Major Projects: Data Centre MEP Design

The optimum design and installation of MEP services is essential to the smooth operation of any building however in the 365/24/7 data centre environment it is even more vital that the MEP design incorporates robust and reliable solutions that fulfil business objectives. The infrastructure also impacts on energy efficiency and operating costs so we must explore every opportunity to be energy efficient and considerate of the environment.

Our Stephen Phimister, as an Uptime Institute Accredited Tier Designer, is a recognised leader in the design of data centre MEP. We asked Stephen to share some of his current thoughts on Date Centre MEP design.

Resilience of every service within a data centre is fundamental. Since the Covid-19 pandemic we have seen organisations move rapidly from centralised to decentralised working. Many companies whom had previously resisted cloud services found themselves deploying them very quickly to enable remote working. This was observed by data centre operators who saw increased demand right from the initial few weeks of lockdown as services were modified to cope with the changing environment. As businesses continue to adapt to new ways of working there will be increased global demand for data centre space.

Data centre demands

The demands of a data centre MEP design are considerably greater than those required for a standard building and normal pressures on designers are intensified. For example, physical space is always a key factor to take into consideration with each rack having a rental value attached to it. Obtaining more rack space can make a considerable difference to revenue levels over the lifetime of a data centre therefore optimising plant space is a critical aspect of design.

Data centres can have a particularly high energy density. Consequently, the sheer amount of power and critical nature of the loads being served require significant expertise in the design and delivery of the solution. This is not just to support the immediate power needs of the IT systems. Multiple voltages levels, Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS), large standby generators, fuel storage, transformers, metering and power usage effectiveness are just a few of the multidimensional electrical design considerations. However, of equally critical importance is the cooling solution and although significant improvements have been made in recent years designers still strive to reduce energy demand. The challenges of targeting Net Zero Carbon apply to data centres as well!

As energy efficiency of the electrical and mechanical systems is critical, from both an environmental and commercial perspective, innovative design can minimise the power required to run a data centre. In view of the energy density, small improvements in design efficiency can have dramatic effects in reducing carbon footprint and running costs.

From compressor free cooling, to hot/cold aisle containment solutions, to increased server operating temperatures, no stone should be left unturned when it comes to reducing energy consumption. However, all these good design measures can be ineffective if the operator cannot monitor, and therefore control, the energy use in operation. Metering is therefore vitally important, and this is delivered through a comprehensive metering solution or may be combined into an Integrated Data Centre Infrastructure Management (IDCIM) system, which combines the MEP and IT operating conditions of the facility.

In terms of site selection, from an engineering perspective power and communications are key. Some clients may try to manage risk through geographical remoteness however, without network capacity, what may seem like an ideal site may render it impracticable for data centre use. It is therefore vital that early feasibility and investigations are commissioned prior to a data centre build project commencing, to mitigate or minimise the risk associated with these potentially expensive fixes.

Setting the standard

There are many different standards that clients may choose to follow. For example, the Uptime Institute is one that is recognised globally for the creation and administration of data centre design, construction, and operational sustainability certification. Its Tier rating, which defines the standards required for different resilience levels, is probably the most quoted (and often misquoted) reference in data centre design. There is also a plethora of further specialist standards which must also be considered by the MEP design team.

Local and National legislation can introduce complexities, and the designers must be skilled at juggling the sometimes diverging business, build and regulatory requirements. In terms of meeting client expectations, it is vital to identify early on any gaps between their aspirations and regulatory or design restrictions. Of course, every client has unique requirements for their data centre facility. So, to deliver a successful project, the MEP design team must be skilled in extracting this information and harnessing a client’s knowledge about their business operations.

For any building services project, effective communication is the key element as this will highlight potential issues early on in a project, saving costly changes further down the line. Due to the levels of resilience demanded by a data centre, effective project communication is even more vital. Given the importance of MEP services within the operation of a data centre it is therefore imperative that building services engineers are involved from the earliest stages of design to help inform a successful final building layout and configuration.

We will be delighted to offer our considerable expertise in any of your Data Centre or business critical MEP design requirements.

Stephen Phimister, Glasgow