If thermal system upgrades, like variable speed technologies and intelligent controls, are on your mind, you are not alone. According to Emerson Network Power’s research, 85% of data center cooling units installed between 2000 and 2009 still use inefficient constant speed fans, and none have supervisory system controls. These legacy systems waste energy and capacity, causing more and more data center managers to look for cost-effective solutions. A recent survey indicates that 40% of data centers in the United States and Canada have upgraded their cooling systems in the past five years. An additional 20% are in the process of upgrading, and more than 30%would be upgraded in the next 12 months.

Why the surge in thermal upgrade projects? There are actually many reasons to upgrade your cooling system with variable speed technologies and intelligent controls. Not least among them is the need to improve energy efficiency and reduce operating costs. By better matching cooling output to IT load, the upgrades play a key role in the continuous pursuit for higher equipment reliability. They can improve capacity management, defer capital costs, promote environmental responsibility, and deliver greater insight into system performance.



1. An updated approach to thermal management can cut energy costs and improve efficiency.

In a typical data center, cooling accounts for 38% of total energy consumption. So if you want to make an impact on energy usage, focusing on your cooling system can give you the most bang for your buck.

Of course, in your quest to be more efficient, you can’t compromise availability. That’s why you should work with experts to identify where energy is being wasted. By pinpointing and correcting issues like hot spots and airflow problems, you take an important first step in reducing your energy draw.

From there, you can implement variable speed technologies and intelligent controls to realize further efficiency improvements. Both of these technologies are available as upgrades to your existing equipment. With variable speed technologies, such as electrically commutated (EC) fans and variable-speed drives (VSDs), you can vary the speed of your existing cooling unit fans to better match cooling to IT load. When you reduce fan speed, you stop spending energy on overcooling that your IT equipment doesn’t need. By adding intelligent controls, you can network your cooling units to work together as a team. This eliminates situations where units “fight” each other, with one unit cooling while another reheats. Correcting situations that waste energy and using only the energy you need to ensure critical system availability can dramatically reduce your energy costs by as much as 50% a year, without impacting availability.

2. Greater cooling efficiency can unlock capacity you didn’t know you have.

Most of us know that increasing efficiency in the data center reduces operating expense. It also frees up capacity, so businesses can increase server density without the cost of additional cooling equipment. In many cases, poor airflow management in the data center is the root cause behind capacity issues. Looking for and correcting issues that restrict airflow, such as a build-up of abandoned cables under a raised floor, can increase capacity. Fan upgrades can also help by improving airflow and reducing cooling inefficiencies.

3. Thermal upgrades allow you to defer capital costs by maximizing the useful life of your equipment.

Adding variable speed technologies and intelligent controls to your existing cooling system is a cost-effective way to take advantage of the latest cooling technologies without incurring the major capital expense of all new computer room air conditioning (CRAC) units. When you use the technologies to match cooling output to the load in your data center, and you network multiple cooling units to function as a team, your equipment doesn’t need to work as hard or as often. This results in less wear and tear on your system. You’ll not only decrease your routine maintenance costs, but you’ll extend system life, further deferring major capital expenditures.

4. More efficient cooling equals a more sustainable business model.

Data from the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that U.S. data centers consumed an estimated 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2013. That’s enough electricity to power all the households in New York City twice over. And energy usage is on the rise, with facilities on track to reach 140 billion kilowatt-hours by 2020. By leveraging new technologies to improve your cooling efficiency, you can reduce your data center’s carbon footprint, doing your part to operate in a more socially responsible manner.

5. Thermal upgrades provide greater visibility into thermal system performance.

Today’s intelligent cooling controls leverage state-of-the-art monitoring and communication technologies to keep you better informed on the performance of your cooling system. Advanced options allow you to view and control any of your cooling units from one screen. Other advantages include automatic event log tracking, service alerts, and the ability to view temperature and humidity information at a glance.

6. Cooling efficiency improvements typically pay for themselves in short order.

With so many advantages to be gained by thermal upgrades, the technologies have a remarkably fast ROI. What you stand to save in energy costs alone can pay for the upgrades in just a few years. When you factor in the reduced maintenance costs and longer equipment life, it’s even easier to justify the expense of an upgrade.

Need more proof? Here’s a look at how one business achieved its goals with strategic thermal management upgrades.



QTS owns, operates, or manages 24 data centers and supports more than 1,000 customers with its data center solutions. In its Sacramento facility, where the company operates 64 cooling units, QTS was experiencing a very common energy efficiency challenge. The legacy cooling systems were providing more airflow than was required in one area, while another had a deficit.

The company needed improved cooling control that would generate cost savings from enhanced energy efficiency. The aim was to generate enough cost savings to yield a full ROI in 2.5 years. At the same time, the company also had a desire for advanced monitoring capabilities to continue best-practice data center management. Specifically, QTS wanted system visibility in order to better analyze the performance of its Sacramento facility and make the adjustments needed to provide customers with more uniform cooling.

QTS originally elected to install EC plug fans that would allow the data center to adjust cooling based on load requirements. But the company soon realized it could better achieve its goals through the addition of intelligent control systems designed to enable under floor pressure control through building management system (BMS) integration. QTS also had wireless sensors installed for monitoring of cooling improvements.

The addition of intelligent controls gave QTS added flexibility through multiple configurations inherent to the controls that balance loading in the space. Potential configurations include control by wireless and remote temperature sensors, advanced supervisory control, or BMS control. QTS now has the option to coordinate fans, perform auto-tuning, and customize staging or sequencing whenever it is needed to further improve energy efficiency, availability, and flexibility.

As a result of these thermal system upgrades, QTS earned a $150,000 rebate from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and initially saved $12,000 a month in energy costs. Additional savings are expected from continued optimization.

In addition to the obvious financial benefits, QTS accomplished the following with its thermal system upgrade:


  • Reduced carbon footprint with more than 75% immediate reduction in the energy consumption of thermal management units

  • Improved power usage effectiveness (PUE) by 0.16

  • Provided better intelligence to building management system for improved visibility

  • Improved uniformity of under floor static pressure enabling adjustment of airflow to match equipment loads by changing floor tiles

  • Eliminated air leakage through cooling units that were previously off or in standby via the intelligent control’s proprietary virtual damper

  • Exceeded minimum ROI estimates by 40% and achieved targeted savings sooner than budgeted

  • Maximized free cooling through improved unit airflow and cooling control


According to QTS Western Region Vice President Ken Elkington, the results of the upgrade far exceeded his expectations.

“We took amp draw measurements on the existing fans. As soon as we placed the first new EC plug fan into a unit, even at 100%  speed, the power consumption dropped 30% Elkington said. “We were very excited to see that result, but then it got even better. By varying the fan speed to match the load in the zone, the power consumption dropped another 33% and we are now experiencing higher-than-expected energy savings.”



The success experienced by QTS is impressive, but it isn’t exclusive. In fact, many data centers stand to achieve similar results by taking advantage of installed thermal upgrades performed by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

When considering your own upgrades, be sure to choose a partner that has proven experience with the latest technology and one that knows how to properly configure a precision cooling system for your unique space. You’ll also want to choose experts who have access to high-quality parts and professional training, ensuring you have the resources needed to facilitate future adjustments, modifications, or repairs. Finally, work with a partner committed to carefully planning and coordinating your project to meet your specific goals. When you do, you too will be rewarded with a thermal management upgrade project that exceeds your expectations.