Fire Protection: Only You Can Prevent Server Room Fires

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Fire protection is a critical and obligatory part of server room design and planning. Because a fire can happen at anytime, IT must be prepared to protect the server room with the necessary equipment for the following reasons:

Life Safety. The primary concern when assessing server room fire protection requirements is to protect the lives of server room and surrounding personnel. Failure to do so can end in tragedy, and can also result in legal action.

Protection of Property. Servers and other equipment located in the server room are extremely expensive to replace. A fire protection plan should safeguard all equipment from excessive loss or damage. Many business insurance policies have fire protection requirements built into them. In order to pay for the replacement cost of damaged equipment, these requirements must be followed in order to receive any benefits from insurance in the case of a fire. Not only can equipment be lost, but invaluable data and information located on server can also be compromised.

Continuity of Operations. A minor server room fire may not cause long-term interruption to daily business activities, however, the fire suppression system must be able to extinguish a fire before it spreads and affects the continued operation of the enterprise infrastructure. The cost of downtime in critical business activities can cost the company thousands of dollars and interrupt employee productivity.

NFPA Codes and Standards for the Server Room

IT should review the following NFPA codes and standards for fire protection (requires registration):


Codes and Standards. IT managers must comply with the state, local, federal, and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes and standards, specifically, the NFPA 72 (National Fire Alarm Code), NFPA 75 (Standard for Protection of Computer and Data Processing Equipment), and NFPA 76 (Standard for the Fire Protection of Telecommunications Facilities). However, it is ultimately the authority having jurisdiction that will dictate the majority of fire protection requirements. Under the NFPA 75, the server room at a minimum must have a sprinkler system, fire detection and alarm, portable fire extinguishers and Emergency Power Off. Any other form of fire protection, such as a clean agent suppression system, is classified as an add-on.

What It Is & How It Works

Fire Detection Systems, Alarms, and Emergency Power Off

Fire detection systems and alarms identify the early presence of a fire through heat and smoke sensors. Info-Tech recommends installing a combination of both smoke and heat detection systems for optimal results.

Smoke detection systems are the most effective detection device for the server room because they can detect fire at the incipient stage. There are two types of smoke detection systems for the server room:

  • Ionizing and photo electric spot systems use laser beams to intelligently detect and locate the source of smoke in the server room. These systems should be programmed to both sound the alarm and activate the suppression system when smoke is detected.
  • Aspirating systems take in samples of the air through piping installed throughout the server room. The air is sent to a detection unit where it is sampled for irregularities such as smoke. These systems are highly sensitive and should only be programmed to sound off an alarm; they should not be programmed activate any suppression system, such as water or clean agent, when irregularities have been detected.

Heat detection systems identify abnormal sources of heat in the server room. They are only required in some jurisdictions; however, it is best practice to install heat detectors along with smoke detectors in the server room.

Alarm systems are used to communicate the presence of a fire to personnel and authorities. They should contain both signaling and notification characteristics as well as a control system.

  • Signaling and notification devices should be both audible (bells or sirens), and visible (flashing lights). Signaling devices alert personnel that a fire has been detected. Notification devices alert the authorities that a fire has been detected. The most common signaling device is the pull station. 
  • Control systems are a more intelligent system that can be preprogrammed with requirements such as time delays, thresholds and passwords. They can also be programmed to activate the suppression system under predetermined rules and alert authorities of a fire.

Emergency Power Off (EPO) will automatically shut down all equipment in the server room when fire suppression is activated. Typically it is also installed with a manual EPO station, which when activated disconnects power to the room. This button should be protected and labeled so that it is not accidentally pressed, as the costs of shutting down all equipment are high.

Sprinkler Systems

Sprinkler systems are mandatory in the server room under NFPA 75. There are two types of sprinkler systems to consider: wet and pre-action sprinkler systems.

Wet sprinkler systems are located throughout the server room and can be activated by the control systems or heat sensors in the nozzle. They hold a supply of water in the pipeline and spray (or mist) to suffocate the fire. When the bulb in the nozzle reaches a certain temperature, the sprinkler system will activate. Wet sprinkler systems are not recommended for the server room as the risk of accidental discharge is high. This can be extremely detrimental in the server room as water can severely damage electrical equipment.

Pre-action sprinkler systems are similar to the wet system, but do not hold a supply of water in the pipelines overhead. They are activated in two phases. First, when a fire has been detected, the alarm sequence will cause the overhead piping to be filled with water. Next, when the glass bulb in the nozzle breaks due to heat, it will release the water into the server room. Info-Tech highly recommends pre-action sprinkler systems in the server room as they lower the risk of accidental water release.

Clean Agent Fire Suppression Systems

Clean agent fire suppression systems are used to contain and extinguish fires. There are two types of these suppression systems, the first of which is mandatory, the second of which is optional.

Material Safety Data Sheets

For additional information on the chemicals used in clean agent fire suppression systems, refer to the following material safety data sheets:


Portable Fire Extinguishers must be located in multiple areas of the server room and are mandatory. Under the NFPA 75, the HFC-236fa fire extinguishers have been approved for use in the server room. HFC-236fa is preferred because it consists of gas and does not leave residue on equipment when released.

Permanent Fire Suppression Extinguishing Systems are gaseous agents released into the server room to suppress fire. They can be installed as a total flooding system, or as a spot flooding system on the rack level in specific areas of the server room. Gaseous agents have become a popular method of fire suppression because they cause limited damage to server room equipment and are easier to clean up after release. These systems, although effective, may be toxic and their by-products can harm the environment and personnel.

  • Inert gases. There are three types of inert gases accepted for use in the server room: 
    • Pro-inert gases (IG-55) are composed of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and argon. They are said to have no toxic effects on people or the environment. Refer to the material safety data sheet for more information on IG-55.
    • INERGEN is a high pressure gas that, to be effective in fire suppression, requires many tanks located throughout the server room. According to the APC, INERGEN storage tanks can be stored up to 300 feet away from the release nozzles.
    • Carbon Dioxide (CO 2) can be used to reduce the amount of oxygen concentration needed to suppress a fire. Because of its large storage volume it requires many storage containers to be effective, and takes up a lot of space in the server room. CO 2 is not safe for areas occupied by personnel.
  • Fluorine based compounds are liquefied compressed gases that have a low storage volume and can be released in 10 seconds or less after detection of a fire. It can be used in server rooms with ceiling heights up to 16 feet, and are often used as an alternative to Halon 1301 systems, which the use of has been prohibited. There are two types of fluorine based compounds approved for use in the server room:
    • HFC-227ea (known as FM-200 and FE-227 in commercial brands) can be held in a low volume container. It can be retrofitted in pre-existing Halon 1301 systems; however existing pipes must be replaced.
    • HFC-125 (known as ECARO-25 and FE-25 in commercial brands) can also be held in a low volume container. It can be retrofitted in pre-existing Halon 1301 systems using the same pipe system.

Key Considerations

Consider the following before installing or refreshing the server room’s fire protection systems:

  1. Codes and standards. The server room fire protection systems must comply with local, state, and federal codes where the server room is located. Some NFPA codes and standards are included in state laws and must also be followed. IT must be familiar with codes and standards that are mandatory before installing fire protection units in the server room to ensure that at least the minimum requirements are met.
  2. Server room volume and equipment. IT should consider the volume of the room when assessing the fire protection system. Clean agent fire suppression systems will be more expensive in larger server rooms because it will require more supply of the gaseous agent. The safety of equipment should also be considered when choosing a system as some forms of fire protection can harm and damage server room equipment when released. Choose the option that is best for server room contents.
  3. Conversion costs for pre-action sprinkler systems. Info-Tech recommends pre-action sprinkler systems for fire protection in the server room, however IT must be aware that conversion from wet to pre-action sprinklers are costly. IT must consider the costs, as well as existing pipes and systems before going ahead with pre-action sprinkler systems.
  4. Sprinkler nozzles. Some vendors recommend mist sprinkler system nozzles over the standard nozzle. Changing sprinkler heads can add additional costs to the server room’s fire protection system where it may not be necessary.If switching, or planning to switch sprinkler nozzles, make sure the cost is justified.
  5. Clean agent fire suppression systems. These systems are not mandatory for fire protection in the server room but are successful for quick fire suppression. While clean agents can be very effective in suppressing fire, and have advantages of lower impact on damage to the equipment, they are also expensive, costly to install (especially if they do not retrofit into existing pipes) and may be toxic. IT departments that are striving for a green server room should be aware that they can be harmful to the environment.

Key Takeaways

  1. Life safety should be the first concern. The number one consideration when evaluating fire protection options should be the safety of personnel working within and around the server room. Fire protection monitoring should be a part of every shift change routine. Use the Info-Tech Advisor Premium Small Enterprise tool, “Server Room Shift Turnover Checklist” to check fire protection systems during shift changes.Life safety is mandated by law and is non-negotiable.
  2. Seek professional expertise. Design Engineers and/or Fire Protection Engineers should assess potential hazards and issues associated with the server room before any action is taken. Seek external professional expertise to construct the final plan for fire protection in the server room.
  3. Pay attention to local, state and federal fire codes. The authority having jurisdiction in the location of the server room will ultimately have the final say on server room fire protection requirements. Ensure that these codes are met to avoid fines. The server room must have a sprinkler system, fire detection and alarm, portable fire extinguishers, and EPO at minimum.
  4. Evaluate the options in fire protection. Not all fire protection options must be present in the server room; however some redundancy is a general best practice. For instance:
    • Smoke detectors are mandatory, but it is a best practice to install both heat and smoke detectors.
    • Sprinklers are mandatory; however they may also be paired with clean agent fire suppression systems.

Small enterprises should conduct a business impact analysis on the costs, risks, and downtime losses to evaluate non-mandatory fire protection options.

Bottom Line

The server must be equipped with fire detection and suppression systems that recognize and extinguish fire; abide by local, state, and federal laws, codes, and standards; and foremost, protect the lives of personnel. Understand the options in server room fire protection and prepare the server room in case of a fire.

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