Beating The Summer Heat

by [Published on 24 May 2005 / Last Updated on 24 May 2005]

Summer heat can wreck havoc on your servers. If you’d prefer to spend your summer boating or barbequing than fixing servers, then check this story of how I coped with the extreme heat in my own server room.

Ah summer… Just the thought of it brings to mind cookouts with my friends and lazy afternoons on my boat. For those of us in IT though, this is the time of year when we need to do a quick check to make sure that our servers aren’t going to go into melt down from excessive heat. In this article, I will share with you my own story about how the summer heat became a huge problem for my own network and what I did about it.

Looking back, I guess I was lucky. All of the companies that I have ever worked for had spent big bucks making sure that their server rooms felt like a refrigerator. I always thought of an ice cold server room as a great place to cool off on a hot day after returning from lunch or from a trip to the computer store, but I never really understood the importance of the cold air. Sure, I knew that cold air was supposedly good for the equipment, but I had no idea what would happen if the room were to overheat.

In the year 2000, I decided to quit my corporate job and take up freelance writing on a full time basis. The first thing that I did was to go buy a bunch of computers and start setting them up in my home. Although I can’t seem to recall exactly how many computers I bought, there were a lot of them. I was writing about computer networking, and I needed to be able to create any configuration that I was going to be writing about. I also needed a few systems to run my business off of.

At that time, I never gave any thought to the amount of heat that so many machines would produce. Believe it or not though, once I got everything hooked up, the heat wasn’t even noticeable. Looking back, there were several good reasons for this though. For starters, I put all of the computers in my home’s basement. The reason why I chose the basement had nothing to do with temperature control. I used the basement because it was a quiet place where nobody ever went. In actuality though, the reason why no one ever went down there was because it was subterranean and the temperature rarely rose above 65 degrees; perfect for computers.

Another reason why heat never became an issue in that environment was because I didn’t have all of my computers in a single room. Although I had a huge basement, it was divided up into a number of smaller rooms. The ceiling was too low to accommodate the rack mount systems that I use today, so I had no choice but to place a few computers in each room. Of course not having too many CPUs in any one room helped to hold down the heat.

The final reason why heat was never an issue in that environment was because it was five years ago. Even though I had bought mostly high end systems, the systems that existed five years ago didn’t produce anywhere near the amount of heat that today’s computers do.

About a year later, I decided to move to a warmer state and buy a big house on the water. Although I loved my new home, my computers didn’t. Because the home was waterfront, there was no basement. Since I didn’t have a basement, I picked one of the larger bedrooms on the third floor to be my office. Even though this house was a lot bigger than my previous home, I didn’t have the luxury of placing a few computers in each room. They all had to go into my office. The only practical solution was to get rid of most of my existing computers and buy some computers that I could place on a rack. I then used KVM switches to connect four CPUs to each monitor, mouse, and keyboard.

I moved into my new home during the winter and one of the first things that I noticed was how nice it was to not be freezing while I worked (during the winter months, the temperature in the basement at my old home hovered around 50 degrees). Spring soon arrived though, and the warmer weather and the faster and more numerous CPUs quickly overwhelmed the air conditioner. By early summer, the temperature in my office was staying consistently above 100 degrees.

I knew that I needed to do something about the heat, but at that time I had no idea of the effects of extreme heat on computer equipment. I just knew that it was tough to work in that kind of heat.

All of my friends told me that I needed to get a window unit air conditioner for the room. However, the type of windows that the room had made it impossible to install a window unit. Besides, I didn’t want to block my view of the water or make my house look trashy.

Since a window unit wasn’t an option, I purchased a high velocity ceiling fan. The fan made working in the room a little more bearable, but did nothing to actually cool the room down. Since the fan wasn’t giving me the desired results, I decided that it might be better to just avoid the heat completely. At first I tried only working late at night, but as the season progressed, the room became too hot even at night. I then tried using my laptop to do my work, but the only quiet spot that I could find was outside on my deck. That worked pretty well at first, but as the summer went on, temperatures outside soared into the triple digits, so I really wasn’t any better off working outside than inside.

It was around this time that I began to really see the effects that the heat was having on my computers. The first thing that I began to notice was that computers were starting to lock up for no apparent reason. I was also starting to get some really strange error messages while running applications that had never given me problems in the past. It wasn’t until someone asked me to co-author an A+ certification guide that I learned that lock ups and random error messages are both symptoms of an overheating processor.

During this time, I also started noticing that I was having an exceptionally high number of hard drive failures. I knew that the heat was wrecking havoc on my computers and that it made for a miserable work environment, but I really didn’t know what to do about it. My solution at that time was to leave all non essential machines shut down when I wasn’t using them. This meant that I left a domain controller, a DNS server, and my Exchange Server running all the time. Everything else remained turned off except for when I was actually using it.

During those times when I did have to use all of my machines, the temperature would sometimes rise to over 120 degrees during the hottest part of summer. Although I did everything that I could to help preserve my equipment, I did lose two or three computers to the heat. The ironic part is that when a computer would die, I would replace it with something newer, and we all know that newer and faster processors produce more heat.

Late last year, I decided to sell my home and buy something a bit more practical. One of the things that I looked for was a home that would be better suited to my computer network. I was ecstatic when I found a house that had a large bonus room with two huge, air conditioned closets. When I moved in, I set up my computer rack in one of the closets and ran the KVM cables through a hole in the wall. My thinking was that I would be able to work in comfort because all of the heat producing computers were in a separate room. I had also hoped that since the closet was smaller than the office at my old home, that the air conditioner would be able to do a better job of keeping things cool.

Up until about a month ago, my plan worked great. My computers are all in the closet where I can’t hear them or feel the heat that they give off. However, I recently discovered that the closet isn’t very well insulated. By the time the temperature outside had reached 80 degrees, my computer room was already over a hundred degrees, and that was with the air conditioner running. Being that it was only March at the time, I knew that I had to do something because my computer room was only going to keep getting hotter.

I got on the Internet and found a couple of different companies that make portable air conditioners. I bought one that was designed specifically for server rooms. The air conditioner was reasonably priced (under $500), but hooking it up proved to be interesting.

What I didn’t realize was that even portable air conditioners require a couple of vents. One vent allows hot air to be removed from the room. The other is basically a drain for water that condenses. The particular model that I bought automatically evaporates most of the condensed water, but still has to be drained occasionally. What I wasn’t counting on was that I had to cut a five inch diameter hole in my wall for the hot air vent. It was a little unnerving cutting a huge hole into a brand new house, but I did it and the air conditioner works fine.

The server room will never be ice cold during the summer, but thanks to my “portable” air conditioner and the home’s air conditioner, my servers aren’t going to overheat either. So far the hottest day that we have had this season has been about 87 degrees. During the heat of the day, the server room was a comfortable 74 degrees.

If you are reading this and thinking about adding an air conditioner to your computer room, there are a few things that you need to consider. First, be sure to check out the number of BTUs that the air conditioner is rated for. A 12,000 BTU air conditioner will only cool an area of about 400 square feet.

Another thing to keep in mind is that air conditioners require a lot of electricity. For example, the unit that I bought draws 900 watts of power. Since your computers are already drawing a lot of electricity, it would be easy for an air conditioner to trip a circuit breaker. It’s best to have an electrician install an electrical outlet that is on a dedicated circuit.

Conclusion

In this article, I have told you my story of dealing with the effects of summer heat on my computers. Here is a list of things that you can do to help to minimize heat buildup in your own computer room:

  • Some computers monitor the temperature at the BIOS level. If your computers support this feature, then configure any non essential machines to automatically shut down if they begin to overheat.
  • If possible, distribute your servers throughout several server rooms rather than placing them all in a single room.
  • Try moving servers to the lowest floor possible. Lower floors stay cooler.
  • Basements often have ideal climates for computers. If you do use a basement, be sure to elevate all computers and wiring at least a foot above the floor in case of flooding.
  • Supplemental air conditioners can really help you get a handle on server room heat, but keep in mind that they may require professional installation.

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