Data centers are notorious for guzzling water, gobbling energy, shooting operational costs into the stratosphere and making Sasquatch-sized carbon footprints. That reputation could begin to change this fall, when TELUS flips the switch on its groundbreaking, "super-smart" and ultra-green modular data center in Rimouski, Quebec.

With the building's start-up, the Canadian telecommunications and managed service provider is also shifting the paradigm for data-center delivery, provided by a design-build team led by Skanska USA Building Inc., New York City.

The crux of the project is a newly patented cooling system, called eOPTI-TRAX, from Danbury, Conn.-based Inertech LLC, an infrastructure technology firm. Using eOPTI-TRAX, TELUS is engineered to slash data-center water, power and cooling overhead costs by 80%, compared to chilled-water systems.

"This is critical because 39% of U.S. water goes toward cooling buildings and power-production facilities," says Earl Keisling, Inertech's president and CEO.

The $65-million TELUS building "costs 30% to 40% less than a traditional data center," says Lloyd Switzer, TELUS senior vice president for network transformation. The Skanska model also provides operational reliability because the cooling system has redundancy and maintenance is automatic, he adds.

In addition, the seven-phase modular approach is allowing TELUS to invest capital as server demand grows. In turn, that allows TELUS to incorporate future advances in information technology systems into subsequent phases. The first phase of the 220,000-sq-ft project includes one 10,000-sq-ft server module.

Beyond cooling, Skanska, Inertech and other partners are working on improving data-center power delivery as well as developing other new technologies that will "dramatically reduce first costs," says Jakob Carnemark, a Skanska senior vice president and the acknowledged mastermind behind the TELUS strategy.

Inertech's closed-loop and redundant system minimizes the use of water- and energy-intensive compressors by operating in what is called a "free cooling" mode about 80% of the time. The free-cooling mode moves hot air outside using only fans and pumps. When outside air is warmer than 85° F, the system runs four times more efficiently than a traditional chiller plant, says Keisling.

The numbers sound almost too good to be true. But according to Inertech's peer reviewer, they are spot on.

"The Inertech system is unique and extremely efficient," says Ming Zhang, director of engineering analysis for Optimize Thermal Systems LLC, a spin-off of the Center for Environmental Energy Engineering, a research arm of the University of Maryland. "It has an efficient layout, efficient components and unique control algorithms," adds Zhang, who spent weeks at Inertech supervising the construction of a prototype.

Inertech currently is adapting eOPTI-TRAX for use in other applications, starting with water-gorging hospitals, laboratories, schools and other places that suck in a high volume of outside air. Commercial buildings will follow.

"[The system] has the potential to revolutionize how we cool buildings of all types," says Pete Oliveri, a senior vice president of New York City-based Cosentini, part of Tetra Tech. Cosentini is Skanska's mechanical-electrical-plumbing engineer for the TELUS job.

Cool 'Hot' Aisle

Data centers have rows of racks that contain servers and other IT equipment that exhausts high heat. The fronts of opposite rows face each other across a cold aisle, where cold air is fed into the servers. Servers exhaust heat into a hot aisle. Hot and cold aisles alternate.

Companies seeking improved efficiency have been enclosing the aisles in an effort to contain the heat. Their hot aisles, where workers service the equipment, can reach temperatures in excess of 130° F, says Keisling.

At TELUS, opposite rows of server racks, facing each other across a hot aisle, share a compressor in a cooling distribution unit (see drawing, left). The layout eliminates a separate chiller plant and, in turn, minimizes the quantity of piping and pumps. There is also no raised floor.