Much of the information data centers hold keeps the world running efficiently. It can be catastrophic if critical data, such as banking transactions, health records, or smart building metrics, is lost. The potential consequences of data loss increase the importance of keeping data centers — and the information they protect — as safe as possible.

The data center industry has a projected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 22% by 2026, and investments in data center infrastructure are expected to increase alongside this tremendous growth. With global data center capex expected to reach $350 billion by 2026, a significant portion of this will go to protecting the building and its valuable contents. And, while there are many ways data centers invest in security, fire protection is among the most critical.

Data centers require fire protection for the safety of people and property, like any other building, but data continuity also plays a major role. Several factors, including the type of data center as well as its purpose and goals, impact the type of fire protection a facility requires. Knowing how today’s fire suppression technologies work can make it easier to spec the most suitable fire protection solution for each application.

Off-site cloud data centers

Data centers operated by cloud service providers as well as data centers with cloud storage backup typically store less sensitive “every day” data and support IoT services. This data is usually replicated across multiple locations to ensure it’s always available. Since data continuity is already protected in this way, fire protection in these types of data centers is usually more focused on people and the building rather than data racks. This type of facility benefits from a range of fire protection systems.

Sprinkler systems — Sprinkler systems discharge water from sprinkler heads to extinguish fire, with the typical system discharging roughly 20 gallons (80 liters) per minute per activated sprinkler head. If they are placed in the data hall, discharged water will touch data racks. However, if a data center’s priority is to protect people and the building, a sprinkler system is a suitable and economical option.

Double interlock pre-action sprinkler systems are an excellent choice for such applications and have an added layer of protection (versus single interlock) to avoid inadvertent water damage. Water is stored in a reservoir and isn’t released into the system piping until two events occur. 

  1. The detection system needs to be activated 
  2. One or more sprinklers must operate

Sprinkler systems usually have a place within all types of data center facilities. They can be especially useful to help protect areas outside computer storage rooms, such as offices, break rooms, and restrooms.

Water mist systems — As the name suggests, water mist systems discharge a fine mist to extinguish and prevent fire growth. These systems use 80% less water than traditional fire sprinkler systems, which makes them ideal for large data centers in regions that don’t have the water infrastructure to support sprinkler systems.

If water damage in the data hall is a concern, a data center may also choose to use a water mist system in the data hall and sprinklers in the rest of the building. This can be an economical option, since both systems can use the same water supply and pump.

Gas suppression systems — Instead of water, these clean agent fire suppression systems use gaseous agents to quickly extinguish fires before flames break out. These systems are ideal for critical data centers where fast extinguishment is required to minimize risk and loss.

Mission critical data centers — Mission critical data centers tend to store more sensitive data, including health records, government documents, and banking information that isn’t backed up across multiple locations. Data in these facilities must remain available, even during a fire. If data access is lost or inaccessible, it can lead to significant damage to the organization or greater public. Protecting data is as high of a priority as protecting people and property. Risk of damage to equipment isn’t acceptable.

In the event of a fire suppression system discharge, it’s important that it does not damage data racks. Water mist systems and gas suppression systems can help a mission critical data center remain as operational as possible during and after a fire event. Choosing one over the other typically comes down to center size:

Water mist systems are often the most economical option for very large mission critical data centers. The system pumps have a relatively small footprint, and these systems can be simpler to operate compared to other options.

Due to the size of mist droplets and the latest low flow capabilities, the potential water damage to a data hall is very minimal. Still, it’s critical data racks be exposed to the least amount of water possible while still effectively suppressing fire. Typical water mist systems discharge 50 liters per nozzle, while leading low-flow water mist systems discharge only 24 liters per nozzle. These nozzles also use local activation, meaning water is only discharged on the affected areas, helping to keep the data center operational.

When selecting a water mist system, it’s important to look for the lowest flow per nozzle and FM Approval as a pre-action system, so pipes remain dry until activated.

Gaseous systems are designed to protect mission critical data centers. When clean agent fire suppression systems are discharged, they don’t cause damage to data racks and leave no harmful residues in the space. In this way, these systems can maximize data center uptime, reduce cleanup, and keep data safe.

It should be noted that when gaseous systems discharge, there’s a very high airflow rate that can produce sound. High levels of sound can cause HDD disc read/write failures, resulting in potential data loss. To best protect data, it’s necessary that gaseous systems are equipped with acoustic nozzles, which attenuate the sound. When selecting an acoustic solution, look for a partner who can provide a solution with room acoustic calculations and has a system level UL approval.

Lithium-ion battery protection — Data racks aren’t the only equipment in data centers that require protection. Many data centers have backup energy sources on site. Traditionally, these have been generators or UPS systems that use lead-acid batteries. Over the last few years, many facilities have transitioned to lithium-ion batteries.

Lithium-ion batteries require different fire protection than generators as well as the rest of the data center. This is not commonly known and, therefore, often overlooked.

Lithium-ion batteries are a cost-effective energy storage solution, but they can become a fire risk if systems are not properly installed or maintained. Lithium-ion battery abuse can result in thermal runaway, a hazardous chemical reaction in a battery cell that can rapidly spread to adjacent cells. As the reaction spreads, the cells generate heat and smoke and potentially cause a fire. It is crucial to have early warning detection to identify a battery failure before it happens and disconnect that battery.

Lithium-ion risk prevention systems — Lithium-ion risk prevention systems monitor and mitigate battery failure before it can become a fire hazard. In the earliest stages of battery failure, flammable gases vent from cells. Lithium-ion risk prevention systems offer monitoring and reference sensors that continuously check battery racks for presence of these off-gases. If off-gas is detected, the sensors communicate with the battery management system to shut down the affected battery racks before thermal runaway can occur.

A fire risk assessment should be completed any time there’s a change to the data center structure, such as changing the backup energy system. A risk assessment can determine if the fire protection system needs to be upgraded or modified. For example, NFPA 855 Standard for Installation of Stationary Energy Storage Systems (ESS) provides guidance on proper sprinkler system selection. This standard considers factors, such as the maximum stored energy of the ESS units, the design density of the sprinkler system, and the overall area of the room being protected. With many technical factors involved, it’s crucial to work with experts who can take all this into account and provide knowledgeable guidance. 

Comprehensive protection for every data center application 

There isn’t a single fire protection solution for the entire data center. There are different fire hazards in different areas, and each fire protection technology has its advantages. While a fire protection system may save a data center from fire, it could still be a risk to the data it stores. It’s important to understand what is being protected in each area to make the most effective decisions about data center fire protection.

To ensure the most suitable fire protection solution for a data center, it’s important to work with a fire protection partner who truly understands the specific goals and data center types. They should offer a full portfolio of fire protection technology that can specifically meet each of those goals and needs throughout the entire data center.

Selecting data center fire protection doesn’t have to be complex. With the right expertise and solutions, a data center can be equipped with the appropriate technology to match and mitigate risks while meeting business continuity goals.