July 2017 Special Report: Protecting electrical rooms and data centres
Protecting vital business infrastructure from fire damage should be a top priority for the region's oil and gas operators, says AESG's director of fire and life safety, Peter Van Gorp
Fire safety requirements for data centres and electrical rooms are subject to the code requirements laid out by local governments or by corporate standards. In many cases, the standard fire protection arrangement involves the provision of a fire suppression system that is automatically triggered by an air aspirating smoke detection system. These risk-mitigation measure are often found to be expensive and are not necessarily effective for the application, however.
The level of fire safety should always be seen in relation to the company’s objectives. In case of data centres and electrical rooms, the main objective of a fire safety system is usually to prevent direct losses and – often more importantly – indirect losses such as downtime, loss of data, and loss of business.
Switchgear room protection
Switchgears will control electrical power to electric-driven equipment, and a fire in a switchgear cabinet will result in equipment being without electrical power for some time.
In case of a short circuit or over-current situation, the electrical supply will be cut off automatically by the built-in electrical safety mechanisms. If there is a resulting fire, it is usually small, and the likelihood that the fire might spread quickly and cause major damage to the whole switchgear building is low if housekeeping is good.
In many cases, in oil and gas plants, switchgears will supply equipment such as oil pumps, and often the oil pumps have standby pumps. Important oil pumps may also have a secondary electrical supply controlled by a different switchgear located in a different cabinet.Also, switchgear buildings are generally located within the plant, allowing for fast intervention, preventing other switchgears from being affected.
Under these conditions, it is questionable whether an automatically activated fire suppression system would be worth the investment. The case is different if failure of the switchgear would cause the outage of an entire process unit or plant, however.
Server room protection
Server rooms contain lots of data, and damage to a server room could cause entire businesses to be out of operation. For this reason, backups to servers at different locations are usually done at regular intervals.
Automatic fire suppression systems linked with conventional smoke detection can only extinguish a fire after it is detected. In case of data centres, it is likely that the damage will already have been done by the time an alarm sounds. It may be worth considering highly sensitive smoke detection, which is able to detect smoke particles at pyrolysis level, well before a visible fire.
Fire suppression will not address the the root cause, however, so it would be worth considering initiating the de-energising of the particular data cabinet instead.
Life safety and building protection
For electrical or server rooms situated in large buildings, local and international fire codes may ask for automatically activated fire protection systems. Buildings are often required to be sprinkler protected for the purpose of life and building safety.
A fire in a small, unprotected room can develop quickly into a large fire that may become uncontrollable or produce enough smoke to affect the building’s occupants. Therefore, most fire codes specify that rooms exceeding a certain size will be required to be sprinkler protected.
For electrical rooms, most codes provide an automatically activated fire suppression system as an alternative to sprinklers. Here the aim is not to protect your server or electrical cabinets, it is merely for the purpose of life safety or protect to entire building.