Time to stop playing with fire

01/04/2016

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Future proofing a data cabling installation is not simply a ‘just in case’ measure; it’s driven by the absolute knowledge that at some point in the future the cabling configuration will need to change.  In the case of data centres, it may be because new clients are moving in and the data cabling needs to be increased, which is a scenario that frequently affects co-location data centres.

When it comes to fire stopping, refurbishment costs and disruption are often the unavoidable price paid for safety and minimised risk to business continuity.

When cables and cable management are fed through walls or floors as part of an installation, traditional fire stopping methods are relatively straightforward and inexpensive, but they can be time consuming. Moreover, they are usually carried out as a final fix job following the data and electrical installation, but because they are installed so late in the build process, they can pose an increased fire risk.

The process of installing fire stopping material only remains straightforward and inexpensive for as long as the cabling installation remains fit for purpose.  As soon as cabling needs to be added, or the configuration has to be changed, a fresh exit point must be made with all the dust, debris and inconvenience associated with it, and the fire stopping material must be replaced. The building ceases to be adequately protected against the risk of fire as soon as the fire stopping material is compromised.

Monitoring the compliance of fire compartmentation is often difficult when visual inspections are hampered by concealed cable routes and there is no clear, visible indication of the effectiveness of the seal on a cable penetration.

The alternative to conventional fire stopping material is a mechanical fire stopping device such as EZ-Path, marketed in the UK by Legrand. Designed to offer a permanent fire stopping solution, it is a simple box-like sleeve that is fitted into the wall or floor aperture and is available in varying sizes depending on the amount of cabling and level of future proofing required. The solution is supplied as two main components: the EZ-Path devices, which are available in three sizes and can be fitted as singles or grouped together; and the fixing plates, which cater for different installation scenarios. The plates are supplied with intumescent seals to ensure a compliant installation without requiring the purchase of any additional fire stopping materials.

EZ-Path works thanks to the intumescent material that fills the metal casing. This material allows cables to be pushed through the wall or floor aperture and seals around them.  In the event of fire, heat causes the material to expand, strengthening the seal and creating a flame, smoke and air-proof barrier.

In terms of future proofing, a system of this kind provides the most flexible and convenient solution without the potential risks associated with waiting for fire stopping material to be replaced or the disruption to normal operations of any added fire stopping works.

Many data centres are designed and built as co-location sites, with areas that are initially only fitted out as shell and core. Here the power is likely to be fed into the compartmented data hall during the initial build but the data installation will vary depending on clients’ specification.

As the data hall becomes occupied by more clients, the need to add data cables increases, which may include access through floors and walls. It is essential to keep dust and debris to a minimum during these works to protect the data centre’s existing clients during this process.

Using traditional fire stopping materials leaves the data centre exposed to this risk during both the initial build and during any cabling upgrades.  Conversely, installing a permanent fire stopping device at construction that allows additional cables to be inserted at a later date means that the building can be protected at a much earlier stage – before cable management or cables are installed – ensuring scalability without over-specification.

As gaseous suppression fire extinguishing methods are common in modern data centres, it is essential to calculate the air leakage of a compartmented area accurately, which requires reliable data on all exit points, such as doors and cable penetrations. This data should be readily available from all equipment manufacturers. A well-designed installation will include a thorough analysis of air leakage through all expected penetrations in the enclosure envelope. It will also specify leakage tolerances, and should recommend materials and systems that provide for the minimum amount of leakage.

As EZ-Path devices are consistent, airflow data is available for all sizes enabling the integrity of the enclosure to be calculated easily. This data is available as a range from empty to fully populated units so enclosure integrity can be more easily calculated and specified, unlike traditional methods that depend on the installer, the base material used, the number of cables and the installation itself.

The threat of fire in any business is cause for concern and in data centre environments it not only poses a risk of down time, but also has the potential to damage sensitive and expensive hardware, thereby threatening data integrity.