Fire detection and suppression technology has been an essential component of the data center industry since its inception. The ability to identify and extinguish fires quickly with minimal impact on people and IT systems is vitally important wherever computers are installed.

Though technology has improved dramatically over the years, there are new challenges. The frequency of data center fires will rise as data center power concentrations ramp up to meet the energy needs of AI. The effects of environmental regulations, lawsuits, and even patent expirations are all forcing change on the data center fire suppression industry.

In the beginning, portable fire extinguishers and water-based sprinkler systems were the primary tools used to combat data center fires. Halon systems were introduced in the 1960s and were the predominant fire suppression technology for about 30 years. Though effective at fighting fires, Halon was bad for the Ozone Layer and dangerous. When Halon is deployed it can cause suffocation by displacing the oxygen people need to breathe. Halon was banned by the EPA in 1994.

FM-200 Is a Highly Effective Clean Agent

Clean Agents were the next step in the evolution of fire suppressants. The first Clean Agent was FM-200, introduced by DuPont in 1994. FM-200 is highly effective at mitigating fires. It works by removing heat from the fire and inhibiting the chemical reactions necessary for combustion. FM-200 is stored as a liquefied gas under pressure, typically in cylinders. It evaporates upon release and forms a gas that quickly fills the protected area. It does not impact the Ozone Layer and is fast and effective at putting out fires while being safe for IT equipment and people. FM-200 leaves no residue, so cleanup after deployment is easy.

Novec 1230 is another popular Clean Agent fire suppressant. 3M brought this product to market in 2004. Novec 1230 is considered safer for the environment than FM-200. Novec 1230 has a much lower Global Warming Potential (GWP) compared to FM-200, making it more environmentally friendly. It has been designed to have a short atmospheric lifetime and low ozone depletion potential. However, Novec 1230 is more expensive than FM-200 and requires more storage tank space to protect the same area as FM-200.

Environmental Regulations Impact Fire Suppressants

Both FM-200 and Novec 1230 are impacted by environmental regulations. The American Innovation and Manufacturing Act (AIM) was signed into law on December 27, 2020. The AIM Act authorized the EPA to take actions to reduce the hydrofluorocarbons released into the atmosphere.

To comply with the new EPA regulations, FM-200 began a “phase-down” process in 2022 that mandates reduced production of the popular fire suppressant. By 2037 only 15% of the amount of FM-200 produced annually in 2021 may be brought to market.

Even though Novec 1230 does not contain hydrofluorocarbons, the AIM Act had an impact on Novec 1230 too. On December 20, 2022, 3M announced that it would discontinue all production of Novec 1230 by the end of 2025. The company made this decision based on the changing regulatory environment, the hundreds of lawsuits they were forced to defend themselves against, and the fact that their patents relating to Novec 1230 were about to expire.

Gradual Evolution

So, what does the future of data center fire suppression look like? Though both FM-200 and Novec 1230 are being phased out, this process will take a long time. Though future production of these two products will be restricted, the EPA has not mandated they be taken out of service. Since both products have shelf lives of 20 years or more, they can continue to be used for the near future in those fire suppression systems that are already in service. In fact, the environmental impact of replacing existing FM-200 and Novec 1230 systems is worse than keeping those systems in place. This will give the data center fire detection and suppression industry time for the development of the next generation of products.