Data Center Fire Suppression: Types and Best Practices

Data centers are complex by nature, making fire protection in these buildings a potential challenge. Modern data centers are incredibly power-dense, with upwards of 400 watts per square foot.

Numerous computer systems, massive servers, networking equipment, and other hardware give off a surprising amount of heat, which can be a safety concern when temperatures reach a melting point.

Data centers also have serious air conditioning systems, which is necessary for creating enough airflow to cool the machines. This strong air flow can make initial fire detection delayed, while also exacerbating flames and smoke.

Since even a small amount of downtime can trigger disastrous results in a data center, not to mention the clearly serious nature of lost data, it is vital data centers have intensive fire suppression strategies in place.

Early Fire Detection Systems

One of the most essential parts in a fire safety strategy is early fire detection. A key factor in reducing damage and ensuring building occupant survival is extinguishing flames as quickly as possible. Also, many modern physical fire suppression and containment systems may rely on these detection systems to know when to automatically deploy.

A common type of early fire detection widely used in data centers, despite their fairly humble design, is smoke detectors. There are two types of smoke detectors, spot-type and air-aspirating.

Spot-type detectors are more basic. They rely on either ionization or photoelectricity to detect smoke. The spot-type detectors used in data centers are a far more advanced version of household smoke detectors however, and are much less likely to have false alarms.

Air-aspirating smoke detectors are growing in popularity and are in some ways more effective.  They typically will detect a fire before the more common spot-types. These detectors can be programmed to have multiple thresholds and alarms for each.

This means it can sound an alarm for a very small amount of smoke, which often can be put out by a trained employee. Essentially you can control exactly what triggers air-aspirating detectors.

A less advanced detector might only detect a small amount of smoke but release all smoke curtains in the vicinity, which can complicate the ability to actually extinguish a very small, manageable fire. Instead you can program fire curtains to drop only when a dangerous level of smoke is detected. These detectors can also be set to have different alerts for gas leaks versus smoke detection.

Naturally, other traditional means of fire detection safety equipment, such as fire alarms, should always be in place to ensure quick response to a fire and to alert building occupants to vacate.

Containment and Suppression Strategies

Data centers must have proper fire containment and suppression strategies in place. There are a few different means of achieving this, including fire extinguishers, electronic-safe fire suppressants, installation of an emergency power-off switch, and smoke and fire controlling curtains.

Most building managers of data centers will already be familiar with the importance of portable fire extinguishers. These should be installed in clearly marked areas throughout the buildings, namely by emergency exits in the event an employee may need to extinguish flames in order to evacuate.

Keep in mind that extinguishers placed within electronics rooms should be electronic-safe. Common suppressives that may be used in data centers include Novec 1230 and FM-200. If you do have multiple times of extinguishers present, they must be labeled very clearly and staff should be trained to the know the difference.

Fire and smoke control curtains are often viewed as optional, though they really should be seen as an integral part of a data center's fire and smoke control strategy. When it comes to human safety, the control of smoke during evacuation is paramount. Smoke inhalation can be fatal and uncontrolled smoke also makes it difficult for emergency response to gain access into the building safely.

Smoke curtains should be installed over elevators and stairwells, as these areas of a building can act as a funnel by fueling fire and bringing the smoke up to other floors.

Large, open stairwells are best served by a perimeter smoke curtain that either connects to a wall or forms its own independent box around the zone to block it off. Vertical curtains are ideal for blocking off lobbies and come in a range of sizes, including options for egresses. Keep in mind that you can choose both smoke or fire-rated curtains.

Smoke and fire curtains can be deployed manually, but also may be programmed to be released via your fire detection system. This reduces the chances of human error, either by deploying too late or improper deployment, and ensures you section off vulnerable areas of your data center before smoke is out of control.

With the right training and proper suppression systems in place you can greatly reduce the amount of damage caused by a fire. The use of fire control mechanisms and smoke curtains helps prevent damage to equipment by containing fire, while also helping preserve human life by controlling smoke to allow for safer evacuation.