The coolest thing about Montana’s new data center isn’t the extra security doors or the staff that works 24/7/365, but a special wheel designed to keep the state’s computer servers from overheating.

Called the “heat wheel,” it’s the heart of a state-of-the-art cooling system that uses cold air outside the building to control the climate inside the data center in Helena, Mont. Developed by a Dutch company, KyotoCooling International, the patented air handling technology has been making the rounds in European countries for the past few years, but Montana officials say it’s the first state in the nation to use this heat wheel in an IT facility.

And state officials are ready to show off the clean technology, touting its ability to cut air conditioning and ventilation costs at a time when governments must grapple with strict budgets.

“If people want to come to Montana to look at it, we're open for it,” said Dick Clark, the state’s CIO.

Authorized by the 2007 Legislature, the $7.2 million data center was completed last winter and was a long time coming. Before that, Clark said, the state’s IT services resided in a crummy building’s basement with uneven floors, structural problems and water hazards.

A few years ago, a staff member learned about KyotoCooling’s wheel technology at a conference, and the state moved forward with plans to construct a new energy-efficient data center, which state officials claim to be the first in the world to be built from the ground up using this cooling technology.

In data centers, servers generate great amounts of heat. As temperatures increase, so do the costs to keep them cool. Typical data centers can rack up cooling costs between 50 cents and $1.50 or more for every dollar of electricity they use, said Ed Sivils, Montana’s data center manager. In contrast, he added, the Kyoto wheel cuts cooling expenses down to 11 cents for every dollar spent on power.

In fact, with this system, Sivils said the state only pays for the fans to move the air and electricity to turn the wheel, which fluctuates as temperatures shift.

Wheel of Fortune?

Heat wheels, also known as rotary heat exchangers, have been around for a while as part of industrial air conditioning systems, but not as a ventilation solution for data centers.

At Montana’s data center, Sivils said, the system uses three wheels, each 12 feet in diameter and 8 inches thick, honeycombed with special aluminum. A barrier divides two chambers, and the vertical wheel spins in the middle, pumping the air in two directions.

The hot inside air never touches outside air. It’s pumped through the ceiling and into the chamber, cooled by the metal and then the wheel circulates the air back into the data center. For the system to work efficiently and maintain optimal temperatures between 68 and 76 degrees, Sivils said, the outside air must be at least five degrees cooler than the air inside, which makes areas like Helena ideal.

“The system is self-tuning, autonomous across load and environmental changes and component adaptations,” according to the company. “The system is designed to act and react as necessary to achieve stable operating conditions.”

If it gets too hot outside, the data center also has traditional air conditioning units for backup. But after studying data from 2007, which saw record temperatures in Helena, Sivils said the heat wheel system would be sufficient on its own 80 percent of the time, supplemented by air conditioning units 16 percent of the time and replaced by the standard units only 4 percent of the time.

With this process, the company claims that the system delivers energy savings up to 85 percent over other designs.

“It’s about energy savings, cost savings, water savings and flexibility,” said Chris Fulton, vice president of marketing for Cloudsite Development, the exclusive distributor of KyotoCooling in North America. “The system doesn't require operator intervention. It self-adapts to what's happening inside or outside.”

According to Clark, numerous states have asked about the technology and some officials have received a tour of the premises. Another proposal on the table, he added, involves transporting heat from the data center to another agency looking to supplement its heating in the winter.

Russell Nichols  |  Staff Writer