Expert Article

Anu Kätkä

Anu Kätkä


Buildings and Indoor Air Quality
Industrial Manufacturing and Processes
Industrial Measurements

Why long-term accuracy is important in data center sensor selection

For a relatively small investment cost, HVAC sensors can make a significant difference to a data center’s energy consumption and power usage effectiveness (PUE). Sensor data sheets may all quote similar accuracy levels, but these figures do not tell you how accurate the sensors will be in five years or even ten. Some sensors drift quickly or significantly, whereas others have excellent stability, maintaining their accuracy year after year.   

Accurate measurements are crucial

Data centers are incredibly energy intensive, so even small reductions in energy consumption translate into big savings. Accurate, reliable sensors provide measurements for the control system, so they’re essential to ensure the building is not over or under cooled or heated. This optimizes energy use while protecting IT equipment from damage and costly downtime. The control of your HVAC systems and processes is only as accurate as your measurements are – when you measure accurately, you can control accurately. 

Accurate measurements can also help you to achieve better indoor environmental quality, improving the health of employees, as well as increasing the sustainability of your operations. Conditions can vary across your facility, so your sensors need to be accurate even in changing or extreme conditions. When buying sensors, data sheets will quote a level of accuracy which you can compare with similar products, but these don’t give an idea of stability over time. It i’s normal for sensors to drift, but there is a great deal of variation in how fast or far this drift happens. Some products will still be accurate in a decade, whereas others will drift almost immediately.

The risks of inaccurate sensors 

A low-quality sensor might break down faster, requiring maintenance or even replacement. However, a more serious risk is that the sensor might have drifted and be operating inaccurately without you even realizing. What drifting means is that the measurement is actually no longer a valid input for the control system, and this can be difficult to notice unless there is a visible consequence, like equipment being damaged because optimal conditions were not maintained. In the case of data centers, it could also mean that the energy efficiency is not optimal. Energy bills might be too high, which is not easy to spot. Choosing a stable, accurate sensor means you can trust the measurements in the long run to give the best possible input to your control system, so that optimal indoor conditions can be maintained in a reliable manner.  

Data centers consume more than 1–2% of global energy, and even up to 40% of that consumption is needed for cooling and air conditioning. Good HVAC measurements can reduce consumption, while inaccurate measurements can cause it to increase. For example, falsely high temperature readings can mean you cool too much. This means you are using more energy than you need to, and you have higher than necessary CO2 emissions as a result. If you have falsely low readings then you might not be cooling enough, which increases the risk of server malfunctions and can reduce server lifespans. Similarly, if your air is too dry it can cause short circuits in IT equipment, and too much humidity can cause damage from condensation. Although tolerances have increased, still the consequences of inaccurate measurements and unreliable building systems can be dramatical. 

Small inaccuracies lead to large costs

Vaisala carried out a case study to simulate how much more energy would be used if there was just one-degree measurement error, causing too much cooling. The results showed that a one-degree error increased energy consumption by more than 8.5%. With the size of data centers and assuming the same deviation is happening over a decade, this seemingly tiny error translates into many millions of euros of extra costs. Knowing that all sensors do drift over time, some quickly or significantly, whereas others have excellent stability, this deviation should be considered a real risk.

Aside from financial savings and sustainability considerations, the uptime is also worth considering. In this line of business the servers cannot be unnecessarily down. Uptime of 99.999, as many high-level data centers want to promise, translates into just five minutes of downtime across an entire year. The higher the tier of the data center, the more catastrophic an uncontrolled downtime will be.

Invest in long-term thinking

The more critical your building, the more important your sensors. Minimizing the total cost of ownership is different from minimizing the cost of investment. High-quality sensors will last 15–20 years so it is worth making sure you buy products that maintain their accuracy over time, and that are designed for effortless calibration and maintenance. This will help to keep your business running optimally, save you energy, and help you achieve better power usage effectiveness (PUE).  

Cheaper sensors will require more maintenance and need replacing more often, but the invisible threat is that they may drift without you even realizing, leading to sub-optimal indoor conditions and poor energy efficiency. It is wiser to think long-term over the sensor lifecycle and understand and compare the total cost of ownership – when it comes to stability of measurement, the comparative unit cost is only a small part of the story. When you choose reliable, high-quality sensors that maintain their accuracy long-term, that is real lifetime value.

If you are involve in data center industry and you’d like to know more about the importance of long-term accuracy in sensor selection, get in touch to discuss about the possibilities further.

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