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The right balance is critical  

Operators of business-critical facilities are faced with a number of commercial and environmental challenges and managing these is often a balancing act. Brian Blakesley of COFELY explains the role of service providers in rising to these challenges 

Within the broad range of duties that fall on the shoulders of the facilities manager there are often facilities that are deemed as business- or mission-critical, requiring a different approach to how they are managed. Obvious examples include dealer rooms in financial institutions and server rooms in organisations that manage high volumes of electronic data. 

Historically, the typical approach has been to devote extensive resources to protecting these facilities, irrespective of the financial and environmental cost – on the ground that the loss of functionality caused by system failure would be far more expensive. For example, those organisations participating in the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme will be able to reduce their expenditure on carbon allowances by reducing energy consumption. But in many cases those potential savings will be a tiny fraction of the cost of a major failure of their business-critical systems. 

However, the upsurge in concern over environmental impact is generating conflicts within some organisations. One the one hand, shareholders and other stakeholders want to ensure such facilities are totally reliable. On the other hand, many of those same people expect the organisation to exercise a responsible attitude to the environment. 

The conflict arises because protecting resources such as data centres, or the environments that high-earning dealers work in, tends to be energy-intensive. Principally, the computers and other electronic equipment that such activities rely on generate a great deal of heat, necessitating the use of extensive energy-hungry cooling systems. And, of course, consumption of energy depletes fossil fuel reserves and increases carbon emissions, all to the detriment of the environment. 

Balancing these varying requirements requires a creative and innovative approach that takes into account a number of factors. These include the criticality of the facilities to that particular organisation, as well as the opportunities for introducing new ways of doing things without compromising the integrity of the systems. In most cases addressing these issues will require input from specialists in maintenance and energy management. And it will be essential that any such service providers have a profound understanding of the organisation’s priorities to ensure the proposed solutions are appropriate and strike the right balance. 

For instance, what constitutes a critical facility will vary considerably from one organisation to another. For a bank or other financial institution the data servers and the systems serving dealer spaces will be considered highly critical. For an online retailer, the systems that process orders and despatches will be equally critical to their operations. So fundamentally, in these instances, the level of criticality is determined by the potential for financial losses should the systems fail. 

In other facilities the priorities may be different. In a hospital or a nuclear reactor, for example, the health and safety aspects of maintaining critical systems will be paramount. Or in a corporate headquarters the FM’s critical priority might be ensuring the air conditioning in the managing director’s office is working, because of the fall-out when it doesn’t. 

So each person’s and organisation’s concept of criticality will differ, but all will have equal importance to the individuals involved. Clearly the prospect of nuclear meltdown, or a system failure in a major financial institution that could rock the global economy’s boat, have much wider implications for the rest of us. However, each organisation’s priorities are still valid and the service providers responsible for maintenance and energy management need to take these into account. 

Nor is it enough that the senior management of such a service provider have that understanding, the engineers and technicians at the sharp end play possibly an even more important role and their understanding and attitude is paramount. For example, when there is a problem with a critical facility such as a data centre, clocking off at 5pm if the problem hasn’t been resolved just isn’t an option. 

Of course, in the case of what might be considered ‘truly’ critical facilities such as banks and potentially dangerous utilities there are externally-imposed regulations, designed to ensure that the appropriate level of system integrity is maintained. In the case of the financial institutions, for instance, the Financial Services Authority lays down minimum requirements for system integrity and reliability and many such organisations choose to exceed those requirements. 

Consequently, financial institutions probably face greater challenges than other operators of critical facilities and will require specialist knowledge above and beyond what might be required for a general office building. However, the underlying principles of understanding priorities and being pro-actively innovative will bring benefits to all such situations. 

Response times in the event of problems with critical facilities are a major issue and the finance sector expects nothing short of an immediate response and a swift resolution. To assist this, staff need to have been highly trained in a range of possible disaster scenarios, so they know exactly how to respond. 

Where external factors are responsible this can require a highly creative approach. For example, when the water mains to one of our customer’s buildings were disrupted the cooling towers couldn’t function and the cooling systems were compromised. The answer proved to be the use of water tankers, so that water could be pumped to the roof of the building to maintain cooling operations until the mains was restored. 

The same level of creativity, combined with an understanding of priorities, can also be applied to the dilemma of reducing environmental impact without compromising system integrity. Again, this is particularly demanding when dealing with the high heat gains generated by dealer floors and server rooms. 

Computer aficionados may be familiar with Moore’s Law, which says that the number of transistors that can be inexpensively placed on an integrated circuit is increasing exponentially, and doubling every two years. Effectively, this means that servers and other computers will continue to become more powerful and as they do so they generate more heat and a greater demand for cooling. 

In parallel, many such institutions have rationalised their estates in the last couple of years, reducing the total number of buildings and increasing the density of occupants in the remaining workspaces. In dealer rooms, where each dealer may have several computer monitors on their desk, this puts considerable strain on the cooling system. One option might be to install additional cooling plant but this will certainly increase the organisation’s carbon footprint. An alternative is to make better use of the existing plant by ‘tweaking’ the systems. 

In one case, we were able to install extra chilled beams to dealer floors to supplement the existing cooling. In another instance, we used the floor void to introduce cool air beneath each desk, so the cooling effect was applied directly to the main heat sources, making the heat removal more effective. In server rooms, where the comfort of people is secondary to the needs of the machines, it may be possible to adjust set point temperatures to make more use of free cooling. 

Of course, in these situations, such remedial work has to be carried out without disrupting the key activities, often in phases for a few hours each night. 

These examples relate to reactive modifications but specialist service providers also have a pro-active role to play in advising the customer of the potential for improvements to the systems. Again, this will often be driven by a requirement to minimise environmental impact. 

Obvious examples include fine-tuning the control strategies of systems and the potential for introducing renewable and other low carbon technologies. Wind turbines, solar power generation and combined heat and power are all headline-grabbing initiatives that are good for an organisation’s image, but they also need to be practical solutions with the required level of resilience. Or, if the service provider has a wider FM role, they may advise on how to reduce waste and increase recycling, or other aspects of sustainability.  

In addition, there are measures that can be taken to reduce carbon footprint, such as improving the efficiency of non-critical systems such as lighting in common areas. Where both critical and non-critical systems are served by the same plant, there is also a strong case for separating these so the maintenance of each can be more closely aligned to the criticality of each system. This approach can help to drive down costs without putting key systems at risk. And while such peripheral systems may represent a tiny fraction of total energy consumption it all adds up and ensures the organisation is doing what it can without compromising its critical systems. 

These are just a few examples of how operators of critical facilities can also address their environmental obligations. The key to turning the theory into practice is to team up with those who have not just the necessary specialist knowledge but also the experience to understand the context and optimise the service to each customer’s requirements.