to add data center customers to their product services face a similar challenge. Like most other customers, data center customers are in need of energy efficient cooling, but the application, maintenance, and design of these systems can be a whole new ballgame. To get started in the data center sector of HVAC, contractors may find it wise to consider the following.
NOT BUSINESS AS USUAL
When deciding to engage the world of data center design, installation, and service, Greg Crumpton, vice president of Mission Critical & Technology at Service Logic, Charlotte, North Carolina, stresses that it is important to learn the data center industry.
“It isn’t just comfort cooling on steroids,” he said. “It’s about understanding the needs of the end-user’s ultimate goal, and that always starts with heat rejection, not with ‘cooling the room.’”
Crumpton began his journey with mission critical and data center applications in 1982 in Atlanta. He explained that data center installations were common in new office building construction at the time, and that the timing of this trend allowed him to grow with the data center cooling industry. It was this experience that taught him to concentrate on a superior installation by utilizing all of the HVAC industry’s best practices and focusing on precision.
“Piping and tubing sizes matter, duct sizes matter, water flow matters,” said Crumpton. “Having a keen sense of engineered thinking will allow for you to perform in the professional way that these environments and the folks running them dictate.”
Precision is another key component of data center work, and it requires commitment to focusing on the details.
“This mindset must be kept in check when working in, around, and on critical equipment,” said Crumpton. “Uptime is the keyword. When an unplanned outage occurs, it is never good for anyone,” he added.
A simple way to find out what data center customers are looking for is to ask them directly. Jake Ring, president and CEO of GIGA Data Centers, Atlanta, said that data centers often choose their customers based on experience in the space, experience with the OEM’s equipment, and cost.
“One of the most important things about designing cooling systems for data centers is estimating the expected load and being able to accommodate the load while reducing the cost of implementation and ongoing maintenance,” he said. “Contractors can determine the IT load by evaluating IT equipment specifications — which should be provided by the IT staff. Max loads can be assessed back to nominal/average levels by discussing with IT staff or OEM suppliers, if needed.”
According to Ring, there are three current trends in data center cooling that contractors will need to address — eliminating the need for the raised floor design; applying adiabatic/evaporative/free cooling methods; and changing cooling to accommodate higher loads and higher temperatures.
“Contractors must understand and offer adiabatic/evaporative cooling with direct or indirect methods to help us data center operators reduce costs and power usage effectiveness (PUE),” he said. “Also understand that automation is increasingly required to help reduce cost. This is an opportunity to help us with the integration through your resource or through a trusted resource you can recommend.”
Another important factor that data center customers, like GIGA, are looking for is on-site dedication to completing a project on time and under budget.
“Customization often throws curves that aren’t well anticipated and cause delays or incremental costs,” Ring explained, addressing some of the perceived challenges of working with HVAC contractors as a data center customer. “We need to have the equipment networked and controlled through our building automation system — as automation is necessary — so the contractor needs to ensure the BACnet gateway is included and offered up front, so as not to delay integration.”
PREPARING THE TEAM
Data centers can be challenging to the HVAC contractor, and learning the details of the industry doesn’t happen overnight. Training is imperative for contractors looking to take on data center customers.
“Data center infrastructure is not a mashup of pieces and parts,” said Crumpton. “You have to be able to think systematically to understand the entire operation. You have to have a working knowledge of the entire facility.”
The facility that data center contractors work in is a delicate balance of electronics, cooling, fire and life safety protocols, and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) and emergency power generation protocols. Having a familiarity and, later, a working knowledge of these topics helps data center contractors to be an asset as opposed to simply a vendor, said Crumpton.
“You may be there to change the air filters, but what else could you possibly impact?” he said.
According to Energy Star, there are several ways that HVAC contractors can assist data center customers with saving energy. One is airflow management strategies. This topic brings into play hot aisle and cold aisle layout; containment and enclosures; variable speed fan drives; and properly deployed airflow management devices. These categories each reveal an opportunity for training and advanced service offerings for data center customers.
Another topic from Energy Star is specifically listed as HVAC adjustments. These include server inlet temperature and humidity adjustments, air-side economizer adjustments, and water-side economizer adjustments. Mastering these topics and techniques for data centers can help contractors not only improve their business relationship and service offerings, but also make them an invaluable energy management partner to their data center customers.
How much of an opportunity data centers will present to contractors depends on how far they want to push the scope of their businesses. Speaking from firsthand experience, Crumpton makes two suggestions: Know your mission and have a back-out plan.
“Know the work scope of every job you take in a data center,” he explained. “As for that back-out plan, if the proverbial poop hits the fan, whether it be with your work, another trade’s work, or a building issue, how can you quickly and (in a process-driven manner) get the equipment you are working on back online or in a ‘safe to leave it this way’ position?”
Despite the challenges of data center cooling, Crumpton finds the continuous learning aspect of the different topics that arise to be a favorite part of his job.
“Keeping up with how many watts can be packed onto a piece of silicon wafer and then figuring out how to dissipate and reject that heat has been a source of learning for me for many years,” he said. “The pressure of keeping the primary system online, and the redundant systems ready to fire as needed, has both the good, the bad, and the ugly endings. It is up to the HVAC technician to ensure the good prevails.”
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