Hot enough for you: Data center cooling system heats buildings

Dear Mr. Oil Man,

We will no longer require your services as we have discovered an alternate method of heating our home. Please do not fill up the tank any more. We wish you the best.


Smart College Students

That is part of a letter that was never sent to the guy who delivered heating oil to a house I shared with a bunch of computer science students in college. Back then, computers were not the powerhouses they are today, so to get a lot of computing power, we had to link several systems together in a sort of primitive Internet that didn’t extend beyond the bounds of the house.

All summer we devised ways to keep the server rooms cool, so that when winter came around, we wondered if we would really need to purchase heat. The computers were generating enough of their own, or so we thought.

The problem was that this was Frostburg State University up in the frigid mountains of Frostburg, Md. The computers themselves generated a lot of heat, but nothing that could contend with winters up there. About three inches away from the exhaust port of any system, the temperature was pretty nice. But beyond that you could still see your breath if the house heat was turned off.

It was true that the server room was moderately warmer than the rest of the house, but we had no way to distribute the modest heat gain to all the bedrooms. We were thinking about devising such a system, even tapping into the existing central air ducts when cooler heads prevailed, and we simply decided instead to buy more oil and heat the house in the traditional way.

But I always thought that the heat generated by computers could be useful. We are always fighting it. In the new lab facility we use a Tripp Lite SRCOOL12k to keep things from getting too toasty. Heat is seen as the enemy, but like fire, it can easily be used for good.

A few months ago, I wrote about how the Austin Advanced Computing Center was submerging computers in fluid (after removing cooling fans and other moving parts) to keep them running efficiently. It turns out that the hot water such a cooling system generates can be used after all.

Instead of venting heat from a liquid-cooled system to the atmosphere, Green Revolution Cooling has found a way to keep a compound of buildings nice and toasty at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

The water in the mineral oil-fueled cooling tank is naturally heated by underwater computers to about 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Normally that heat would be sent to a cooling tower and purposely bled off into the air, but instead, that hot water is being routed to the HVAC systems of surrounding buildings.

The result is that the computers really are heating the compound, which leads to reduced energy bills and less fossil fuel consumption. Since the heat from the computers is created anyway, using that energy to do other things is a perfect solution for both the wallet and the environment.

So there may be an oil delivery man getting his walking papers after all. He just lives in Sweden, not Frostburg.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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