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Data Centers and Lightning Protection Systems

Special Risk Factors:

When people send data and computing services into the cloud, they want confidence that it can be downloaded when needed. But what if a cloud (the meteorological type) downloads something else first — a lightning strike that hits a data center or server farm? Too often, it means: Good-bye data. Adiós building safety. Auf wiedersehen investments. Sayonara confidence.

To understand the magnitude of the problem, compare the electrical current in a single data processor to that of a lightning strike. As circuits within chips continue to get smaller, allowable power loads also decrease to a mere fraction of a milliamp. Yet a lightning strike upon a data center releases tens of thousands of amps and sends millions of volts surging through all available paths seeking grounding.  If even a fraction of that current enters a processor, it will corrupt a calculation, fry a circuit, or destroy an entire server.

In addition, the capricious whim of lightning can spark fires, destroy structural elements, knock-out vital systems such as cooling, power, and security, and even take an entire server farm offline. Unfortunately, it can also maim or kill personnel.

Examples: Lightning causes more disruptions to data centers than get reported. These examples, however, were too big to be ignored by news media:

Data Center Logos

Amazon: A cloud computing service was offline for more than four hours after an electrical storm damaged power equipment.

AT&T: Customers were unable to access the company’s U-verse platform following a data center fire caused by lightning.

Google: Four successive lightning strikes hit the electrical systems of and caused a loss of power to storage systems.

Microsoft: Lightning disrupted the power supply and knocked the cooling systems offline, damaging “a significant amount” of equipment.

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Circuit boards are no match for powerful lightning surges. A lightning protection system provides a network of low resistance pathways that safely conduct powerful lightning surges between the atmosphere and earth — and away from mission-critical electronic components and building systems.

Photo: RogDel, CC BY-2.0


Design and Installation Considerations:

Lightning protection systems (LPS) complying with recognized U.S. safety standards have a proven record of effective and reliable performance. These standards include: LPI 175, NFPA 780, and UL 96A

The standards call for a network of air terminals (lightning rods), lightning conductors, and ground electrodes to create a safe, low-resistance path between the top of a structure (including rooftop equipment) and the earth. All wiring and services passing through the building envelope must be protected with surge protective devices. The structural system, raised access floor, server racks, HVAC, plumbing, and other metallic systems within the data center have to be bonded to achieve electrical equipotential, and all the center’s grounding systems have to be interconnected.

Note that it may be necessary to exceed the requirements in the standards to provide a data center with the highest levels of protection.

An LPS professional, certified by the Lightning Protection Institute, should be part of the data center’s design and construction team. The LPS professional must collaborate with the electrical and systems engineers and the construction team to assure proper design and installation of the LPS.­

The Lightning Protection Institute- Inspection Program should be part of building commissioning. The facility’s operating and maintenance staff must be trained to work around an LPS. For example, installation of new equipment may require connections to the LPS, and caution must be used when performing rooftop maintenance to maintain the LPS’ integrity.


Case Studies

Houston Data Center

A co-location data center like this CyrusOne facility in Houston, TX can’t afford downtime due to lightning. The roof-top air terminals (lightning rods) do not distract from the aesthetics of the building and are located where they can intercept lightning strikes and then safely route the power through conductors into the ground. Rooftop cooling equipment and architectural features such as the vaulted skylight are also included in the lightning protection system­.

Photo: Hicks Lightning Protection


Equinix Data Center

At this Equinix data center, formerly owned by Verizon, 24-inches tall air terminals (see arrows) were installed instead of the twelve-inches tall devices used on most buildings. The taller devices provide a larger zone of protection and can be spaced further apart to better align with architectural features.

Photo: Northeast Lightning Protection, LLC



Final Thought:

Your data center is under constant attack – from nature as well as hackers. Just as you use backup, redundancy, multiple layers of surge protection, and other best practices, lightning protection systems are essential for comprehensive cybersecurity and business continuity.


Further Information

Lightning Protection Basics:

Lightning Protection Risk Assessment:

Guide Specification: Section 26 41 00 – Facility Lightning Protection.