How to water a data centre

30 Oct 2023

Virtus data centre, London. Image: Virtus

According to David Watkins, solutions director at Virtus Data Centres, collaboration and innovation are key to tackling issues of water usage and sustainability in the industry.

In the midst of the ongoing digital revolution, the rapid advancements in technology have left an indelible mark on our lives and the way we work. Central to this transformation are data centres, a pivotal component of our digital era.

These facilities act as the backbone of our favourite online services, enabling seamless operations across various industries.

However, with the relentless growth of data centres due to demand from society and businesses alike, there’s an imperative to manage this expansion efficiently and sustainably.

A particular concern looms large: their environmental impact, especially relating to water usage for the imperative cooling function.

Recognising the job ahead

Recognising the environmental consequences of their operations, data centre operators have embarked on a mission to address sustainability challenges head on.

Their objectives encompass multiple facets of sustainability, but a central focus lies in curtailing water consumption.

While efficiency, performance and cost savings remain integral to sustainability efforts, the primary emphasis is on achieving these goals while mitigating environmental impact, all without compromising the quality of service provided to customers.

Sustainability in the data centre industry goes beyond financial benefits; it’s a moral and environmental imperative that mirrors a broader dedication to global sustainability goals.

The engine room of the digital world

Data centres are responsible for maintaining ideal operating conditions for the IT equipment they house, ensuring optimal performance and efficiency.

Cooling technology is vital not only to preserve the right environment for IT systems, but also to manage power consumption efficiently and minimise wasted power. Cooling systems encompass various components including cooling towers, chillers, pumps, piping, heat exchangers and computer room air conditioner (CRAC) units.

Data centres also require water for humidification systems and facility maintenance.

Traditionally, data centre air conditioning equipment comes in two forms: water-cooled or air-cooled. Research by Savills indicates that, on average, a data centre may use up to 26m litres of water annually per megawatt of data centre power.

However, some large data centres employ closed-loop chilled water systems, a method that reduces the need for constant fresh water pumping. These systems are charged with water during construction and maintain this water within the facility throughout its lifespan (typically a minimum of 15 years).

Finding innovative solutions

The water usage concerns challenge data centre operators to find innovative solutions. They face the dual mandate of meeting increasing data processing demands while navigating the escalating impacts of climate change.

As temperatures continue to rise, innovative approaches to cooling are indispensable.

The data centre industry’s commitment to sustainability and efficiency has been longstanding, with many providers working to use power and water resources responsibly.

Faced with these challenges, data centre operators are embracing innovation as a cornerstone of their sustainability efforts. Strategies include green renewable power sources, rainwater harvesting, zero water cooling systems, recycling, waste management and more.

Virtus Data Centres has set ambitious sustainability targets, with a particular focus on reducing water usage through the deployment of adiabatic cooling.

One of its notable initiatives involves reevaluating cooling equipment. By optimising the point in the cooling cycle where water is introduced, Virtus has achieved significant reductions in water usage.

In the LONDON2 data centre in Hayes, London, Virtus leverages adiabatic cooling technology to efficiently cool the data halls, utilising the day-night cycle to maintain the desired temperature within the facility. What sets LONDON2 apart is its strategic location above a natural aquifer, enabling the use of water not drawn from the public supply.

Why success calls for collaboration

Achieving sustainable data centres is a goal that necessitates industry-wide collaboration and knowledge sharing. Data centre operators are already coming together to share best practices, techniques and insights, with a particular focus on water-saving strategies. This collaborative approach magnifies the impact of sustainability initiatives and accelerates progress toward shared environmental objectives.

As the data centre industry stands at the juncture of sustainability and operational efficiency, water usage emerges as a central environmental concern that demands creative and innovative solutions.

While cost savings are indeed a welcome outcome, the data centre industry’s primary focus is on achieving sustainability targets and minimising its ecological footprint.

In a world where temperature peaks are becoming more extreme, continuous collaboration, innovation and development are enormously important so that data centre operators can balance technological progress with the preservation of our planet.

By David Watkins

David Watkins is the solutions director at Virtus Data Centres, where has worked since 2009. He has a technical and commercial background and can often be found speaking about sustainability at data centre industry events as well as authoring articles on the topic, which he is passionate and knowledgeable about.

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