Enviro-friendly data center cuts costs

Data centers can be hogs to upkeep, and as cost factors like energy prices climb, some companies are turning to green methods to reduce costs.

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To the suits upstairs with the corporate checkbook, the relevance of the natural environment is greatly determined by its relationship to the bottom line.

So, when planning to construct a new data center with an inevitably strict budget, it seems to follow that costs associated with environmentally responsible initiatives could be difficult to approve.

For more information:

Data center goes green for energy savings

The Price of Power

But it's not a hard sell when also considering the financial benefits of efficient design, according to Doug McCoach, vice president of Baltimore-based architectural/engineering firm RTKL Associates Inc., who conceived the newly constructed Highmark Data Center, which features green elements, such as a 100,000 gallon rainwater collection scheme that helps to feed the facility's cooling system and toilets.

Highmark Inc., a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based healthcare insurance company, processes up to 500,000 claims a day and connects more than 100 hospitals and 15,000 healthcare providers. Its sloped, two-story, 90,000 square-foot facility hosts 28,000 square feet of data center and recently received a Silver Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), as well as a Tier-3 certification from The Uptime Institute. "It's not about saving the whales, it's about communicating to our clients that it's a very sound business practice," McCoach said. "In the corporate world it's a very important message. Honestly, in the last three years we haven't had a client who hasn't asked us about sustainability and cost -- and 'is it worth it?' But we try to put sustainability in terms the board of directors can understand."

Some cities, such as Seattle, now require that all new buildings meet LEED standards, and many architecture and interior design firms hire or train people to be LEED-accredited in order to compete for federal contracts, according to the USGBC.

"Going for sustainability forces us to make a better building, which has real benefits for the owner," McCoach said, regarding Highmark. "But data centers are energy sucking hogs in general, so it was a challenge."

Power is the big one. Data centers spend lifetimes cooling equipment -- if it were a household appliance, it would be a big refrigerator. But certain expenses can be reduced, as exemplified by other methods employed by Highmark, such as its hillside location, McCoach said. The slope, a factor in reducing the site's real estate cost and initially seen as problematic, actually enabled some creative cost cutting in the form of reducing the length of distribution piping, as well as flood concerns by not having chilled water running on the same floor. Other slope advantages, according to Highmark, include needing only one elevator for vertical transport, as the upper level is accessible at the high point of the incline.

LEED certifications are awarded according to a five-point scale that evaluates a building's site sustainability, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.

Highmark earned some of these points through fairly simple means, like installing bike racks and setting aside spaces for car pooling. Others were less standard, like recharging stations for alternative fuel vehicles.

But this kind of change is a big leap for many companies. Tom Condon, senior consultant for Chicago-based, System Development Integration, said alternatives are still viewed as risky.

"[Green initiatives] are still struggling to be adopted in nonmission critical building construction. So I think for widespread adoption in data centers -- it will take a while. It may accelerate as energy costs go up," Condon said.

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Joe Spurr, News Writer

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