How to Fireproof Your Server Room

Racks, server room

In today's information and technology-driven world, a server room fire is one of the most catastrophic things that can befall any business. When IT equipment that supplies critical data and makes day-to-day business operations possible is lost to fire, companies are faced with not only with the expense of structural damage and hardware replacement, but must also grapple with issues like downtime and information recovery. Taking steps to protect your data center against the ravages of smoke, heat and flame does more than just preserve your computer equipment – it helps to safeguard your entire business.

Typical Causes of Server Room Fires

The first step in preventing fire-related damage to your server room or data center is to be aware of the leading causes of fire in these settings. While it probably won't surprise you to learn that electrical failure in IT equipment and branch circuits is the number one culprit, your eyebrows may be raised by another common fire-starter: the accidentally-ignited wastebasket. Other prevalent flame sources include overheated electronics and subfloor wiring malfunctions, as well as fires that originate in – and spread from – other rooms in the building.

Always keep in mind that a server room is not a storage closet. The more unnecessary “stuff” you store in your data center, the higher your risk for fire, and more available fuel there is should a fire ever occur. If at all possible, house flammable materials and chemicals somewhere other than your server room.

Assess Your Risks

Composite Sheet and Pillows

Defending your server room against the threat of fire is best accomplished when you know all of the risks and weak points that need to be counteracted. Have confidence that you've covered all the bases by hiring a third-party risk assessment specialist to not only evaluate your facility, but also present you with a business impact analysis that accurately outlines the financial and logistical ramifications for your company should a server room fire ever occur.

Regardless of whether or not you hire a risk assessor to size up your data center's potential fire hazards, a smart step to take in preventing IT-related fires is to ask your local fire marshal to inspect the entire facility (server room included) and analyze the building's overall fire risk – a service that is often free of charge.

Catch Fires Before They Get Out of Control

Early detection systems use lasers, ionization, or heat sensitivity to detect even very low concentrations of smoke, so while they can't actually prevent a fire from starting, they can alert you and your staff before the flames get out of hand and cause widespread damage. Not only can early warnings save you a fortune in destroyed equipment, they can also prevent your company from suffering the business-crippling consequences of lost data and downtime, and even have the power to save lives.

Fire Suppression Systems

Water sprinklers may be one of the most common means of fire suppression, but they're far from the best choice for extinguishing flames in a server room. Because water can cause irreparable damage to computer equipment and other critical electronics, it should be passed up in favor of gas-based (also known as clean agent) fire suppression methods.

While ozone-depleting, residuous Halon was the flame-smothering agent of choice in early gas fire suppression systems, it has since been replaced by non-toxic, non-corrosive, environmentally friendly gases that fight fire without harming server room equipment, fixtures, or personnel.

Fire Containment

Abesco CT 120 Cable Transit

A fire doesn't have to be inside your data center to jeopardize IT equipment. Because radiant heat and smoke from fire in an adjacent room can be enough to damage sensitive network hardware, creating a protective barrier between your server room and the potentially fire-prone areas surrounding it not only blocks indirect damage, but prevents flame spread as well.

So how do you transform your server room into a fireproof vault? Lightweight, flame-resistant ceramic panels from companies like Firelock can be used to build fire-safe data centers and archive rooms within larger, standard-construction buildings. Firelock's panels withstand temperatures up to 2,000° F, and can maintain an internal vault temperature of 125° F (or less) during up to 4 hours of direct fire exposure.

Firestopping Cable Penetrations

Thanks to their many wall and ceiling cable penetrations, server rooms are particularly vulnerable to the spread of fire. That's where intumescent firestopping products like caulks, sprays, sealants, fire-rated foam, mortars, composite sheets, fire barrier pillows and cable transits come into play.

Each time a hole is made for the passage of cable, ductwork, or cooling pipes, building code requires that it be resealed (around the penetrant) to prevent flame spread from one room to the next. These fire-safe materials not only fill in the gaps, but also intumesce, or expand and harden, in the presence of fire, transforming into a physical barrier that blocks out fire, smoke, water, and toxic fumes.