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The secrets to avoiding a summer IT meltdown

(Image credit: Image Credit: Dotshock / Shutterstock)

According to the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, the world has just experienced the hottest June on record, with temperatures 0.1oC higher than the previous record of 2016.

In France, the mercury levels rose to a scorching 45.9oC, 1.5oC higher than the country’s previous record set in 2003, while here in the UK, the 10 hottest years on record have all taken place since 1990.

As temperatures across the globe continue to rise, it’s not just the sweltering heat that sees IT and facilities managers break out in a sweat. In today’s internet and smart device-dominated society, prolonged periods of hot weather pose problems for both the continuity of our electricity supply and the IT equipment we depend on every day.

Why does hot weather cause power problems?

Baking temperatures and summer sunshine are great for trips to the beach or hosting back garden barbeques. But rocketing mercury levels place our electricity grid under greater strain. It’s estimated that power demand grows 350 MW for every degree the temperature rises above 20oC.

Extremely hot weather tends to increase demand for electricity, particularly as air conditioning units are cranked up to keep workers cool. Official government figures suggest two-thirds of the country’s offices plus around a third of all shops now have energy-intensive air con installed, while National Grid predicts the peak load from air conditioners will treble in the next 10 years.

According to analysis by Drax and Imperial College London, the soaring temperatures in Britain during the last week of June 2018 led to an increase in electricity demand of 900 MW a day, the equivalent of an extra 2.5 million houses.

Sustained periods of hot weather also see a rise in power problems such as sags – where there’s a short dip in voltage – or surges where voltage is higher than the usual mains supply.

It’s worth noting that sustained sunny spells do provide a much-needed boost for renewable energy. For instance, May 2019 saw the UK break the record for coal-free electricity generation not once but twice, going for first a week then a fortnight without the need to burn coal to produce power. Those were the longest periods since the Industrial Revolution in 1882.

Could IT equipment like a UPS overheat in high temperatures?

  • The increasing importance of implementing fool-proof disaster recovery

As the temperature rises, additional stress is placed on server rooms, uninterruptible power supplies, and their batteries.

All electric-powered IT equipment generate their own heat, with constant air conditioning the key to ensuring they can keep operating safely. When the weather is warmer, air con units have to work that much harder, which makes them more susceptible to breaking down.

Slightly mitigating this is the fact that modern server rooms can be kept at a slightly wider temperature (16-27oC rather than the previously recommended range of 20-24oC) without unduly harming equipment performance.

Of course, not every environment has the luxury of state-of-the-art, air conditioned IT rooms. Factories, utilities, and water treatment works are just three examples of much harsher industrial settings.

By and large, the maximum recommended operating temperature for a UPS system is around 40oC. But depending on where a unit is installed, temperatures could easily top a sizzling 50oC at the height of summer.

Such a scenario causes components such as fans and capacitors to degrade far quicker and increases the risk of a serious breakdown, so it goes without saying that it should be avoided where possible.

The biggest cause for concern with a UPS system during a heatwave is the batteries.

Even though lithium-ion cells, which can operate more effectively at higher temperatures, are an increasingly viable option, the majority of UPS batteries are still the traditional sealed lead-acid (SLA) blocks.

These cells have an optimum operating temperature of between 20-25oC, emphasising the importance of constant air conditioning.

On the face of it, it’s actually colder temperatures during winter that reduce battery capacity. Operating at higher than ideal temperatures even increases a battery’s capacity, although it’s likely to reduce their lifespan significantly too.

As a rule of thumb, for every 10oC rise in temperature, the life expectancy of a UPS battery will halve. So, if your UPS and batteries are installed in a room consistently touching 35oC, the cells will only reach 50 per cent of their maximum lifespan. Taking things one extreme further, if the room temperature tops 45oC during summer, the batteries will only last a quarter of their expected life.

Installing UPS batteries in a room consistently recording higher than advised temperatures is a recipe for disaster. It increases the likelihood you’ll experience damaging battery failure. At best, you’ll have to replace your batteries more often than you should, incurring unnecessary costs.

Keeping your cool

IT admins sweating about the impact any sustained spell of hot weather could have on their electrical equipment should be reminded of the importance of factoring in redundancy. Doing so will mitigate against the increased threat of any heat-induced faults or failures.

Where a UPS is located is hugely significant. In an ideal world, the UPS system should be installed in a secure, well-ventilated, temperature-controlled room free of dust and moisture that could harm component performance.

Depending on your organisation though, it might not be feasible to have a dedicated IT or server room.

If that’s the case, just follow a bit of common sense. Avoid installing the UPS in direct sunlight or close to any open windows. Don’t just stick them out of the way in a basement that could be prone to dampness and flooding. Never place heavy objects on top of a UPS and ensure that the fans aren’t blocked.

Remember to allow space for easy access for maintenance and servicing. While it’s a good idea to have at least rough ideas about your future plans too – it’s handy to know whether you might need additional space to expand in the years to come.

The increased stress placed on a UPS by higher temperatures emphasises the importance – and benefits – of regular preventive maintenance. No piece of electrical equipment is ever 100 per cent perfect, but having experienced, fully-certified service engineers thoroughly checking the UPS system and batteries will reduce the risk of anything going wrong.

On a similar theme, UPS remote monitoring platforms like our cloud-based Riello Connect act as an extra pair of eyes watching over your unit’s operations. Automatic alarms and notifications immediately flag up any faults or failures, enabling field engineers to swiftly solve the more serious problems.

When it comes to batteries, the best way to minimise the threat of failure is to house them in a dedicated temperature-controlled room. This means the UPS and other IT equipment can be installed in a separate server room at a higher temperature that’s suitable for them but would cause harm to battery packs.

It’s also advisable to leave a 10mm gap between each block of batteries to ensure adequate ventilation. Doing this helps to avoid thermal runaway, an irreparable condition that causes the batteries to swell. It goes without saying that regular battery testing and maintenance is also a must to identify – and replace, where necessary – any defective or damaged cells.

Maintaining safe server rooms

Now that’s the uninterruptible power supplies and batteries covered. But what about the rest of the IT room?

Many data centres now use a containment system to maintain an ideal operating temperature. This isolates the heat generated by the IT equipment as well as the cold air from air conditioning units, with the cold air being drawn in through the front of the servers, then being exhausted out the back as hot air.

This is probably easier to achieve in larger setups with multiple server racks, but by considering the ventilation of a room, the same principle can also be replicated in smaller configurations too. If you’ve got any unused server racks, you’ll need to install blanking panels, while it’s also advisable to fix air tiles into the cold aisle of your containment system to make the cooling process more efficient.

Make sure server room doors are kept closed at all times to prevent warm air entering the facility. And where possible, only use your IT room for IT equipment. If you’re strapped for space, it might well be tempting to turn your IT room into something resembling a storage cupboard that’s home to all other sorts of bits and pieces.

But any mess or overcrowding only makes it harder for the air conditioning system to circulate the cold air effectively.

There’s one final handy hint, particularly if you’re running an older IT room. Some of you will still be using incandescent lightbulbs. These use just 10 per cent of their energy to light a room, with the other 90 per cent just generating unnecessary heat.

That’s why we’d strongly recommend upgrading to modern fluorescent lighting instead.

Follow these top tips to keep your cool and avoid any unexpected IT meltdowns this summer (and beyond).

Leo Craig, General Manager, Riello UPS