Cooling Towers Help Computer Equipment Stay Comfortable

When it comes to energy, data centers are faced with a serious dilemma. Over the past decade -- and particularly in the past two years -- growing IT demands have forced managers to crowd their expansive data centers and server farms with more and more equipment, driving energy demands through the roof.  To make matters worse, the heat generated by added processor hardware is forcing companies to expend even more power to keep it cool, a trend that the U.S. Department of Energy  believes will only worsen in the near future.

According to the DOE, data centers consume up to 100 times more energy than standard office space. The vast majority of this energy is consumed by the cooling infrastructure that is needed to keep the data center’s sensitive equipment within a specified temperature range. The DOE reports that data center energy consumption doubled from 2000 to 2006, reaching more than 60 billion kilowatt-hours per year. That number could double again by 2012, outpacing the U.S. power generation infrastructure, which will likely drive cooling costs even higher.

As a result, the IT industry is actively seeking new and innovative solutions to improve cooling efficiency, at the lowest possible cost. This has led to a variety of unusual solutions, from pumping cool air and liquid through servers and racks, to relocating computer centers to arctic regions in order to use frigid air or water to handle cooling needs. Facebook, for example, plans to build three giant server farms, covering an area the size of 11 football fields, at the edge of the Arctic Circle. AOL has followed suit by constructing a facility that will be cooled by the natural environment of Iceland. Google is opening the world’s first seawater-cooled data center in a former paper mill located near Helsinki.

However, not every organization wants to relocate its data center equipment to Arctic areas to solve its cooling problems. Many server farms, and the majority of data centers, are still located at domestic facilities throughout the United States. For example, while Google has facilities throughout the world, it also has major data centers at many U.S. locations, including those that experience very hot weather.  Recently, eBay opened a major data center in the Phoenix area where temperatures often exceed 100 degrees in summer. In this case, the facility is kept cool by employing more conventional systems to cool its computer environments.

Throughout the U.S. and most of the world, the mainstay of data center cooling systems remains the traditional HVAC combination of chillers, air handlers and cooling towers. The pressing challenge for these facilities is to increase the efficiency of those mechanical cooling systems in order to reduce energy expenditure, particularly in locations where triple-digits temperatures occur during summer months.

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