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ACHRNews: Commercial HVAC Contractors Keep Data Centers Healthy

Commercial HVAC Contractors Keep Data Centers Healthy
By Nicole Krawcke, November 9, 2015

Commercial contractors finding ample opportunities in data center contracts

According to Internet Live Stats, around 40 percent of the world’s population has an Internet connection today. In 1995, less than 1 percent had access.

As the World Wide Web continues to weave its way around the globe, the collection, storage, processing, and distribution of data is critical to all facets of existence. A disruption in the delivery of data may have crippling effects. And, when it comes to ensuring these facilities operate at a safe temperature, are properly vented, and maintain proper humidity levels, no one’s role is more important than the HVAC contractor’s.


The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports there are more than 3 million data centerscurrently operating in the U.S. — that’s one data center for every 100 people. And, in 2013, data centers consumed about 100 billion kWh of electricity, representing more than 2 percent of all U.S. electricity use.

Proper management of a building’s data center environment is critical to the success of the business that operates it. A prime concern for facility managers is keeping the equipment cool.

According to Allied Market Research, cooling units make up about 32 percent of energy costs in a data center; therefore, energy-efficient systems and environment-friendly solutions are expanding into the market.

In its report, “World Data Center Cooling Market – Opportunities and Forecasts, 2013-2020,” Allied Market Research forecasts the global data center cooling market will reach $11.65 billion by 2020, registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.17 percent.

Much of the growing data center cooling demand is being driven by social media services, increased online purchases, cloud-based backup storage, high-speed on-demand audio/video streaming services, and government requirements for additional records in the healthcare sector, noted Tim Vogel, senior applications and marketing manager, commercial air control solutions, Ruskin Air & Sound Control.

“This growth is directly linked to the voracious appetite of the consumer,” Vogel said. “The demand for instantaneous recall of data at the click of a button has driven the market entirely. The consumer has become more aware of the risk associated with storing data on a local drive without having a reliable and secure backup. Many have turned to data centers [the cloud] for this service and the instantaneous recall from multiple locations.”

The market is growing, but only in certain aspects, according to John Peter Valiulis, vice president, marketing and business development, thermal management, Emerson Network Power, a business of Emerson.

“The market for data center cooling is growing but it comes with an asterisk because there are segments that are growing and segments that are not,” said Valiulis. “The cloud and colo [colocation] providers are growing, while the typical company data center is probably consolidating a little bit. In some cases, if you’re a large company, you may be putting a little bit of your stuff in the cloud and a little bit in colocation. If you’re a small company, you might be going all the way to cloud.”

Additionally, as the industry continues to grow, applications have been evolving over the last few years, according to Joe Capes, business development director, cooling line of business,Schneider Electric.

“Some parts of the market are certainly growing stronger than others,” Capes said. “If you look at specific applications, more and more customers seem to be focused on economizers. Whether that’s driven by their own mandates or requirements to get better efficiency out of their cooling infrastructure and lower their operation costs or through federal and local regulatory issues, economizers are definitely a hot button. The No. 1 factor continues to be efficiency and lowering operating expenses.”


Piedmont Service Group, located in Raleigh, North Carolina, has been offering data center HVAC maintenance and repair since the 1980s. About 23 percent of the company’s annual business comes from the sector, said president Keith Summey.

Piedmont’s business model is built on preventive maintenance, so it targets vertical markets that are very dependent on having conditioned space or equipment to operate, such as data centers, manufacturing buildings, and medical facilities. According to Summey, Piedmont is constantly adding additional equipment to cool larger data center facilities as they add square footage, which is an indicator the data center market is growing in his area.

As an HVAC contractor servicing the data center market, Summey noted it’s difficult to keep up with the new products on the market.

“Data center equipment requires very specific training to service and repair,” he said. “Our challenges are keeping current on the new products that manufacturers are coming out with that are made specifically to condition data center space. We also have to continue to train our staff how to install, service, and repair these new products. There used to be only two or three major manufacturers of data center cooling equipment; there are a lot more now. This continues to drive our training costs up to stay current in this market.”

Another North Carolina company, Charlotte-based AirTight FaciliTech, completed about 70 percent of its work in the data center market in 2014, according to Greg Crumpton, founder of the company. “It was about 70 percent of my work and 100 percent of my interest,” he said.

Crumpton said contractors must secure their positions in the supply chain and deter manufacturers from selling products directly to end users.

“If a company wants to buy 33 air conditioning units for a data center, some guy gets together with the manufacturer and they cut a deal. But, then they have to go out and find an installer, so they put out a request for proposal for the installation,” Crumpton explained. “They put it out to 12 contractors and 11 of them say, ‘no thank you.’ And the company doesn’t understand why so many contractors are turning down the opportunity. These contractors already know how to install the units, but the company took away all of the profit when they bought the equipment directly from the manufacturer. So, they come to a settlement to hire a contractor to install the units and give them a 5 percent markup on the equipment. Then, the company realizes it didn’t purchase factory startup and has to have a factory-authorized contractor come out and start their units. Again, many contractors are not interested in starting up the units because there’s no profit in starting equipment up. So they end up paying more money for that. It’s the No. 1 thing that’s wrong in the industry.”

Dave Joslyn, vice president of sales and engineering for Denver-based Tolin Mechanical, said data center contracting is among the area’s most competitive markets.

“In Denver, the market is growing for a number of reasons,” Joslyn said. “We have fairly inexpensive energy and really no natural disasters, so it’s appealing for data center operators to have a site here. There are definitely more sites available to do work, but there’s also a push from data center operators to bring some of the services we offer in-house. They think if they control maintenance and have the technical expertise on-site, it will with reliability. They might have a point, but it’s taking business away from us, so that’s a challenge.

“Additionally, competition is a big challenge,” he continued. “Everyone wants to say they were a part of the latest and greatest data center. So, whenever there’s an opportunity, it definitely brings out competition.”


According to Vogel, it’s in contractors’ best interest to implement energy-saving measures in data center facilities.

“There is a vast need for data center designs that conserve energy,” he said. “Much of this savings could be accomplished through data trending and a proper sequence of operation. Ruskin is acutely aware of the various challenges, code requirements, and risks facing data centers. We’re continuously researching ways to improve overall efficiency and performance by combining technologies suited for specific data center site requirements. Air-side economizers, energy-harvesting equipment, and traditional cooling equipment [when properly combined and controlled] provide a substantial energy-saving solution while maintaining the integrity of the facility and servers.”

Ruskin works closely with owners and engineers to help design systems, incorporating energy recovery products, air-side economizers, air measuring solutions, high-efficiency filtration, and controls to ensure facilities have the proper air volume, temperatures, and humidity, Vogel explained. Additionally, using products like Ruskin’s air-side economizers can substantially reduce power consumption, thereby, reducing energy costs.

“Since data centers run 24/7, energy-saving solutions have a rapid payback and can be used in most climates,” Vogel said. “Many data centers have already discovered the energy-saving aspect of incorporating air-side economizers. In fact, a proof-of-concept study, conducted by Intel IT, confirmed the company could utilize air-side economizers to cool servers with 100 percent outdoor air at temperatures approaching 90°F. It was estimated that a 10-MW facility would realize an annual energy savings of $2.87 million. “Many are becoming more aware of the enormous energy waste associated with traditional data center designs,” said Vogel. “Ruskin has both the product and expertise necessary to support the engineering community with their efforts in designing sustainable, energy-saving data center solutions.”

According to Capes, it’s getting harder and harder to design and build new data centers using conventional-based cooling architecture, especially in places like California. “With Title 24 and some of the new U.S. DOE [Department of Energy] regulations, customers are definitely looking for innovative approaches,” he said.

Schneider Electric offers a number of different innovative options for its data center customers, including its EcoBreeze™ air economizer. The EcoBreeze is pre-engineered and designed to meet the expanding requirements for data center efficiency. EcoBreeze provides multiple modes of economization to maximize energy efficiency during the year. Additionally, it can utilize a supplemental mechanical cooling circuit to maintain the data center cooling set point on the worst of ambient conditions. The modular design allows for scalability in 50-kW increments up to 400 kW of total cooling capacity.

“Managing cash flow is a priority, especially in Colo data center environments,” Capes said. “A lot of customers are looking for strategies and ways they can use scalable, modular cooling architecture so they don’t necessarily have to deploy all of their cooling on day one. Rather, they can deploy solutions like our EcoBreeze, which allows them to actually populate their cooling infrastructure as demand and capacity requirements grow.”

Protection, efficiency, and managing capacities remain the biggest challenges in the data center world, according to Valiulis. “It’s about protection of the equipment, efficiency, and managing the capacity. And, finally, as systems get smarter, it’ll be more and more about visibility — about what really is going on inside the data center. And, with that visibility, there’ll be more things you can do to improve the center’s performance and make it safer and more efficient.”

One thing helping with data center visibility is advanced controls like Emerson Network Power’s Liebert® iCOM™ controls. The control utilizes data from rack inlet sensors, pressure sensors, and supply air sensors to optimize cooling unit operation. It’s designed to eliminate single points of failure to protect the cooling unit in the event that adverse conditions arise at the system level. Self-optimizing features address adverse events before they become problems.

“These unit-level controls provide a lot more protection for the unit,” Valiulis said. “They also can communicate from machine to machine, so the different cooling units can provide a higher level of protection and a higher level of efficiency. The control serves as a coordinator, so if one cooling unit goes down, the other machines can compensate for that area. If there’s an IT load that’s much more active in part of the data center, sensors can pick it up and provide more cool air into the areas that need it the most. There’s a lot more intelligence built into it in the machine-to-machine level.”

Ebullient LLC offers a different way to increase energy efficiency in data centers by applying its targeted cooling solutions to the source of the heat. Ebullient modules mount directly on microprocessors and transport a low-pressure working fluid that, when vaporized, can absorb six to 12 times more heat than single-phase warming of water or mineral oil. Additionally, the cooling fluid is dielectric and, unlike water, will not damage sensitive electronics on contact.

“There is a big win in removing heat directly from the heat generators inside of computers, as they generate 75-80 percent of all the heat,” said Tim Shedd, cofounder and president, Ebullient. “Until recently, the vast majority of efforts in this area included piping water to those chips, but many people, including myself, have discovered it only takes one drop of water striking the circuit board near these processor chips and the damage is done. It’s not going to function ever again. In some cases, that’s a $30,000 loss. And, statistically, leaks will happen.

“Our technology combats that by using a dielectric fluid that won’t hurt computers,” he continued. “You can dump the whole computer in the fluid. The first thing I usually do in my presentations is pour the fluid right on top of the computer I’m using to make my presentation. The second thing is that we use evaporation to remove the heat, so we can remove 100 W, and it doesn’t heat the fluid up very much, if at all. Then, we take that mixture of vapor and liquid and run that to another device. It turns out we can connect at least eight devices and keep them all within 1° to 2°C of each other, which no other technology is able to achieve.”

According to Shedd, the modular data center market is growing, and Ebullient is well-positioned to get into that market, in particular. “Our system is very compact and energy efficient, so instead of approximately 20 percent of container space being occupied by an air conditioning system, it would be less than 5 percent.”

And, saving space is essential to data center operators, noted Crumpton. “It’s all about high efficiency in a smaller package — the smaller you can make it, the better,” he said.

Publication date: 11/9/2015

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