Planning your data center from scratch: Site selection essentials

Our world runs not on fossil fuels, bio fuels or solar energy. Our world runs on data.

by Donna Ballast

Our world runs not on fossil fuels, bio fuels or solar energy. Our world runs on data.

Most of our modern telecommunications, commercial, financial, national-security, military, academic, and government systems are dependent upon reliable data manipulation, storage, retrieval, exchange, and safe-keeping. Reliability of these data systems hinges heavily on where we house and how we power and cool them.

What do TIA-942 Telecommunications Infrastructure Standard for Data Centers, ISO/IEC 24764: Information Technology Generic Cabling for Data Centre Premises, and CENELEC EN 50173-5 Information Technology-Generic Cabling Systems Part 5: Data Centers all have in common? That would be cabling.

BICSI-002 Data Center Design Standard and Recommended Practices will not be just another data center cabling standard, but will complement TIA, ISO/IEC and CENELEC data center standards.

BICSI-002 will also address (in detail) other physical infrastructure considerations of data center design, including: site selection, building structure, power, cooling, security, fire protection, and others.

Over the course of the next few months, I plan to briefly preview several of these, beginning this month with site selection.

Covering the basics

During site selection, you should avoid areas that are seismically active. If this is not possible, you must provide appropriate seismic mitigation. While you have input to what is constructed on your site, having the adjacent building fall on yours during a seismic event would still be “disruptive.” Consider working with a professional structural engineer to determine the appropriate seismic criteria and risk from adjacent structures.

Having the water table below the lowest level of the building and the utility ducts is preferred. You should avoid any area in a 100-year flood plain or downstream from a water tower, dam or levee. (Remember New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward.) Also avoid any area with wetlands or that is a “protected habitat.” Locating in these areas tends to increase construction costs and public awareness of the facility.

Stay away from these, too

You should avoid areas with unstable or expansive soils, including landfills and areas prone to volcanic activity or landslides. Consider working with a professional geotechnical engineer to obtain a formal written geotechnical report.

You should avoid areas with tornado, hurricane, high-wind or sandstorm risks. If this is not possible, then all structures on the site (including overhead cables, architectural screening, and sound barriers) must meet the appropriate wind-loading requirements.

Area topography must not restrict locating geosynchronous satellites and ground dish arrays, or cause line-of-sight issues when locating wireless access equipment.

An area with clean air quality is preferred. Appropriate fresh air intake filtration systems must be provided. Areas with existing air quality problems tend to have very stringent regulations regarding emissions produced from fossil fuel consumption. You do not want to select an area where running the site generators would create an air quality issue.

You should avoid areas with elevation of 3,050 meters (10,000 ft), as the lower air density significantly degrades operation of the air cooling systems.

Determine noise levels produced by site support equipment, such as generators and cooling towers. Then, verify acceptable noise levels at the property line and mitigate as required.

Utility services

Electrical and communications services to the site should be provided underground whenever possible. This will reduce the potential for system failure caused by damage to overhead utility lines from vehicular accidents or severe weather.

You should select an area that would allow for at least one service feed from two separate and distinct central offices/data centers, each central office/ data center to be fed from multiple separate and diverse networks. Each service feed is to be delivered to the site from their respective central office/data center using separate and divers paths.

You should select an area that would allow for at least one circuit from two separate and distinct electrical service substations, with each substation being fed from separate and diverse power grids, and preferably with each circuit being delivered to the site from their respective substations using separate and diverse paths. Consider working with a professional electrical engineer and the electrical utilities serving the site to ensure adequate electrical utility capacity to meet the current and projected needs.

Backup generators are used to back up data center equipment in case of utility power failure. Emergency generators are used to power emergency lighting, fire pumps and other data center life safety systems in case of utility power failure. The physical size of these generators can be from as small as a compact car to as large as a full-sized tractor-trailer box. When selecting a site, consider space for an electrical unit substation and associated transformers as well as one or more generators.


In addition to domestic water for drinking, rest rooms, and kitchens, etc., irrigation for watering lawns, and sprinkler systems for fire suppression, some data center cooling system designs can require 200 to 300 gallons per minute of quality water.

You should select an area where the municipal water utility can continuously supply an adequate quantity of quality water independent of long-term weather conditions. In areas where continuous supply from your municipal water utility is a concern, you may also want to consider a private water well supply. All water, regardless of its source, should be tested for contaminates and particulates to determine if water filtration systems will be required.

You should select an area with a municipal sanitary waste sewer system. In areas without a sewer system, you may need to provide an on-site sanitary waste system (septic system). You will need to coordinate with the authority having jurisdiction and provide all remediation as may be required by code and standards. Holding tanks, traps, etc., may be required and need to be planned into the site design.

You should select an area that would allow for at least one service feed from two separate natural gas sources to adequately support the heating systems, cooling systems, and electricity generation (emergency and backup generators) that the site will require. When utility-provided natural gas is not available, on-site stored fuel sources may be used. Careful planning of on-site fuel storage is a must. For blast containment, you must consider tank proximity to structures and the ability to accept fuel deliveries without compromising the data center’s “no drive” zone. Farther is definitely better. Physical security and aesthetics should also be considerations.

You should select an area with good public road access. Two or more access roads from within reasonable distance (2 to 10 miles) of a freeway or other major arterial road is preferred, but that would not require that the data center, support facilities, or fuel storage be near the roadway. How far away? Imagine a tanker truck full of combustible, toxic, or an otherwise dangerous load exploding on the road in front of your facility.

Regulatory checklist

There are a few regulatory issues that you absolutely must research before you commit to a site:

  • Local building code and zoning requirements, which will dictate everything from setbacks from the property line for the building, parking, or perimeter security to number of parking spaces required.
  • Acceptable levels of noise from equipment operating within the data center.
  • Acceptable levels of noise that cannot be exceeded at/beyond the property line.
  • Height or proximity of communication towers to other facilities.
  • Height, diameter or proximity of water tanks and cooling towers to other facilities.
  • Height, size or proximity of fuel storage tanks to other facilities.
  • Air quality and restrictions on generator emission of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Carbon Monoxide (CO) and Particulate Matter (PM-10). Emission levels must meet state and local requirements.

Next time, I will look at good and bad “neighbor” choices, as well as construction methods and materials.

DONNA BALLAST is BICSI’s standards representative, and a BICSI registered communications distribution designer (RCDD). Send your questions to Donna via e-mail:

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