When Free Cooling Isn’t Free

When most people think of the word free, we think of something that won’t cost us anything. When many vendors boast that their data center cooling system is “free”, the CIOs they are speaking to need to hand them a dictionary.  Free cooling systems are often inadvertently confused with fresh air cooling systems. These systems are not really free unless they are placed in very select (read: very cold) environments. Smart companies are using data centers in colder environments like Iceland to save substantially on cooling costs.

Free cooling designs, unless they are located in cold environments like Iceland, usually cost more money in the long run, and these costs are passed onto the consumer as additional fees. Data centers that are not in this unique position do have other options (although they are sub optimal):

Liquid Based Cooling Designs

Liquid based designs involve applying small amounts of fluid to remove large amounts of heat. The liquid is applied directly to the server. The heat transfer rate of water or liquid is generally 3-4 thousand times that of air. This fact alone makes these systems better and more efficient than air cooled systems for a data center is not located in ideal environments.

Evaporative Cooling Systems

Another attractive option is the evaporative cooling systems that come as close as possible to being actually free as a cooling system can come. Evaporative systems are not ideal for all climates or areas though. Many data centers could still benefit from the adiabatic or indirect cooling systems that evaporative cooling offers. American companies are moving to environmentally-friendly data cooling solutions that aim to reduce emissions, energy use, and costs by over 90%.

Mechanical Cooling Options

More and more companies are turning away from cooling systems that rely strictly on mechanical based solutions to perform their cooling function. Mechanical cooling options are increasingly coming under fire from environmental groups and even large political entities such as the European Union. Raising standards and lowering CO2 and HFC emissions is a goal that is becoming increasingly popular, and increasingly necessary as the EU continues to tighten its regulations every year.

Overall, and unfortunately, vendors trying to push “free cooling” systems are for the most part pushing a cooling solution that will be even more costly in the long run. The exception to this rule is environmentally-friendly data centers located in naturally cold locations, such as Scandinavia. It is here that a data center can offer significant cost savings. For data centers not in this unique position, it would be to choose another solution that would actually drastically reduce costs while also sparing some thought for helping the environment as well.

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