The Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to have a transformative impact on data centers, according to Gartner. Circuit breakers that can talk are part of that story. Transforming the basic electric system component with embedded communications, sensors, and analytics gives data center operators more insight into their power system. To learn more about how the technology is modernizing data center management, Mission Critical spoke with Rob Griffin, global product line manager at Eaton. Here’s what he had to say.

What is a smart breaker, and how does this technology differ from the traditional approach?

Griffin: Circuit breakers provide vital functionality in electrical systems by protecting connected devices from overloads and short circuits.  Now, “smart” circuit protection transformed with onboard intelligence goes beyond traditional protection to provide real-time monitoring for deeper power system visibility and actionable facility insights for predictive maintenance.

Data center operators want reliable power and partners who can help them optimize their resources. IoT-enabled circuit breakers, like our Power Defense technology, helps reduce the risk of costly downtime.

For data center operators and maintenance personnel, there are powerful advantages:

  • Higher levels of uptime through actionable data-driven insights.
  • Predictive maintenance that’s easier, faster, and far more cost-effective than traditional approaches.
  • Enhanced safety through remote operation and visibility into where and why a fault occurred.

Why is metering important?

Griffin: You simply can’t manage what you don’t know. Tracking electrical systems is a critical path to successful operations. Monitoring provides essential information that helps data center operators minimize unplanned downtime, reduce energy consumption, and balance loads.

Think of it this way — monitoring at the circuit breaker level can make a transformational difference in electrical system maintenance and safety for data centers, without added electrical system components. A typical data center contains anywhere from hundreds to thousands of circuit breakers. Using intelligent breakers with embedded metering and communications provides real-time data that can be tracked and analyzed to prompt condition-based maintenance. Further, the breakers provide the ability to accurately measure energy consumption without added meters, wiring, current transformers or other equipment, delivering critical information about the power system and energy usage.

What does intelligence in a circuit breaker do for data center facility managers?

Griffin: Circuit breakers provide a safe, economical way to protect connected equipment from overloads and short circuits. Although circuit breakers have an excellent reputation for reliability, the traditional challenge has been determining when exactly a circuit breaker needs to be maintained or removed from service.

For example, a ground fault condition was recently detected at a university data center, and the intelligent circuit breaker trip unit alerted staff to the condition via new alarms. The data center staff accessed current and historical power system data to identify and locate the problem before rapidly addressing the issue to restore power. With the ability to set alarms and access historical data, the facility staff is better able to identify and address power system issues without extensive investigating and troubleshooting.

Facility managers and maintenance staff are now also able use the circuit breakers’ communications for remote troubleshooting and operation, keeping personnel outside of the arc flash boundary to enhance safety. Embedded communications and optional Ethernet-based communication enabled by the circuit breaker trip unit provide high-speed systemwide communications regardless of the protocol or facility management system used.

What is the benefit of having intelligence built-in at this level?

Griffin: These capabilities are now available in smaller, lower ampacity breakers than before to provide more granular data on connected systems for improved uptime.

Let’s take a look at how this could work in power distribution units (PDUs), which have been an integral part of data center power distribution architecture for decades. Traditionally, PDUs include a main breaker, an individual branch breaker, and a power monitoring system, including current transformers to support power monitoring. Let’s rethink how a PDU would work with an intelligent circuit breaker. Now, the breaker’s metering functionality is directly connected to the central control board, so there’s no need for the current transformers, voltage taps, or related communications wiring, which reduces components, space, and install time. So what’s the upshot? Smaller power systems that can do more and cost less. 

For example, a manufacturer of data center PDUs replaced traditional circuit breakers with intelligent devices. The manufacturer used Power Defense molded-case circuit breakers with Power Xpert Release (PXR) electronic trip units and built-in metering. In this case, eliminating the need for current transformers and associated wiring saved 10 square inches of space, or 480 square inches total per PDU. This new approach resulted in savings of $1,600 per PDU — a remarkable 25% cost reduction.

How does this new technology impact data center design and /or maintenance?

Griffin: With embedded communications and metering capabilities, intelligent circuit breakers are already making an impact on data centers by significantly reducing maintenance costs. Now, they can measure a variety of parameters in real time and over time to provide a better indication of when a breaker requires attention before a problem occurs to avert downtime. More importantly, maintenance personnel are able to proactively target their efforts towards circuit breakers that require service or replacement, rather than taking the time and effort required to inspect all the circuit breakers in a facility or system, yielding dramatic reductions in maintenance time and costs.

Further, many critical power customers, including data centers, are required to conduct annual equipment maintenance. Intelligent breakers with health monitoring allow you to shift from a reactive to predictive maintenance. For data center operators, this reduces the need to power-off equipment. Less manual equipment manipulation reduces operating expenses and downtime and avoids unnecessary safety risks involved with the interaction with electrical equipment.

Can this technolgy save on energy costs?

Griffin: With the level of connectivity found in today’s data centers, every piece of equipment that generates data can drive new levels of energy efficiency and reliability.

For example, the built-in communications found in intelligent circuit breakers allows you to accurately measure energy consumption without additional meters or equipment, delivering critical data about power distribution system and energy. These parameters can be remotely accessed to analyze user-defined energy consumption metrics, such as consumption patterns, peak demand costs, peak power usage times, and overall energy costs, segmented by each piece of equipment. This accurate, actionable data can be used to make more intelligent operating decisions that directly impact the bottom line.

Is there another aspect of smart breakers that you want to address?

Griffin: Data center capacity requirements are steadily increasing. Unfortunately, so are the costs associated with data center building, equipment, and operations. Intelligent circuit breakers can help. These next generation IoT devices support intelligent power management with new data. The standout innovation in intelligent breakers is that they enable high-level visibility and predictive diagnostics. With the IoT devices connected to the cloud, remote analysis of the electrical system can be reviewed, and recommended action can be planned remotely. In other words, they provide a way to identify when and which breaker needs to be replaced before an event occurs — reducing labor and downtime while improving efficiency and scale. Today’s big data demands are a major challenge for data centers, but many facilities can simplify management by optimizing their electrical systems.