Data center cooling: it’s time for sustainable solutions

By Ulrik Vadstrup, Regional Europe Segment Sales Manager HVAC and Anne Franzas, Global Product Manager, Circularity, ABB Motion.

Amid the climate crisis, one of the most pressing issues facing data center operators is how to cool their facilities in an environmentally sustainable manner. The challenge of efficient cooling is further exacerbated by the increasing adoption of AI and advanced computing technologies. These powerful systems generate higher temperatures, placing even greater demands on data center cooling infrastructure.

Operators are now faced with evaluating the merits of different cooling technologies and approaches to minimize their energy usage and carbon footprints. Among the options are electronically commutated (EC) fans versus separate motor-drive ventilation systems for air cooling. Sustainability, reparability, reliability, and longevity are all essential considerations during this evaluation process.

This  is more than a choice of equipment; it's an investment in a greener future.

Rethinking sustainability

Sustainability must be woven into the fabric of data center operations. It plays a crucial, but sometimes overlooked, role in the debate between EC fans and separate motor-drive syst ems. While EC fans may be able to offer an edge in simplicity of installation in some cases , we need to think bigger — beyond just the initial setup.

A long-term, sustainable approach is about creating a loop where every part of a product's lifecycle, from production to end-of-life management, conserves our planet's resources – including by using less energy. Separate motor-drive systems may initially cost more – and take more time to install – but they stand the test of time, make more efficient use of energy, and align with environmentally-friendly disposal practices, unlike their EC counterparts  .

What’s more, some EC fans' rely on rare earth metals, which poses sustainability challenges. These metals are difficult to source sustainably and even harder to recover at the end of the fan's life. Separate motor-drive systems, used in heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems for decades, have proven to be long-lasting and most importantly, repairable. These factors are significant in boosting the motor-driven system’s sustainability credentials.

A lifelong perspective

The real environmental impact of cooling systems spans their entire existence. The lower operational energy use offered by EC fans is just one part of this story. Motor-drive systems, while historically viewed as less efficient, now offer comparable energy-saving capabilities, especially with recent advancements in motor and fan technology. However, their most substantial advantage lies in their longevity and greater capability for recycling and repair, which EC fans generally lack.

In terms of lasting service, separate motor-drive systems significantly outperform EC fans. The average lifespan of an EC fan can be as short as four years, while motor-drive systems can last for well over two decades. This means that over time, the latter will require fewer replacements, generate less waste, and incur fewer costs — both financial and ecological. The benefits of such a choice add up, particularly when considered across the sprawling landscape of numerous data center units.

Additionally, the ease of maintenance — an often-overlooked aspect — plays a vital role. EC fans, when they fail, commonly need to be replaced entirely. Repairing or recycling them isn't a simple task due to their integrated design. Separate motor-drive systems, in contrast, offer the simplicity of exchanging parts or repairing them as needed, reducing the overall carbon footprint and embodying a practical application of circular economy principles.

User-friendly and earth-friendly

Turning to the technical side, separate motor-drive systems can now outperform EC fans in terms of efficiency through innovations like Synchronous Reluctance motors (SynRM). This is particularly important under partial load conditions, which are common in data centers  . Efficient operations mean lower energy costs and a reduced environmental impact over time.

But it's not just usage efficiency that’s a concern; user-friendliness is equally important. Facilities managers note that the ease of integrating these motor-driven systems into existing frameworks, coupled with their reliability, make them a good choice. Moreover, the possibility of remote maintenance and firmware updates further solidifies their positioning as a technologically advanced yet ecologically sound choice.

In practical terms, opting for motor-drive systems over EC fans is deeply connected to everyday human experiences. Take as an example a data center's maintenance director who confronted a significant failure rate with EC fans. This high failure frequency not only disrupted continuous operations but also incurred steep costs in time and money. With motor-drive systems’ enhanced durability and ease of remote servicing, technicians are spared such frequent disruptions, showcasing the meaningful advantages of these systems beyond mere efficiency numbers.

However, we must resist seeing this through a binary lens of EC fans versus motor-drive systems and instead appreciate the context and nuances. Each system offers unique benefits, but the thorough assessment of data center needs, sustainability goals, and the total cost over a system's life tells a compelling story. It's about using a mix of innovation, strategic planning, and operational insight to find a balance that suits both the digital and natural world.

Simplicity in action

Beyond the specifications, numbers, and efficiency charts lies a simple truth: the decisions we make for data center operations ripple outward, affecting more than just the servers they cool. They dictate our relationship with the environment and influence the carbon footprint we leave for future generations.

Selecting a cooling system that matches our sustainability aspirations requires a serious commitment to natural resource preservation. It calls for technologies that are easily maintainable, broadly recyclable, and ultimately, operate on a principle of minimal waste.

In conclusion, the choice of cooling technology within data centers captures a microcosm of the broader sustainability challenge. It's a balance between short-term operational effectiveness and long-term environmental responsibility. As we steer towards a digitally dependent future, it's imperative that we anchor our technological choices to sustainable foundations that support our planet just as much as they support our data.

The evidence suggests that while EC fans brought about an energy efficiency revolution at their inception, it's the motor-drive systems that are now leading the charge for environmental and operational sustainability in data centers. In the strive for a greener tomorrow, every switch to a motor-drive system tightens the loop in the circular economy and pushes the industry toward a more responsible and resilient existence.

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