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TierPoint facility uses unique system to chill building

SUNDAY, SEPT. 5, 2010

Near water, near perfect might be the business slogan for Liberty Lake’s growing data center, TierPoint.

Inside the 15,000-square-foot addition under construction, the privately owned data center will use a cooling technology that its managers found right under their feet.

Their plan involves tapping the Spokane aquifer with a 200-foot well that will send 750 gallons of water per minute through a heat exchanger. The water will come in at about 50 degrees and pass through the exchanger, where air is blown over the cold-water pipes. The system blows the cool air across the server rooms, where TierPoint’s corporate customers have racks – or tall cabinets – of computer servers running 24/7.

Water pulled in from the aquifer will be pumped back out about 10 degrees warmer. That slight increase will dissipate quickly.

What allowed the project to sail through several layers of government review were two key features: The water coming in doesn’t mix with other liquids and chemicals, and the system consumes no water. Every drop taken from the aquifer goes back in, said Mark Kartchner, the Spokane Valley engineer who designed the TierPoint system.

TierPoint’s three partners – Dan Seliger, Octavio Morales and Greg Zemp – say they’ve found no other data center in the United States doing this type of cooling.

The idea, first suggested for TierPoint by Spokane contractor Barry Baker, should shave TierPoint’s consumption of water by about 6 million gallons per year, once the center opens next spring.

“We are absolutely ecstatic about the opportunity to do something that is environmentally sensitive and cutting-edge,” said Zemp, who is in charge of operations at TierPoint.

Because data centers are designed to hold thousands of specialized computers called servers, stacked on racks inside protected, weather-sealed rooms, their operators constantly contend with keeping the temperature in the range of 72 to 78 degrees.

For more than 20 years companies have tapped into the heat of underground springs and wells, or for groundwater to heat a building.

In some parts of the country, including the Northwest, many companies also tap subterranean water to cool a building.

The first building in Eastern Washington to gain state approval to draw water from the aquifer for cooling was the Saranac Building in downtown Spokane.

In North Idaho, both Kootenai Medical Center and the Salvation Army Kroc Community Center tap the aquifer for cooling and heating.

Kartchner, who also designed the cooling for TierPoint’s first two buildings, said the TierPoint 3 system is unique. Unlike the Saranac and Kroc buildings, the Liberty Lake design will be simpler; it uses the aquifer water just for cooling and requires less maintenance.

Kartchner said the TierPoint project came together because of several environmental factors that are difficult to replicate except in certain locations:

• The center sits directly over the aquifer, and the layer of earth between the surface and water is free of basalt or large rocks.

• The aquifer is 200 feet or so below ground – a reasonable depth.

• The water temperature below ground is cold enough to allow for adequate heat transfer. Closer to the equator, water is warmer. Farther north, below-ground permafrost can damage wells.

“The Spokane aquifer is also one of the fastest aquifers in the country,” Kartchner said. “That is important because the water going back in (after being used for cooling in TierPoint) dissipates heat very, very quickly.”

Washington Department of Ecology staff estimated the 10-degree-warmer water going into the aquifer from TierPoint would dissipate within 10 or 15 feet of the insertion pipe. Extensive reviews by that agency and the city of Liberty Lake determined that TierPoint’s plan is environmentally beneficial and does not contaminate nearby water.

Data centers have become a booming regional industry, and TierPoint plans to take advantage of that growth with its new addition. Started in 2003 with an investment from Bernard Daines, TierPoint has largely filled the first two buildings at its Liberty Lake data center. Those two buildings use a more traditional direct-cooling system called “direct expansion refrigeration.”

TierPoint doesn’t disclose its financials, but Morales said the company is enjoying double-digit annual revenue growth. The addition, he noted, will help with plans to add more Spokane and Inland Northwest customers.

A large share of its growing business in data hosting, backup and network security comes from companies in Western Washington and Portland, he said.

“We think that with the new center we’ll be among the three largest nondedicated data centers in the region,” Morales said. Nondedicated centers provide space to a variety of customers, compared with dedicated centers, such as the ones built in Quincy, Wash., in 2007 solely for use by Microsoft, Intuit and Yahoo.

The massive Yahoo data center in Grant County, pulls in outside air for at least nine months of the year, when temperatures are below 75 degrees, to cool its server rooms, said spokeswoman Terrell Karlsten. The company uses versions of that same design on newer sites where possible, she added.

More traditional data-center cooling methods usually require some combination of refrigerants or machines called coolers.

Kevin Brown, a state Ecology Department permit manager, said Microsoft uses traditional cooling systems in its Quincy facility, with water used several times inside the data center and then sent to a treatment facility. To prevent the growth of bacteria in the water, the companies add chemicals before it’s sent to the Grant County treatment site, Brown said.

The TierPoint system is closed loop, with the aquifer water pumped into the heat exchanger, then sent back to the aquifer without mixing with other liquids or chemicals, Brown said.

“We approved it because it met those two criteria, being nonconsumptive (losing no water in the process) and being environmentally beneficial,” he said.

“Despite their popularity, data centers are sometimes perceived as big power hogs. We are primarily concerned with environmental impact here,” Morales said.

But TierPoint’s managers don’t know how much money the system will save, and Zemp said it’ll be two to three years before those comparisons with the company’s other buildings can be made.

The major savings will be in water consumption, however. Zemp said TierPoint’s new center will save roughly 4.5 million gallons that would evaporate in a traditional cooling system. It will also eliminate an estimated 1.5 million gallons of water that would be sent to Liberty Lake’s treatment facility if the center used a traditional system.

An added savings, said Kartchner, will be eliminating the chillers or cooling equipment found in traditional systems. “They won’t have to replace or maintain those parts, and that’s a major advantage,” he said.

While doing research on geothermal cooling, Kartchner consulted with his father, who runs a Boise engineering firm, where many businesses tap thermal springs for heat but not cooling. He also visited the Kroc Center and spoke with the people who designed the Saranac Building.

In large part, the TierPoint design met state approval thanks to the prior efforts by the people behind the Saranac Building, Kartchner said.

It took an extended campaign by Jim Sheehan, owner of the Saranac, and the engineers from L&S Engineering, in Spokane, to persuade the Ecology Department to authorize use of the aquifer for cooling.

Randy Wilkinson, who was the lead engineer with L&S to develop the Saranac project, said the permit managers at the Ecology Department at first said they would never approve aquifer cooling. It took more than a year, plus a meeting with Gov. Chris Gregoire, before the permit was authorized for the Saranac.

“We convinced them that this system makes sense,” Wilkinson said. “It enhances the environment because you save electricity, you’re not putting carbon products into the air and you’re not pumping any heat outside of your building.”

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