Why Data Centre cleanliness matters to Building Engineers

October 1, 2010

Information and communications technology (ICT) equipment is an essential part of most or all industrial, commercial and public built environments. Data centres and computer rooms of all sizes are obvious locations, but sensitive electronic equipment is found in other areas as well, often in high concentrations. Examples include ISP operations, UPS systems, communications facilities, robotics, and control rooms for industrial manufacturing and process operations.

However it’s situated, all such equipment needs protection from contamination. To understand why this is so, we need to understand what contamination is, how it can reach ICT equipment and the problems it causes if it does. Then we can see how a professional and planned approach to cleaning will prevent these problems arising.

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Contamination affecting ICT comes in two forms particulate matter (PM) and gaseous. PM spans a large size range, from 0.001 to more than 100 micrometers (?m) in diameter, and can come from sources both outside and within the building. PM sized from 0.1 to 1 ?m can be particularly problematic because these are the hardest for filters to capture. External sources include cars, electricity generation, sea salt, natural and artificial fibres, plant pollens and wind-blown dust. Internal examples are particles from air conditioning unit fanbelt wear, toner dust, packaging and construction materials, human hair and clothing, and zinc whiskers from electroplated steel floor plates. Contaminating gases can occur naturally or result from industrial processes. They can either act alone or together with other gases or PM to form compounds that can cause oxidization on metallic materials.

Contaminants can enter the data centre through air conditioning units, open doors, on clothes and on any equipment or materials brought into the room. Activities such as equipment maintenance, or lifting floor or ceiling tiles can also release PM which can then reach ICT equipment through gravity, diffusion or electrostatic attraction. Problems can then occur for many reasons. Oxidisation arising from gas interaction can cause permanent corrosion, leading to irreparable equipment damage and failure. If PM starts to block equipment cooling fans and heatsinks, these components must work harder to keep equipment within operating temperature limits. This can increase a data centre’s power demand by 2% or more, as well as potentially shortening equipment lifetime and causing hardware failure due to overheating. Zinc whiskers and other PM can bridge between conductive tracks within electronics equipment, causing short circuits and equipment failures a growing occurrence as ICT equipment shrinks in physical size, correspondingly reducing track bridging distances. Fibres in excess of 5 mm in length have been found inside data equipment. Because of these issues, ICT vendors are increasingly looking for evidence of insufficient contamination protection as a reason to void equipment warranties. Similarly, building owners or occupants will seek compensation from the builder if they believe cleanliness issues in the data centre on handover led to compromised ICT performance or failure.

Prevention of such problems starts with the design and building of the data centre and surrounding areas. The exact approach depends on balancing contamination mitigation with other issues such as energy efficiency, and on the particular circumstances of the project. However, relevant factors include the use of filters within the air handling and air conditioning units, positive pressurization, limiting the number of entrances to the room, strategic use of Takmats to capture footwear and trolley wheel dirt, sealing of subfloor areas and use of suitable materials and fabrics within the data area.

The builder can then continue with contamination prevention by implementing a cleaning program that starts after construction, but well before handover to the owner. One strategic time within the program would be when the shell of the area is finished, but before internal fittings such as cable trays or suspended floors are installed. This is because cleaning areas consigned to such fittings becomes more difficult or impossible once they are in place. For similar reasons, cleaning again would be appropriate before cable laying into the installed trays starts. Another strategic time would be just before installation of the first equipment because from that moment on full cleanliness standards become mandatory. If the constructor is still on site as equipment installation progresses, further cleaning at regular intervals is essential. The installation period will see an unusually high circulation of people and equipment into and around the data area, creating increased opportunities for contamination. Finally, a “Post Construction Clinical Clean” will include cleaning of the subfloor void, floor surface, equipment surfaces and the pedestal and stringer substructure to ensure that the data centre is as clean as possible following construction completion, and contractors leaving the site.

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Planning an effective cleaning program, in which both the schedule and nature of the cleaning activities are optimised, requires specialist knowledge of how locally prevailing conditions can lead to contamination problems, and how to prevent this. Therefore, it is essential to consult a specialist data centre cleaning company such as 8 Solutions as soon as possible. Using a general cleaning contractor or DIY may seem cheaper in the short term, but a critical lack of knowledge could lead to serious problems after handover.

A vital point about 8 Solutions’ cleaning strategy is that they work to ISO 14644, which is the globally accepted standard for contamination management in clean rooms including data centres. This Standard defines Cleanliness Classes from Class 9 to Class 1, which specify maximum allowable concentrations of particles ranging from 0.1 to 5 ?m in size. The lower the Class number, the more stringent are the concentration limits. 8 Solutions recommends that a data centre should achieve Class 9 to Class 6 cleanliness. After cleaning, 8 Solutions uses a particle counting meter to measure and prove the level of cleanliness achieved. This not only assures the data room operator that his equipment is secure from contamination, but also provides hard proof and certification for the operator, the builder and any third parties such as equipment suppliers that the room is clean according to a universally accepted standard.

Another key part of 8 Solutions’ strategy is their policy of using their own permanently employed technicians rather than subcontractors. So, they can be sure that anyone they put onto site has been security cleared, which can be a major issue given the sensitivity of many data centres. They are also assured that their technicians are trained and experienced in deep cleaning. They understand specific issues such as avoiding the risk of accidently activating controls on live ICT equipment. They also know the importance of using the right tools and materials for the environment. For example, using the wrong cleaner on an antistatic surface can strip away its antistatic properties, doing more harm than good. They also use filtered vacuum cleaners, as general purpose types tend to blow out dust that they have picked up, making contaminant levels worse rather than better. General cleaners also use water on an everyday basis, including sometimes within data centre environments a dangerous activity that a specialist cleaning technician would avoid.

Particle sampling provides valid proof of a room’s cleanliness at the time of measurement, but it doesn’t allow for any settled PM, or of contaminant later introduced into the area. 8 Solutions’ expertise in this area is essential, because they understand the factors that dictate the nature and frequency of cleaning required, and can advise accordingly. Once on site, they can perform a risk assessment, advise on potential contamination sources and offer a cleaning schedule matched to the circumstances of each construction project. They can also advise on related issues including commissioning and HEPA filtering for air conditioning and handling units, UPS and power system changes, and strategies for managing traffic through the room and use of access equipment. By tuning the type and frequency of cleaning, security from contamination can be continuously maintained as cost-effectively as possible.

Consulting a specialist data centre cleaner such as 8 Solutions for data centre cleaning will pay dividends and bring peace of mind to construction companies engaged on building projects that includes accommodation for ICT equipment. They have the skills and the staff to produce a certified clean environment, and the strategic capability to keep it that way through the volatile period of construction and handover.