Protecting IT Spaces from Damaging Fires

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From a smoldering circuit board to a switch gear explosion, the risk of electrical fire in data, power generation and telecommunication centers is an ever-increasing concern for the owners and operators of these facilities. Today’s data center and electronics industries are looking for a fire suppression solution that is safe, effective, cost-efficient and mindful of the environment. There are a variety of fire suppression systems on the market today that are made to protect electrical and electronic applications, from water mist to gaseous to inert gas technologies, however, those systems can present design, performance and maintenance challenges. This article will review those different technologies and challenges, as well as a newer fire suppression hybrid solution that uses both water and nitrogen.

Avoiding Excess Water Damage
Equipment enclosures commonly found in information technology facilities, present significant fire suppression challenges and are considered “local application” hazards. Traditional, single-agent water mist systems often need to be installed directly within an enclosure to suppress a fire. This internal installation would require the equipment to be de-energized before a water mist system discharge occurs in order to prevent damage and injury.

If fire suppression is required in a larger area, where multiple enclosures or pieces of equipment may need to be protected, this would be considered a “total flooding” application. In this scenario, the water mist concentration that enters an enclosure would not be great enough to cool and suppress the fire unless the top were open.

In either scenario the equipment inside the enclosure would be subject to extreme wetting conditions along with possible damage.

Maintaining Room Integrity
Alternatively, gaseous systems require hold time concentrations and some systems require the space to be modified to provide a room integrity seal so the gaseous agents remain in the hazard area during a fire event.

Where water mist systems are designed to reduce the temperature in the fire space, inert gas systems work to reduce the amount of oxygen available to sustain the fire. These particular systems do not allow for cooling in the space, leaving open the possibility of re-ignition if room integrity is not maintained for a defined period of time.

Effective maintenance of the concentration of a suppressing agent is a value of room integrity. Proper room integrity for many inert gas systems requires significant and potentially expensive custom construction to control airflow, which can be a challenge for facility owners and contractors.

Keep it Green and Easy to Maintain
Inert gas suppression systems, designed to reduce the amount of oxygen available to sustain a fire, also present several challenges in today’s sustainability-focused marketplace. These systems utilize chemical agents and halocarbons to achieve fire suppression, raising environmental concerns. Therefore, efforts have been made to find alternative solutions that are friendly to the environment and occupants.

Beyond room integrity and environmental concerns, the full life cycle of a system must be considered, including the cost and complexity of resetting a system after a discharge. After a fire event or during regular maintenance, traditional agent storage cylinders may need to be returned to the manufacturer for refill with proprietary agents or removed from the system for weighing, costly in both lost time and money. Facility owners and operators who are focused on minimizing facility downtime are in need of more time and cost-effective solutions.

New Sustainable, Hybrid Technology
A unique solution for information technology spaces uses hybrid technology to deliver a high velocity, low-pressure blend of water and nitrogen to both cool the hazard area and remove the oxygen that sustains the fire. This solution is the Victaulic Vortex® 500 Fire Suppression System. Electronics are kept dry and there are absolutely no toxic agents or chemicals involved. Additionally the system has been proven effective for small, smoldering enclosed fires and large, heat-releasing fires in open spaces.

By combining nitrogen and water, a homogeneous suspension of nitrogen and sub 10-micron water droplets penetrate through vented type enclosures to extinguish a fire without significant water residue. When the mixture enters the enclosure, both the nitrogen and water attack the fire simultaneously, the water cooling the space and the nitrogen reducing the oxygen content and generating steam. The result of this is complete fire suppression without significant wetting or change for re-ignition. This would not be possible with a traditional water mist system.

This innovative technology is 100 percent green, utilizing no toxic chemicals and has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as having Global Warming Potential of zero. Since this system discharges with high velocity under low pressure, the hybrid suspension swirls through the space, overpowering the fire plume and not requiring room integrity to remain effective, therefore additional construction or retrofit cost can be avoided.

Also, since this technology only requires the use of water and nitrogen, storage bottles can be quickly and cost-effectively refilled on site or a local gas supplier can replace cylinders. This alone minimizes system and facility downtime, increasing productivity and profit. The system is designed to receive water piped in or stored in a portable tank. De-ionized water is recommended for systems where electrical equipment is in the hazard space to minimize potential conductivity.

A Proven Technology
Many have witnessed the effectiveness of the Victaulic Vortex 500 Fire Suppression System, including Factory Mutual and Underwriter’s Laboratories. For example, the system was tested to demonstrate the successful extinguishment of a cable bundle fire. Because this technology can be installed in a total flooding configuration, it remains completely effective at fire extinguishment inside an enclosure. With emitters installed outside the enclosure, the live circuits do not have direct exposure to the water and nitrogen suspension discharged by the system, which greatly minimizes the moisture level in the enclosure. Due to the high velocity distribution of the system, the water and nitrogen mixture travels into the enclosure through ventilation openings, ensuring that circuit boards and other electronic components are not damaged due to high levels of moisture and/or excess wetting.

The Victaulic Vortex 500 Fire Suppression System provides an innovative, safe and effective fire protection solution for installations that contain electronic equipment. Water mist systems that use single fluid technology cannot provide the same level of protection as a hybrid technology. Since a single fluid system will need a nozzle placed inside of the enclosure to extinguish a fire, it is certain that the powered equipment would be damaged due to extreme wetting conditions. Facility owners and operators will benefit from the hybrid technology’s minimal wetting operation, simple maintenance, environmentally friendly design and rapid return to normal operations after system discharges.

Written by Frank Barstow, Vortex Sales.

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