Servers

Get IT Done: Strategies for keeping systems cool during summer heat

Learn how to troubleshoot fan problems, deal with power fluctuations, and solve airflow and dust issues.

When summer weather heats up, many of you may begin to think about staying cool in the backyard pool or favorite lake. But while you are escaping the heat, you may forget about how higher temperatures outside can cause problems inside workstations and server boxes. Here are some strategies for combating problems that escalate when the heat goes up.

Summer heat, and the strain it puts on cooling systems, is of course an issue to consider, but it’s not the only issue that needs to be addressed to avoid heat-related error messages or system failures. Here are other heat-related issues to consider and some steps that you can take to keep your system cool.

Troubleshooting fan problems
Cooling fans inside of your workstations and servers work to prevent heat buildup. But some workstations use more than one fan. One fan cools the power supply while others may be dedicated to keeping the processor cool. Some computers also have a large case fan typically mounted toward the front of the computer’s case. Some graphics cards also include fans.

With all of these fans inside your system, you wouldn't think overheating would be an issue. However, there are several factors that could cause even a machine with lots of fans to overheat. The fan system works by pulling room temperature air into the computer and pushing hotter air out. The constant flow of cooler air helps to keep the system at an acceptable operating temperature.

Airflow and dust
If the airflow is disrupted, the fans won't be able to circulate the air, and temperatures inside your box will rise. Check the vents on your system and clear them of dust.

Dust poses other dangers to your system as well. In very dusty environments, clogged air vents are only part of the problem. I’ve opened computer cases where the fans wouldn't turn because the dust was so thick.

Having a machine clogged with dust can be bad news during any time of the year, but rising temperatures can pose a greater risk. To prevent dust congestion, keep the area around the computer clean and clean out the case vents on a regular basis. You should also open the computer’s case occasionally to inspect for internal dust buildup, which you should remove using compressed air.

Server temperature sensors
Another way that you can beat the heat is to deploy a high-end server, which often includes temperature sensors that can initiate an automatic shutdown if internal temperatures exceed a set level. Many of these servers also allow you to monitor the speed at which the fans are spinning. A deterioration of fan speed over time may indicate dust buildup.

I’ve seen some really expensive server cases that had built-in refrigeration tubing to prevent the system from overheating. If refrigerants are a bit out of your league, let’s take a look at some other things that you can do to prevent your system from overheating. One factor that can cause a system to overheat is an opened case. Operating a computer without a case over the short term is harmless. Most of the time, that strategy doesn't cause problems. But some computers are designed with internal ductwork to direct air across the processor. Removing the case can disrupt the airflow through the internal ducts.

Another thing that you can do to keep your system cool is to make sure that the processor’s heat sink is attached tightly. A heat sink is a metal plate that contains several prongs. The idea behind a heat sink is that it absorbs the heat from the processor. The fan that’s mounted on the heat sink is designed to move cool air through the heat sink’s prongs, thereby keeping the heat sink cool. Of course the word cool is a relative term. On some systems, you can get a nasty burn by touching a hot heat sink.

The hidden dangers of air conditioning
Since your computer keeps itself cool by sucking in cool air and pumping out the hot air, many administrators decide to assist the process by lowering the air conditioning thermostat. Usually, pumping up the air conditioning is a very effective method of keeping the servers cool. However, even this method contains a few hidden dangers.

Air conditioners are high voltage appliances that have a huge impact on power grids. During the hottest summer months, power companies typically increase production to meet the demand. So what does this have to do with computers? Sometimes, especially in older buildings, the lights will dim when the air conditioner kicks on. The result is a brief brown-out condition, indicating that the demand for power was momentarily greater than the supply.

To put it simply, a brown out is an abrupt drop in power followed by a quick recovery. We’ve all heard about how blackouts can harm computers, but a brown out can actually be more destructive to a computer than a full power outage. To mitigate the risk, you should plug your servers into a good UPS that can counteract the drop in power. Even if your building isn’t normally prone to brown outs when the air conditioner comes on, brown outs are far more common during the summer than they are during the winter.

Power fluctuations
Simply plugging a computer into a power strip doesn’t offer your system much protection. Use surge protectors that should be able to absorb a surge of at least 400 joules.

Damaging power surges can also come through phone lines and, in the enterprise, through networked printers and other peripherals.

It’s relatively easy to protect a stand-alone PC from storm damage, but networked workstations are another story.

If a lightning strike zaps an unprotected workstation in your office, the surge could also travel your network. Because network cables aren’t designed to carry any significant amount of electricity, you can pretty much count on any close-by PCs that are connected to the network having their network cards damaged by the surge.

To prevent this type of surge, I recommend filtering the network cables wherever possible. Most UPSs and some surge protectors contain RJ-45 jacks that you can use to guard computers against power surges that come through the network lines. Other ways to protect against this type of surge include making sure that every single device connected to the network (including PCs, hubs, routers, printers, etc.) are surge protected. You could also implement a wireless network to eliminate the threat of a power surge flowing across network lines.

 

 
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