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Detecting And Preventing Electrical Fires In Your IT Infrastructure

Kevin Conklin| August 10 2017

| IT insights



Despite low probability, the risk to people, property and the business is too high not to plan proactively.

Just this past April, firefighters responded to a server room fire at a technology business in Green Bay, Wisconsin. A business representative discovered the air conditioner had failed causing the server room to overheat. The Green Bay Fire Department estimated $10,000 worth of damage.

Although the probability of a similar fire originating in your IT infrastructure is low, the level of risk is significant given that IT plays a fundamental and vital role in running your business. According to research by the National Fire Protection Association, approximately 200 fires break out every year in electronic equipment and server rooms.

While insurance may cover your business for the physical damages due to a fire, there’s no way to recoup the cost of computer network downtime. If you lose data that cannot be retrieved, the bottom line impact and the damage to your reputation may even be greater.

Common Server Room Fire Causes

Without proper controls over temperature and humidity levels, and without sufficient fire-suppression capabilities, server rooms are at a heightened risk for fire. Here are the most common causes:

  1. Electical failure
  2. Overheated gear
  3. Subfloor wiring
  4. A fire that spreads from another room in the building

Electrical failure is the number one most common cause and occurs when components short circuit or become overloaded. Overheated equipment occurs when cooling systems fail. Even if overheating does not cause a fire, servers can still sustain severe and irreversible damage.

Advance Detection = Prevention

Servers can heat up quickly, and the more heat they give off, the more risks go up. That’s why it’s so important to outfit your server room or data center with the appropriate cooling measures and detectors.

 In addition to standard sensors that identify the presence of smoke, flames and carbon monoxide, it also pays to install sensors that detect thermal changes. These generate alerts when the temperate or humidity rises above the preferred threshold. This allows you to proactively identify high temperatures before a fire breaks out.

 The sensors should operate on low-power operation so that industrial-grade batteries can last up to 20 years. Also establish a reliable and secure communication link between the sensor infrastructure and the Internet so you can remotely monitor the sensors and receive alerts. This is especially important for the evenings and weekends if there’s no one working onsite.

Tips to Prevent Server Room Fires:

Proper Design

Server room design is essential to reduce the risk of fire. For instance, wires that are not clamped down or servers that are too close together can increase the risk of overheating. It’s also vital to wall off the server room to reduce the risk of fire spreading from an adjacent room. Recovering from a fire to the break room is much easier than a fire to the server room.


Loose papers and even paper in a wastebasket can serve as fuel for a fire, so maintain a spotless server room at all times. In general, keep papers and other combustibles at a distance from all monitors and CPUs throughout the building so they cannot be ignited.

Read: Robust IT Infrastructure For Lean IT Departments


The same AC system that cools the rest of the building is not efficient because your server room needs more cooling power. Installing a dedicated system also enables you to set the right temperature for your server room. A backup AC is important too in case the primary unit fails. 

Consistent temperature and humidity

Speaking of temperature, most experts recommend keeping server rooms between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity is also important- relative levels should be maintained between 40%-60% rH. If the air becomes too dry, it can create static electricity and increase the risk of fire. If the air becomes too humid, the moist are can cause corrosion that damages equipment and causes permanent failure. 

Beware of laptops too

Laptops also present an issue if placed on soft surfaces (such as furniture) because the vents are usually on the bottom. Even for devices on hard surfaces, instruct employees to turn computers and monitors off when they leave the office.

Free risk assessment

Each office building is unique, so it’s important to conduct a proper risk assessment to establish the potential for fire to break out. Work with a third-party consultant who understands the nuances of server room fire safety.

Follow the standards

For guidance on fire protection, consider the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) booklet, the Standards for the Fire Protection of Information Technology Euipment (NFPA 75). In addition to helping you comply with the fire safety regulatory requirements for computer rooms, the recommendations help address concerns, such as the fire threat to people and property, as well as the economic impact from loss of records, loss of equipment, and business interruption.

At the Top of Your DR/BC Agenda

 Workplace fires place the safety of everyone in the workplace at risk, and they damage property, assets and infrastructure. Fires can also threaten neighboring businesses.

Furthermore, when suffering a disaster, such as a major fire, 25% of businesses that are forced to close do not reopen. That alone should put planning for such a contingency at the top of your disaster recovery and business continuity planning agenda.


Topics: IT insights

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Kevin joined Ipswitch in 2015 and leads the company’s product and content marketing practices. He is widely recognized for his product marketing accomplishments in information technologies. He is a serial startup executive having played instrumental roles in the success of such companies as for Prelert, VKernel, Mazu Networks and Smarts, Inc. and has been instrumental to the success of these IT management technology companies. Kevin is also the co-host of the PICNIC Podcast live show (https://picnic-podcast.com/), sharing experiences and best practices, providing a voice of expertise, and educating IT professionals with the latest technology challenges.

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