Historical Risk Analysis
The multiple life safety benefits derived from a professionally designed smoke detection system that is installed in every high value, mission sensitive or mission critical facility, is unchallenged. Traditional data center designs recommended smoke detectors to be mounted under the raised accessible access floor, if applicable, and on the ceilings in all computer rooms. This basic design scenario is a decades old boilerplate industry standard.
Sometimes these smoke detectors, or ASD (Aspirating Smoke Detection) sampling points when cross zoned and when activated, are mated to a state-of-the-art fire suppression system. The usual suppression specifications are designed to extinguish a fire with an approved suppression agent, mathematically designed and discharged from within the calculated cubic area of the computer room.
The historical basic need for the electronic detection of particles of combustion, or smoke, in an almost sterile computer room, is driven by two basic factors:
1) Code Driven: To protect human lives and facility property by providing an “early warning” notification system, signaling the occupants to evacuate the building immediately because of the detection of smoke or an in-progress fire.
2) Convenience Driven: The blame game starts. If the computer room or data center stops functioning, the loss of revenue because of a technical disruption is enormous. The facilities insurance companies have a huge financial interest to find technical faults of a specific computer systems chassis, or line voltage conduit system, or cooling systems that failed, reviewing historical logs of real alarms vs. false alarms, or discovering simple operator errors.
This includes conducting a detailed forensic investigation starting with the original detection system design, installation, sub-contractors, scheduled inspection reports, preventative maintenance measures or operator training errors, all searching for faults.
The “Economic Loss” Paper Trail
Who will compensate the facility for the loss of revenue? A reason, a fault or a discrepancy must be discovered that caused a computer room or data center to shut down as the result of any incident. Any loss of revenue as the result of the initial incident and future potential revenue streams has both legal and subsequently financial consequences. The facility stockholders require answers from facility management. The subsequent discovery and litigation efforts is usually time consuming and economically exhausting.
The key word in this analysis is early warning. The issue is how much time is really considered to be early. When does the damage clock start to tick: When micro-arcing starts, when actual arcing of line voltage powered conductors starts, when coils are starting to overheat? When plug-in connectors become loose and arc? When terminal strips loosen from constant heating and subsequent cooling? When plastic insulation on conductors starts to melt? Or when drive bearings overheat or when enough particles of combustion are produced with a large enough quality and density that a detection system analyses an abnormal level of particles of combustion and activates the Fire Alarm system and possibly, the suppression system.
The evidential damage financial loss clock will be forensically documented, and subsequent economic damage assessment will be calculated from the initial time of the incident.
A False Sense of Security Ends in a Realtime Incident
Issue #1 An original manufacturers technical detection system design may have been overshadowed by the glitz of the hardware and associated software, regardless of the manufacturer. This also applies whether the system was a conventional zoned or an addressable smoke detection system or an ASD, Aspirating Smoke Detection systems.
During the technical design phase of the detection system, few talk about the planned inherent velocity of the ambient cooling air, as originally designed, which consistently moves and travels over and through the racks of equipment. Most important, this air movement subsequently dissipates and dilutes fresh new, fine traces of particles of combustion, originating from the start of power arcing or component level electrical arcing, or pre-arcing called micro arcing.
Issue #2 Think back to when you witnessed a conventional or addressable smoke detector test or ASD, Aspirating Smoke Detection systems sampling point test. Although the systems are technically different, what did they all have in common during this industry standard testing procedure?
• They both had the smoke testing agent sprayed directly into the normally passive addressable or conventional smoke detector or the ASD sampling point. The massive concentration and the introduction of the testing agent, in just a few seconds, did not and cannot replicate real time early warning and actual real-time detection conditions.
This test, utilizing a smoke test agent, will only prove that a manual injection of a high enough concentration of a test agent, applied in a second or two, was reached to activate the detection system threshold. I have never witnessed a high value, mission critical or mission sensitive smoke detection system failing, utilizing these exact False Sense of Security test parameters.
False Sense of Detection System Security #1
The quality and density of real-time smoke particles generated in the computer room would have to be detected at a large quantity level, over time, to be detected to overcome the ambient cooling velocity which would be diluting and dissipating the fresh, new, products of combustion. This inherent air dilution fractionally diminishes the ability of the smoke detection system to detect the start of small component arcing, rendering it virtually useless as a true “early warning” system.
Regardless of the quantity of smoke detectors or sampling points installed, the constant dilution of any ongoing products of combustion will simply render the system design claimed sensitivity of the detector or sampling point, in real-time practical ambient conditions, inaccurate for practical detection in the facility. The density of real incident smoke must be large enough to overcome the disruption of the cooling CFM of air traveling around the passive detector or air sampling point required to activate the detector analytics and subsequently, the FACP, Fire Alarm Control Panel.
False Sense of Detection System Security #2
The detection system currently installed probably will not be able to identify the specific system cabinet or rack location, or the specific level or shelf within the cabinet or rack, that caused the alarm condition.
Unfortunately, as in most cases, to identify the actual failed chassis system, one only need to see which system’s pilot light was extinguished and/or which series of chassis LEDs was not activating, indicating a lack of data flowing. Hence, it took an IT staff member with a systems IT knowledge to determine which server, on which rack level, in which cabinet, failed. Or, in the case of a Fire Alarm, it took an IT staff member, valuable time, to look for the source of the particles of combustion, visible smoke.
False Sense of Detection System Security #3
The system Commissioning documents, and periodic and timely Testing Documents should be readily available to the AHJ, the Authority Having Jurisdiction. These documents are usually stored near the system’s control panels. These historical records indicate a smoke detection system has been installed, commissioned, and tested according to the service contract, per the manufacture’s recommendations and industry standard codes. This package of documents, when maintained, present an impressive technical package. Some Facility Managers might call this package their “get out of jail free” package.
The dated Test Results reports provided indicate and document that each detection device was in fact tested successfully (or failed) with a test smoke agent, as recommended by the system manufacturer; the smoke detector or sampling point did in fact operate and activated the associated system’s alarm. Please note, the test smoke agent was introduced directly into the detector head, or sampling point, bypassing the normal actual real-time ambient conditions of high velocity cooling air.
Hence, the testing documentation does provide you with certification the system smoke detection system does function as designed and recommended by the system manufacturer. The certificate does not indicate the system will function when real-time smoke or particles of combustion, mixing with ambient velocity cooling air, will have a great enough density to actually activate the smoke detection system.
When questioned by the manufacturer’s representative, the answer provided is usually: The detector head is designed for a maximum velocity of x CFM’s and the CFM’s measured at the time of test was -x CFM, well below the manufacturers CFM rating.
Although the smoke detector was tested with 100% test gas injected directly into the smoke detector chamber, or ASD sampling point, the client is sometimes baffled and does not understand the complexities of real-time actual smoke detection functionality. Injecting test gas agents directly into a detection port, detector head or a sampling point, for a few seconds, is not real-time and actual operational conditions in your facility.
False Sense of Detection System Security #4
The additional false sense of security when testing conventional or addressable smoke detectors is the use of a magnet. Some smoke detector manufacturers employ an internal reed switch installed in the detector head or base. When this reed switch is exposed to a handheld external magnet, designed for testing purposes only, it will complete an internal electrical circuit, and subsequently activates the Fire Alarm Control Panel, per the manufacturer’s design. This test is useless for smoke detection, as it indicates only that the internal reed switch completed an electrical circuit, only. It is not a test of the detector head’s particles or products of combustion analytics.
Bringing this issue into your personal home may help you to understand this misleading dilemma of a false sense of security. When you test the battery powered smoke alarm in your home, you usually depress a designated button located on the surface of the device. If the battery is in good condition, the device horn will sound. Depressing that button completes an electrical circuit and proves the device has battery life; it does not prove the smoke detector sensing chamber and subsequent smoke analytics will function, in real-time, as designed by the manufacturer.
False Sense of Detection System Security #5
System Self Testing of programmed detector head sensitivity, whether at the local Fire Alarm Control Panel (FACP) or from a remote location, is a very practical time and labor-saving function of new addressable smoke detectors. It is now possible to test every smoke detector head in the entire facility, as often as you like, in literally seconds and minutes. This feature is a great breakthrough in the Life Safety industry. Since the testing is done through software, actual manual injection of a test smoke agent is not required for the test. Which alerts us to new issues:
1) The testing technicians no longer have the opportunity to visually inspect each detector for abnormalities. This includes touching the surface of the device, looking for abnormal dust, dirt, discolorations, insects, or ambient debris.
2) The automatic test for sensitivity does not mimic your facilities real time actual conditions for smoke detection because of the ambient dilution and dissipation of particles of combustion or smoke due to the velocity of the cooling air flowing through the facility.
False Sense of Detection System Security #6
Utilizing the smoke detector manufacturer’s calibrated sensitivity test instrument, is a good, labor-saving method. This test indicates if the detector is within the manufacturer’s suggested sensitivity level. The good aspect of this benefit is the manufacturer has developed a test instrument and method to test every proprietary smoke detector head. It also provides the technician the opportunity to visually, hands-on, inspect every device for physical abnormalities like dust, dirt, insects, or ambient debris. The false sense of security, which is worthy of your consideration:
1) The test for detector sensitivity only tests the calibration of the detector. It does not mimic or test real time conditions in your facility for smoke detection because of the ambient dilution and dissipation of particles of combustion due to the velocity of the cooling air flowing through the facility.
Solutions, Answers and Remedies
Speak to your Life Safety systems original provider and current service/maintenance provider, they are your industry experts. Ask your Detection and Suppression vendors and distributors to be part of your Quality Assurance Team. They have a factory supported vested interest in the performance of the systems they maintain, both contractually and economically.
The vendors and distributors of these types of systems are professionals, they usually have participated in factory sponsored training and have factory commitments standing behind them. Be proactive and invite the vendors and distributors to demonstrate their willingness to work with you and demonstrate their technical abilities.
Obtaining a Comfort Level
I would ask the detection and suppression companies for their recommendations to upgrade their perspective systems. You may be surprised to learn how much the technology has changed since your systems were designed, installed, and commissioned. The minimum industry design parameters from the date of your original system’s installation have changed. The sensitivity limitations of all detection systems have all changed. The system’s functionality, capabilities and software have all changed.
Ask your vendors to provide proposals for system upgrades, tell them you are pre-planning for system upgrades in the next fiscal budget. Most importantly, ask for an understanding of your existing system’s growth potential and expansion limitations.
You should be proactive now and learn all you can about your detection and suppression systems, prior to any incidents. Yes, you have contracted with professional detection and suppression vendors who are experts in the industry. Now is the time to ask them to be part of your advisory team.
Upgrade and Update Your Requirements for Your Facility
The system design professional should explain the exact new upgraded design parameters and renewed expectations of each individual system’s performance.
Ask questions: What are the new design requirements? What are the threshold expectations of detection? What rate of obscuration is required? Is individual cabinet/rack detection required? Does each individual rack/shelf in the cabinet, require detection? Will each cabinet rack be sealed in an enclosure? Is future facility expansion a consideration? Has the sub-floor been eliminated in the new design? What is the new design criteria for the suppression system? What is the design criteria for the equipment cooling system? What is the HVAC design criteria for the physical plant floor space?
Industry Standard Codes: Data Center Fire Protection Standards: NFPA 75 & 76
Data Centers must comply with NFPA 75 and 76 revised standards to ensure that there are proper fire detection and fire suppression systems in place to keep the facilities data, employees, visitors, and the building safe.
• NFPA 75 is the Standard for the Fire Protection of Information Technology Equipment and is the minimum requirement for data centers to pass national building code requirements.
• NFPA 76 is the Standard for the Fire Protection of Telecommunications Facilities and provides similar standards for fire protection of telecommunication companies providing data, telephone, wireless, internet transmission, and video services to the public.
Three Different Levels of Data Center Fire Protection is Available
Designing and providing for the numerous fire hazards associated with high value, mission sensitive, or mission critical data centers, fire detection and protection might be necessary at three different levels: the building level, the room level, and the rack level. What level of detection and protection is desired, expected or required for your facility?
Data Center Downtime is Like Burning Money
The detection, suppression and cooling systems installed in your facility operate 24/7/365 and must function, without question, with no ambiguities. The proactive time you spend to learn about your systems with your factory trained vendor partners and distributors, is a worthy investment of your time. Your goal should be obtaining a comfort level knowing your life safety systems are up to current industry standards, local and state codes and are reliable.
ABOUT STERLING LANGLEY LLC
After 35 years in the Life Safety Systems industry, Lloyd Aronoff established Sterling Langley LLC. As an Open Innovation Product Developer, the company is motivated to uncover hidden value in a manufacturers existing investment of electro/mechanical products and create new innovative peripheral devices.
All too often, a manufacturers R&D staff have been reduced or eliminated for corporate economic survival. Subsequently, brand new innovative product market share erosion may be recognized too late to economically adjust to competitive market demands.
“Designer-At-Risk” is an exclusive industrial engineering business model designed by Lloyd Aronoff. Sterling Langley LLC is compensated only if the client agrees with their creativity, ideas and intellectual property that includes new features, new functions, and new benefits, for their clients’ own commercialization.
Additional information about Creating Value Through Innovation can be found by visiting: https://www.sterlinglangleyllc.com Lloyd Aronoff can be reached at email@example.com or (954)-980-9074
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