Focus on data centers: Fire and life safety

Designing efficient and effective data centers and mission critical facilities is a top priority for consulting engineers. Engineers discuss fire and life safety, fire suppression, and the complexity of data centers.



  • Cyrus Gerami, PE, LEED, CxA, Associate, Senior Project Engineer/Manager, exp Global Inc., Maitland, Fla.
  • Kerr Jonstone, IEng, MIET, Senior Electrical Engineer, CH2M Hill, Glasgow, Scotland 
  • Keith Lane, PE, RCDD/NTS, LC, LEED AP, President, Lane Coburn & Assocs., Bothell, Wash. 
  • James McEnteggart, PE, Vice President, Primary Integration Solutions Inc., Charlotte, N.C.
  • Robert M. Menuet, PE, Senior Principal, GHT Ltd., Arlington, Va. 
  • Brian Rener, PE LEED AP, Electrical Platform Leader and Quality Assurance Manager, M+W Group, Chicago, IL.

Fire/Life safety

CSE: What unique fire suppression systems have you specified or designed in mission critical facilities and data centers?

Johnstone: For different clients we have used various suppression systems, and while Terremark employed a water mist system within its data center, we have used other methodologies. A project in Budapest (Hungary) employed a nitrogen-based system, which for code compliance required a “live” test for the local authorities. In addition we also have experience with a CO2 suppression installation for generator containers, while an argonite gas suppression system was retrofitted into an existing live data center without any impact on its operation.

Rener: The usual suspects such as preaction, FM200, and inergen. However, we have occasionally worked with water mist systems in auxiliary areas like generator rooms.

CSE: How have the costs and complexity of fire protection systems changed in recent years?

Johnstone: In our experience there has been no unforeseen increase in fire suppression costs and they have typically remained in line with other costs. The information, however, that is available to site operations staff regarding the operation and performance of fire protection systems has improved dramatically. This increased performance and operation information enables maintenance staff to interrogate fire networks, thereby improving risk management and mitigation.

CSE: What are some important factors to consider when designing a fire and life safety system? What things often get overlooked?

Johnstone: With gaseous solutions, things that often get overlooked and require to be considered include:

· Overpressurization of the space and pressure relief

· “Asphyxiant” nature of gaseous systems for welfare of occupants

· Gaseous removal on accidental discharge. Accidental discharge would not be attended by fire authorities; therefore, removal of accidental discharge is by the client.

There are a number of important factors to consider when designing a fire and life safety system, and the fundamental and most important consideration is: Are we designing to protect life, or life and property? Once determined, we can design the fire and safety system to the required category. One thing that can often get overlooked is the probability of false alarms due the nature of the building and the sensitivity of the devices installed. This then introduces an additional complexity when commissioning the system in terms of introducing double-knock systems to mitigate against false alarms, which can result in loss of time and cost to the facility.

Gerardo , Non-US/Not Applicable, Mexico, 02/14/13 11:39 AM:

The application of double-interlocked pre-action systems in small data center computer rooms have proven both economic and practically maintenance free for over 18 years since the original installation. Periodic inspection and preventive maintanance have been key to continuous operation of the site.
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