Guide to Comprehensive Data Center Water Usage – (Part I) Why Do Data Centers Use Water?


Data centers play a substantial role in natural resource consumption, with a focus traditionally placed on carbon emissions and electricity use. However, there is a growing awareness of the importance of water usage in these facilities. Water is a critical component in data center cooling systems, vital for managing the heat generated by these extensive facilities, thereby ensuring uninterrupted operation of internal servers 24/7.

On a global scale, data centers are situated in diverse countries and climates, including regions susceptible to water scarcity and droughts. The United Nations projects that by 2025, 50% of the world’s population will inhabit water-stressed areas, underscoring the significance of addressing environmental concerns related to data center water usage.

Data centers require substantial water volumes for their cooling infrastructure, incorporating cooling towers, chillers, pumps, pipes, heat exchangers, condensers, and computer room air handler (CRAH) units. Furthermore, water is essential for the operation of humidification systems and for overall facility maintenance in data centers.

In addition to cooling, data centers employ water for various secondary purposes, albeit to a lesser extent. These functions encompass humidity control, fire suppression systems such as wet pipe sprinklers, and general facility maintenance.

Water for Cooling System

Data centers traditionally employ two main cooling methods: water cooling and air cooling. Water cooling utilizes water in various forms, such as chilled water systems or cooling towers, to absorb and dissipate heat generated by servers, storage systems, networking equipment, and power supplies.

The prevalent form of water-based cooling in data centers is the chilled water system. In this setup, water undergoes initial cooling in a central chiller and then circulates through cooling coils. These coils extract heat from the air within the data center. The system expels the absorbed heat into the external environment via a cooling tower. Within the cooling tower, the now-heated water interacts with outside air, facilitating heat dissipation before returning to the system for re-cooling.

While water cooling proves efficient, especially for managing high heat densities, and is favored in large ‘hyperscale’ data centers, it poses environmental challenges. The primary concern revolves around substantial water usage, a critical issue, particularly in regions grappling with water scarcity.

Water Usage in Humidification Systems

In data centers, water plays a vital role in humidification systems, essential for maintaining optimal humidity levels, particularly in winter. This practice is critical for preventing static electricity buildup and ensuring the durability and reliability of sensitive IT equipment.

Various humidification methods, including evaporative cooling or mist systems, introduce water into the air to uphold a specific humidity range of 40% to 60% relative humidity. This approach establishes a stable environment in computer rooms, mitigating the risk of damage to servers and IT hardware caused by dry conditions or electrostatic discharge (ESD). Efficient water usage in humidification contributes to the overall operational resilience and longevity of the data center’s critical infrastructure.

Where Do Data Centers Get Their Water?

Data centers typically acquire their water supply from municipal or regional water utility companies. This water is crucial for supporting the cooling and humidification systems within the data center infrastructure.

For cooling purposes, data centers commonly use potable water, which is safe for drinking and provided by municipal or regional water utilities. In some instances, non-potable water sources, such as greywater (treated sewage) or recycled water, may also be utilized. Notably, certain companies, like Google, incorporate reclaimed or non-potable water in a portion of their data center campuses.

Although data centers may explore alternative water sources like on-site groundwater, surface water, seawater, produced water (a byproduct of oil and gas extraction), and rainwater harvesting systems, these alternatives typically contribute less than 5% to the overall water supply for data centers. Municipal or regional water utilities remain the primary sources for meeting the water requirements of data centers.

Part II – (Part II) Analyzing Data Center Water Consumption & Cooling Practices Among Major Companies

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Universal Smart Data Center Technology
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