Ben Hatton Why data center humidity may be going down

July 10, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 


Image courtesy of Flickr user mag3737

When it comes to data center environmental monitoring, temperature and humidity have always been the key metrics that provide insight into a data center’s operating environment. Like the temperature, humidity is something that is continually monitored to ensure it is kept at a consistent and acceptable level (traditionally this level has been in the range of 40-55%). At Data Cave we monitor and maintain this humidity level in all of our data suites.

With many of the advancements in server technology and in modern data centers, this traditional level has been gradually shifting, just like the recommended temperature has been (check out our Why Data Center Temperatures are going up post to learn more about that). ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers), the leading authority over heating and air-conditioning standards across many different industries, has adjusted its recommended humidity levels for data centers from time to time over the years, and is poised to announce more changes to its recommendations later this year.

Specifically, they are expected to publish recommendations that the relative humidity (dew point) of data centers can be made lower than it has been in the past, without having a substantial impact on electrostatic discharge (ESD) put off from server equipment. This is based on a recent study that they undertook together with the University of Missouri.

Some background

It’s a well known fact that when a room is less humid, the air is naturally dryer. This leads to an increase in static electricity that is generated from constantly running server equipment. If this electricity goes  unchecked, it can often lead to a discharge, which can damage or destroy the server equipment.

The reason this study (and the anticipated recommendations coming out of it) is so relevant, is because it could have implications for how data centers manage their humidity levels, as well as how frequently may they utilize free cooling methods. If it can be documented and proven that a lower relative humidity can be implemented without noticeably raising the risk of ESD, that could lead to a change throughout many data centers.

Many classes of recommendations

An important thing to remember when it comes to the existing and future recommendations on humidity levels, is that the recommendations themselves are relative to specific types of equipment. ASHRAE uses several different classes of equipment for its temperature and humidity recommendations, with the overall recommendations varying from class to class. Many of these classes have been added just in recent years as newer, more sophisticated types of IT equipment have come on the market that can handle higher temperatures and lower humidity.

Moving in a good direction

What this indicates to me is that any shift towards lower humidity levels in the data center is really the result of advancements in server technology, cooling methods, and data center layouts. If ASHRAE does indeed lower their recommendations on data center humidity levels, I believe it will be a strong indicator of how far we have come in terms of the technology that exists, as well as where the industry is heading in with regards to humidity.


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