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Should you ionize air in the data center?

Is air ionization in the data center justifiable for preventive equipment maintenance? Is it worth the hassle and cost?

Dust contamination around servers is a growing concern as component densities and heat generation increase, and...

air flow becomes more complex and critical. Dust buildup on filters and heat sinks can cause overheating.

Air ionization reduces the potential for static discharge and captures very fine dust particles from the air, but installation isn't generally useful or a justifiable data center expense.

The technology used to ionize air has been the subject of debate and development over the years. It's a lot more complicated than plunking an ionizer down in the server racks.

Portable "home model" air ionizers are questionable for performance, and their high air flows make these designs incompatible with equipment maintenance in data centers. Air flow control and ionization balance are critical to making air ionizers work in clean rooms -- a level of control that is unachievable in most data centers.

Avoid dust-related issues instead with good operating and maintenance procedures. Clean heat sinks and filters when servicing IT systems, and wear a grounded wrist strap when working inside servers and other equipment at the chip level. Even the best air ionization system will not add a modicum of protection against human errors.

Positive air pressure also keeps outside dust from entering the data center facility. Keep foot wipes at each door, change filters on computer room air conditioners often to avoid clogging, clean equipment filters with HEPA-filtered vacuums, and use a professional data center cleaning service once a year. These practices are all more important than air ionization.

About the author:
Robert McFarlane is a principal in charge of data center design at Shen Milsom and Wilke LLC, with more than 35 years of experience. An expert in data center power and cooling, he helped pioneer building cable design and is a corresponding member of
ASHRAE TC9.9. McFarlane also teaches at Marist College's Institute for Data Center Professionals.

This was last published in January 2015

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Do you currently use air ionization in the data center? Why or why not?
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Because my business is located in an area that is dry and has high levels of dust and air particulates, air ionization units have been installed in our data centers. These have significantly reduced the amount of accumulated dust and detritus in the data centers, making for less repairs and less need for cleaning the systems on a regular basis. The cost of the air ionization units are worth the added costs for our budget.
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