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It’s Hot (Some Random Thoughts on Heat)

June 22, 2016

Data centers are cold, except for the parts that are really hot. But, Mostly they are cold. One of the biggest expenses for a data center is the cooling system. Data centers are not built with any heaters. Not even in a cold climate like Utah in the winter. The problem is not that they get too cold. The problem is they get too warm. 

Computers create a lot of heat. And ironically, it’s heat that will kill them. Here in Utah, it’s been hot. Even at night, our temperatures have been down only in the 70’s. During the day we are in the upper 90’s and low triple digits. Wildfires are raging across Southern California due to the hot dry weather. Utah has a few wildfires in the Southern part of the state. 

Again, it’s somewhat ironic that the heat actually causes problems with the heat. By that I mean that the hotter it gets, the more people use their air conditioners. The more they use the AC, the more of a load it puts on the power grid. The more of the load on the grid, the more likely it is that the power company may need to cut power. (Calling rolling blackouts.) During a rolling blackout, of course, no electricity means no AC. Which in turn means more suffering from the heat. 

In Utah, typically our issue water not electricity. We make electricity with coal and we have plenty of that. But, California worries about the electric grid every summer when it heats up.  

I have an air conditioner. My neighbor has a swamp cooler. We typically wait as late in the year as we can to turn on the AC. It costs money, of course. And while I’m not a huge “green” fan, I understand that the electricity comes from coal and coal is not great for the air we all want to breath. We are having solar panels installed this year. I wonder if it will change my view of AC when literally I am using the heat of the sun to cool my house. If I have enough solar panels, I will not put ANY load on the grid by running my AC constantly. 

My neighbor’s swamp cooler is cheaper to run. If you’ve never lived in a hot dry climate, you may be unfamiliar with swamp coolers. Essentially it is a device that sits on top of your house, and blows air past water. The water evaporates. As it evaporates it requires energy. It gets that energy from the air, so the air is cooler (and moist.) The blower pushes that cool wet air into your house. 

Unfortunately swamp coolers have a couple of drawbacks. They have a limit to how much they can drop the temperature. Since they are relying on the principle of evaporating water, they don’t have the option of “turning down” the temperature. Water only takes so much energy. Once you get past a certain point, you cannot pump enough air past the water to combat the heat. My neighbor mentioned that our 90 degree days have moved them past that point. The second issue is that swamp coolers rely on the ability of the air to absorb the water. They increase the humidity. In a state like Utah were our humidity is in the 20 percent range, that works great. In areas like Seattle where I grew up, and the humidity can be in the 70%-80% range, they don’t work. The air just can’t hold the water. 

Not everyone avoids the heat at all costs. I remember a story about the famous actor Paul Newman. He was also a very talented race car driver. It gets really hot in a race car. Newman would spend the couple of hours before the race in his trailer with the heat turned on. It would get really hot. He felt that submitting himself to the heat before he was in the race helped his body to deal with the heat of the race better. 

Obviously race cars don’t have AC. I don’t normally use the AC in my car. I enjoy the feel of the wind through an open window or the sun roof. This week, I can’t crank the AC high enough. 

Hope you are staying cool wherever you are. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 
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