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Issue 76: Risk Considerations for Data Center Fire Protection

By Richard W. Bukowski, P.E., FSFPE

The NFPA 75 Technical Committee (TC) in its 2013 edition of the Standard 1 permits a
fire risk analysis to be used to determine the construction, fire protection and fire
detection requirements for a facility.  As defined in the standard, fire risk analysis

"A process to characterize the risk associated with fire that addresses
the fire scenario or fire scenarios of concern, their probability, and
their potential consequences.” 1

Risk factors to be considered include life safety and (direct or indirect) economic
losses from loss of function (capacity) or data, loss of professional reputation, and
the costs of redundant systems. Some guidance on the thermal sensitivity of typical
equipment is provided, but data on design scenarios and their probabilities
necessary for a fire risk analysis are not.  The NFPA 75 TC, in conjunction with the
NFPA 76 2 TC, has formed a task group to develop additional guidance for the 2016
editions.  This activity is being supported by a fire protection research foundation
project to identify and validate a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) model that
can be used to assess the performance of detection systems in the challenging data
center environment for a range of design fire scenarios.

  Many equipment manufacturers now employ smokeless design procedures that minimize smoke potential under any fault condition. engineers need to consider the range of design fire scenarios that may be expected to occur over the facility's operating life that could result in failure to meet the performance objectives for the center.  Power supply sections of servers or similar equipment.  Some internal components run hot due to high component densities and fast clocking rates. The exception is power supplies (including UPS) that contain much higher fault energy potential. weighted by their likelihood. storage units) is very low because there is little energy available to any fault and little combustible material within the equipment.  These design fire scenarios. with most of these mounted on heat sinks or other devices and some including individual fans to improve cooling. especially those listed to UL 60950. 4 are separated by internal enclosures or other barriers to prevent a fire from spreading within the unit.  In many cases.To conduct the risk analysis for IT equipment or facilities as envisioned by the technical committees.  Power supplies (including UPS) can utilize smokeless design procedures and can be equipped with internal temperature sensors capable of shutting down equipment that is overheating. Internal temperature sensors arranged to shut down overheating equipment are sometimes configured to provide a warning message to operators so that appropriate steps can be taken prior to an orderly shutdown.  Most power supplies are operated from 240 VAC and are designed to be operated near maximum rated output power for optimum efficiency. these components incorporate on-board temperature measuring devices such as thermistors that can shut down the equipment before excessive temperatures cause the component to malfunction. but the energy available can lead to a fire under some conditions.  These arrangements .  Since these approaches would result in equipment shutdown before any fire could be ignited (if there was combustible material present). quantify the risk of loss due to fire. they virtually eliminate fire risk.  Fires Originating in Digital Equipment The risk of fires originating in digital equipment (servers. 3 especially when listed.

so smoke detectors in the intakes may be needed to switch the economizer to recirculation mode. limiting distribution of smoke. but.  Data cables do not carry sufficient energy to result in a fire under any fault condition. but products listed to suitable reaction-to-fire tests 7 can minimize fire risk from wire and cable products. but the cooling units.  Power supply cables do carry sufficient energy to represent both a fire source under fault conditions and potential fuel when exposed to an external fire source. preventing activation of smoke sensors located downstream of the filter.  Smoke detectors located downstream of the filters are traditionally used to detect fires in the filters to shut down the fans. 8   The fan motors and filters are potential fire sources. whether operating on gaseous refrigerants or chilled water. so they only represent potential fuel if exposed to an external fire source. meaning that they are low flame spread and low smoke producing.  Airside economizers typically use high efficiency (HEPA) filters to keep the cooling air clean.  Wire and cable run in spaces used for environmental air (plenum spaces as defined in NFPA 90A 6 ) are required to be plenum rated. Fires Originating in HVAC Equipment HVAC equipment in data centers (often referred to as computer room air conditioning or "CRAC" units) extract heat and move large volumes of air by means of large fans pushing air past chillers and through filters.  These filters will remove smoke particles from fires.  Linear heat detectors run within bundles of power cables are used by the nuclear power industry to provide overheat warnings and more rapid fire detection without the need for additional detectors in the cable space. 9   These can pull in smoke from a fire outside the facility.are intended to protect the equipment and to prevent fires. they do not fall under NFPA 72 5 jurisdiction and are not subject to approval by the AHJ. Wire and Cable Fires Data centers and telecommunications facilities contain large quantities of wire and cable. because they are not connected to the fire alarm system. are unlikely to burn.  A source of nuisance alarms involves economizers which introduce outside air into the air stream.  Wire and cable run in spaces not used for environmental air do not need to be plenum rated.  .

  But in these facilities.  Thus. such as power cables or heat producing fixtures. the fire risk in these spaces is low. which must be specifically rated for use in plenums) must exhibit low flame spread and smoke production properties. but if the same material restrictions are followed. "temporary” storage of construction materials related to facility modifications. or even coffee cups. they are not subject to these regulations. fire risk is similarly low. papers related to facility operations. in the absence of significant ignition sources.  Those below raised floors are subject to the requirements of NFPA 75 1 and the National Electrical Code.  Piping carrying liquids (chilled water or refrigerant) even if constructed of plastic materials. so they do not contribute to fire risk.  Fires in such materials are usually detected by "open area” smoke detectors mounted on the ceiling because smoke rises by buoyancy. the greatest risk of fires in data centers comes from the presence of miscellaneous combustible materials in the space.  These may be cardboard boxes and packaging materials from equipment coming into or going out of the facility. the high airflows and powerful cooling systems will carry the smoke in the airstream while diluting its concentration. Fires Originating in Other Combustibles By far.  Where such spaces are not used for environmental air. they are treated as plenum spaces. and have limited potential heat.Fires Originating under Raised Floors or Above Suspended Ceilings Where these spaces are used for environmental air. cannot be ignited even by large sources due to the heat sink provided by the liquid.  Accessible abandoned wire and cable must be removed in accordance with the National Electrical Code.  . 1 0 Materials used in plenums to construct or line the spaces and all materials contained within the spaces (including wire and cables.  Those above suspended ceilings are subject to specific regulations in NFPA 90A 6 to limit combustible materials.

In many cases." ASHRAE Journal. Quincy. and Jones. 6. Standard for the Installation of Air-Conditioning and Ventilating Systems.  Strict enforcement of housekeeping rules can have a significant impact on this risk. MA. and Keski-Rahkonen. National Fire Alarm Code. 1991. NFPA 75: Standard for the Fire Protection of Information Technology Equipment. Quincy.  The full paper to be presented at the SFPE's Annual Meeting will discuss such appropriate strategies and the use of CFD models validated under the current FPRF project to support the engineering analysis. 9. 4.. 2008. 5. and Weaver. W. Scofield. Finland. Gaithersburg.. Quincy. National Fire Protection Association.. V. Bukowski. IL. MA. Patterson.. CA.. Publication 269. "special application” detectors that exhibit much higher than normal sensitivities or the ability to operate in higher temperatures or air velocities may be used where conditions dictate. National Fire Protection Association. 2013.Safety. ." VTT Building Technology. Risk-based Protection Based on these observed fire risks. Mangs. National Institute of Standards and Technology. "Using Wet-Bulb Economizers in Data Centers. 2012. NFPA 76: Standard for the Fire Protection of Telecommunications Facilities. 2013. R. M.. NFPA 72. 2013. Peacock. Intel Corp." INTEL White Paper. 2012. and Fenwick. MA. MA. Espoo. 3. T. MD. Underwriters Laboratories. R. Northbrook. National Fire Protection Association. 1996. "Full Scale Fire Experiments On Electronic Cabinets. National Fire Protection Association. C. Information Technology Equipment ." NIST TN 1291. D. O. "Fire Performance of Wire and Cable: Reaction-to-fire Tests . 7. NFPA 90A. August 2008. Santa Clara. appropriate strategies for detector selection and placement. 8.A Critical Review of the Existing Methods and of New Concepts. Richard Bukowski is with Rolf Jensen and Associates 1.. UL 60905. J. extinguishment system types and objectives across a range of design fires can be developed for specific data center configurations in accordance with the intent of NFPA 75 and 76. 2. E. Quincy.. "The State of Data Center Cooling: A Review Of Current Air and Liquid Cooling Solutions. Braun.. Babrauskas.

Meacham.sfpe. Quincy. READ MORE (http://magazine. D. and covers qualitative. fire risks have not been assessed for the design of buildings. spray sprinklers first developed in the 1950s. conducting frequency and consequence analyses on the scenarios of concern. 2014. NFPA 70. Related Articles: 3rd Quarter 2013 –The Application of Fire Risk Assessments in Building Design and Management –David A. the hazards of concern and the potential fire scenarios. National Electrical Code. He explains other reasons why fire risk assessment is gaining traction as well. including identifying the objectives of the assessment. Ph. the metrics for assessment. design-and-management) 3rd Quarter 2013 –An Overview of Approaches and Resources for Building Fire Risk Assessment –Brian J. P.E. FSFPE The author explains steps for fire risk assessment.. FSFPE The author discusses early sprinkler systems first employed in the early 20th century to protect equipment and textile goods.D. National Fire Protection Association. semi-quantitative.D. 10. and new technologies that are . While for the vast majority of history. READ MORE (http://magazine. recent storage sprinkler innovations. fire-risk-assessment) 1st Quarter 2011 –A Historical Perspective on the Evolution of Storage Sprinkler Design –HC Kung.sfpe. Ph. Ph. the author explains that assessment is catching on as a way to avoid the many and varied fatality fire disasters that have occurred in the past. and quantitative assessment methods. He then provides a list of guidance documents and textbooks that – while not risk assessment methodologies or risk analysis techniques – are directed at assisting practitioners in selecting the appropriate methodology for any given building and ensuring that the process of risk assessment and approval is undertaken in a proper engineering manner. and estimating the risk associated with the scenarios.

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