When it comes to specifying materials for data center environments, security, uptime, and thermal management are all high on the checklist. While security and cooling systems are often in the spotlight, supporting materials can play big roles in operational performance. Pipe insulation is a good example. The material used in insulation can have a significant influence on operational performance parameters in data centers, particularly in three critical areas: heat, humidity, and dust.
The network of mechanical pipes that circulate water used to cool systems requires an insulating material capable of managing heat, humidity, and dust. A large Midwest data center constructed in 2019 provides five considerations that illustrate how the choice of pipe insulation contributes to an efficient installation.
1. Manage Moisture
Effective moisture management begins early and should be viewed as an outside-in process, beginning with the transport of materials to the job site and their storage prior to install. While sophisticated technologies help to manage humidity levels inside data centers, it is important to take a preemptive approach to keeping moisture away from materials before they are installed inside. In a fast-paced construction environment subject to delays, materials are often left exposed to the elements. In the case of the Midwest data center, environmental threats included dust, wind-driven rain, and snow. The insulation contractor, All Temp Inc., drew on 35 years of experience to manage these threats.
The company collaborated with the insulation provider to protect the product across the supply chain — from manufacture through install. For example, considering the dust and weather conditions on the job site, the team switched from cartons to source polybag packaging. This change kept the fiberglass insulation clean and pristine until all 3,000 linear feet were installed. This early intervention helped avoid moisture intrusion, which poses hazards to high-tech equipment and electrical systems. Moisture can also create conditions favorable to mold growth. In addition to liquid moisture, humidity in the air presents the risk of condensation buildup, leading to pipe and equipment corrosion. A properly specified insulation helps mitigate these risks.
2. Support Thermal Performance
The scope and scale of data center operations generates tremendous amounts of heat. If the heat is allowed to build up, servers may shut down or operate at suboptimal levels, potentially leading to a shorter than expected life span. And as materials may be left exposed to frigid external temperatures prior to installation, they must be able to withstand cold weather as well. The fiberglass insulation installed in the Midwest data center can withstand temperatures from 0° to 1,000°F.
3. Support Efficient Installation
Uptime might be described as the ultimate metric when it comes to data center performance. Simply stated, uptime is money. When choosing materials for the data center, All Temp Inc. chose a tailored-to-fit pipe insulation for large-diameter pipes that supported improved handling and efficient insulation on the job site.
Project management is essential, as data centers are home to vast networks of electrical components that take up space below the mechanical systems. Dustin Droege, senior manager of operations at All Temp, said the custom insulation was installed before the electrical systems were introduced to ensure the infrastructure was right before the technology systems were installed.
While materials are often considered through the lens of their operating performance post-installation, industry issues should also be considered when specifying. At the end of the day, a material’s ability to perform effectively is contingent upon proper installation. Labor remains the great challenge on every jog and is likely to remain a challenge. By specifying the right insulation for the project, engineers can support performance challenges in the data center environment while facilitating efficient installation and minimizing callbacks.
4. Specify a Strong Seal
Various locations within data centers present different considerations for specifiers when it comes to material performance properties. For example, spaces that are difficult to access mean the strength of the seal is essential. Sealing the systems with a double adhesive that does not require staples or mastic to install ensures the seams will not come loose and necessitate a callback, which is essential in areas that should not be accessed once materials are installed.
5. Support Data Hygiene
Data hygiene is typically thought of as the processes and policies to ensure all incorrect, duplicate, or unused data is properly classified and managed through storage, archival, or destruction. ISO 14644-1, Classification of Air Cleanliness by Particle Concentration, defines the standards for air quality of cleanroom environments and rates facilities based on the presence of particulates in the air. Despite the clean aesthetic, data centers can host a wide variety of contaminants, considering that anyone walking into the server room is introducing dust and other particles. Meanwhile, cooling systems are also distributing additional particles through the air ducts, and debris, zinc whiskers, and ferrous metals present even more contaminants. With all these threats, hygiene is a priority. Unlike paper jacketing, the polymer jacketing installed on the insulation at the Midwest data center can be wiped down, protecting its appearance and supporting enterprisewide hygiene.
Data centers process immense amounts of data in always-on environments and demand high-performing systems to support 24/7 operations. The pipes that support data center operations also demand high-performance materials. Keeping these five considerations in mind when specifying material for data center piping systems can ensure a successful installation and optimize post-install operations.