News

Communicating Sustainability Part I:
A Call for IT and Communications Systems
September 16, 2010

By Staff
Appeared in Sustainable Facility

Part I: A call for Information Technology and communications systems to go green.

The building industry has taken giant leaps toward sustainability in most areas but has neglected to recognize the role information technology (IT) and communications systems play in a building’s energy expenditure. In fact, today’s design community already has a certification rating system in place covering everything but IT and communications design. Until every building component is considered for its efficiency, we can’t consciously say we’re giving a green building to society. From owners and technology designers to rating systems like LEED, it’s high time for IT and communications systems to go green.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), IT systems and communications equipment account for as much as 5 percent to 10 percent of total energy consumption for the average U.S. building. While the majority is used to cool, light and ventilate a facility, 5 percent to 10 percent can add up to a significant waste of both capital and operational costs if the infrastructure installed hasn’t been optimized.

For example, the EIA says as much as 10 billion kilowatt hours, or 9 percent, of annual energy expenditures for education buildings alone come from communications equipment like computers, servers, copiers, fax machines and cash registers

Head-End Equipment

Head-end equipment, or switches and servers supporting end-user equipment, needs to be just as energy-efficient as the equipment it supports. Purchasing efficient head-end equipment from environmentally conscious manufacturers does not necessarily equate to a higher cost. In many instances, it can actually cost less depending on the model selected. But, more importantly, significant long-term savings can be realized by selecting the right equipment to begin with. Greening head-end equipment means specifying cost-effective, energy-efficient, low-latency, and high-performance switches and servers.

For example, a recent study of switch brands, conducted by independent test lab The Tolly Group (www.tolly.com), compared the power consumption under the same load between Brand A and Brand B. Brand A (20.9W) consumed less than one-third as much as Brand B (65.8W). Hypothetically, a building that switches from Brand B to Brand A can potentially reduce a portion of its energy bills by two-thirds while still maintaining the desired operational efficiency. Multiply this by the life of the switch, and operational costs would be greatly impacted.

Communications equipment changes rapidly as the result of technological innovation producing faster processing speeds and higher bandwidth. Industry standards state that a typical building will have an average of one outlet with four cables (voice/data) every 100 square feet. Multiply that by the number of floors in a building. Over the life of the building, thousands of unused cables and conduits are left as a result of ill-managed moves, adds and changes over the years.

Installing higher performance cable at the onset can prevent having to abandon lower performance cabling later. Furthermore, over time, those abandoned cables can create air dams that obstruct airflow resulting in the need for increased energy to cool the space. Therefore, specifying high-performance cabling will also promote energy efficiency while simultaneously providing a robust infrastructure that accounts for smart growth.

Balancing the ratio between fiber and copper cables can enhance sustainability, as well. Fiber cables consume less power and have a higher bandwidth but cost more than copper cable, so a best practice is to use fiber cables for backbone infrastructure and copper cables in the horizontal distribution. Designers should carefully consider the type of facility, applications supported over the lifecycle of the building, space constraints and equipment demands when creating a cost-efficient, sustainable infrastructure that will ultimately maximize the return on investment.

End-User Equipment

LEED addresses the building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) components, but it neglects the IT and communications components added to the building later. This means the plug-in load, or the amount of power consumed by a building’s IT and communications end-user equipment. This plug-in load can be reduced by specifying energy-efficient end-user equipment and unplugging equipment when not in use.

Employing high-performance computers, phones and fax machines with optimized energy ratings will use power more efficiently. Organizations like Electronic Product Environment Assessment Tool (www.epeat.net) provide owners with the data needed to evaluate and compare the environmental performance of end-user products like PCs, laptops and monitors.

Additionally, many unused computers and non-critical IT equipment in commercial office buildings, schools and even healthcare facilities are not being used 24/7 and can be unplugged after hours, reducing energy consumption.

Stay tuned: Part II will explore the need for an official set of sustainable IT and communications standards to serve as a guideline, as rating systems like LEED provide for general building design.

The Low-Hanging Fruits of IT Expenditure

Gislene Weig, RCDD, senior engineer and associate at Syska Hennessy Group.

Even buildings that can’t alter their legacy IT and communications infrastructure can still take steps toward sustainability. Here are a few ways to make any IT and communications infrastructure more efficient: Check the telecom room equipment. Make sure the equipment supporting the building’s infrastructure is energy efficient.

Check end-user equipment. Make sure to specify equipment from manufacturers that are conscious of the environment and power consumption. (A list of manufacturers, models and power equipment ratings can be found at www.epeat.net.)

Unplug equipment and cables not in use. Examine the racks and unplug any equipment and cables that aren’t being used. Plugged-in equipment and cables not in use are still exploiting power.

Install shutdown routines into switches and servers. Automatic routines in switches and servers can be set to shut down after hours or when not in use. While this is not for every facility, it can reduce expenditure significantly where applicable.

Server Virtualization. Server virtualization permits running multiple applications on a single server. Consolidate applications into fewer blade servers, resulting in fewer servers to power and cool, less network connections to manage, and a smaller carbon footprint.

Energy Audit. Select a consulting firm to perform energy audits in all main telecom rooms (data center, server rooms, etc.).

Organize and label. Over time, cable patching can lead to a spider web of wires obstructing airflow to the equipment. Organizing cables tightly and adding horizontal and vertical cable management can improve the airflow. Label all equipment and cables. This will improve troubleshooting and daily operations, facilitate the removal of unused and old cables, and make future add-ons easier.

Recycle. Use recycling programs for electronic equipment like old computers, cellular phones, printers, etc. Some manufacturers will even provide a credit toward future equipment purchases.

For a list of participant companies, visit www.epa.gov/wastes/conserve/materials/ecycling/donate.htm.

Gislene D. Weig, RCDD
Gislene Weig, RCDD, is a senior engineer and associate at Syska Hennessy Group’s Los Angeles office. Weig is responsible for all levels of communications infrastructure, including the design, planning and implementation of low voltage telecommunication systems for new and existing buildings across many market sectors.