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Risk-it managers spar over fire suppression systems: with Halon disappearing, managers are having to rely on water or gas systems. But as data centers grow, the fate of gas-based systems may be sealed.

With the disappearance of Halon as a fire suppressant, thanks to stiffer clean air regulations, two choices have emerged as the best way to protect IT assets from damage by fire.

One is effective but old and traditional, and it meets resistance from a lot of IT managers. The other is a little more high-tech, although not terribly new. It is not as effective as the old and traditional technique, however, and it can become prohibitively expensive.

The traditional fire protection for IT assets is nothing more than a water sprinkler system. It is the most effective alternative and is inexpensive, but can be a hard sell because it often provokes fear among IT managers.

Those who prefer a gas-based solution have a choice of three gaseous extinguishants. They are all effective, as well as safe for the environment and human-occupied spaces. None, on the other hand, is as effective as Halon, which is getting more expensive because of shrinking supply, according to David Martin, loss control manager for EDS. "If you have a Halon system and something happens, the only way you can recharge is by using recycled Halon," he said.

But since Halon alternatives require more agent to extinguish a fire, companies are faced with dedicating more space to their tire suppression systems.


Two gaseous extinguishants operate by displacing oxygen in the protected space, reducing the available oxygen to a level that is still safe to humans, yet will not support combustion. Intergen, the most popular of the environmentally safe gases, is a combination of argon, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. Because all three of its components occur naturally in the atmosphere, Intergen poses no environmental hazard.

"People like it because it's not electrically conductive, and it's safe to use in human-occupied facilities," said Brent Woodworth, worldwide segment manager for IBM's Crisis Response Team. "It doesn't damage circuits of electronic equipment. If it's released in a data center you don't get a fogging effect, so it's fairly easy as you exit the room."

Available under the brand names FM-200 and HFC-227, heptafluoropropane is another safe agent that works in much the same way as Intergen.

FE-13 takes a different approach. Originally developed as a refrigerant, FE-13 absorbs heat until the atmosphere can no longer support combustion. Like Intergen and FM-200, FE-13 does not deplete earth's fragile ozone shield.

Like any other gaseous extinguishant, Intergen, FM-200 and FE-13 work only when they can flood the protected space. Using a gas for fire protection means having enough of the agent to achieve an effective concentration in the protected area and containing the gas within the protected space. In larger IT areas, gaseous tire protection systems become too expensive because the cost of protection varies in relation to the volume of the protected space.


Because water sprinklers are more effective than gas systems, risk management specialists prefer them for protecting IT assets.

Their efforts often run into resistance from IT managers, however, who are against allowing water lines over their hardware. Mickey Weiss, manager of technical facilities for EDS, is not one of those IT managers. He has been relying on water sprinklers for more than 20 years. "The primary reason [for selecting water sprinklers] was to really guarantee extinguishing the fire," he says. "Water actually does less damage to the equipment than some of the gas systems do. For one thing, it only sprinkles where the heat is, so the equipment that is affected by a water sprinkle is localized. You're really saving the equipment that is in greatest danger."

Weiss offers cost as a second reason for choosing water over gas. Data centers have been getting larger and now average about 75,000 square feet. The amount of gas required to flood an area that size, Weiss argues, becomes too expensive for two reasons. The first is the cost of the gas and the equipment for storing and discharging it. The second is the amount of space the system requires, space that can be put to profitable use when water sprinklers handle the fire protection chores. Selling IT managers on water sprinklers requires a preaction system (meaning water is not normally contained within the pipes). Weiss sees a downside to this technique. It is too expensive to shut the hardware down for every false alarm from heat and smoke and the loss of revenue from false alarms outweighs any damage the system might prevent.


The more some things change, the more they remain the same. Water sprinklers provided the earliest automatic fire protection for computers and their peripherals, but met with resistance from data processing managers.

In the 1960s, Halon revolutionized fire protection for water-sensitive equipment. Thirty years later, Halon is almost gone and risk and fire protection managers once again must convince their IT counterparts that water from sprinklers docs less damage than some gaseous alternatives.
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Title Annotation:Upfront: news, updates and other emerging strategies from around the world
Author:Mangan, Joe
Publication:Risk & Insurance
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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