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June 1, 2023

Data centers drive new work for engineering firms

  • Data centers have battery requirements and a complex power protection system.
    Special to the Journal

    Photo from McKinstry [enlarge]
    McKinstry engineers are challenged by unusual voltages and power requirements needed by data centers.

    In the 2014 movie “Transcendence,” Johnny Depp, whose brain hijacks the internet, declares “I need more power.”

    As the internet expands its presence in everyday lives, data center power is the name of the game for companies that host the web. For multi-disciplinary engineering firms like McKinstry, this is the right time to have engineering solutions that can accommodate increasingly complex needs of data centers.

    “Data center projects require unique, focused solutions that can differ from those designed for other types of clients,” said Candice Weiss, a senior project engineer with McKinstry. “McKinstry leverages its all-in-one mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection expertise in its work with data centers.”

    Weiss said design solutions incorporate data center clients' operational goals and take into consideration issues such as constructability, schedule, energy and water needs.

    McKinstry has more than a dozen data center projects around the country, and has reached more than $240 million in revenue from collaboration with data centers since 2020, a 20% growth in this market for McKinstry. Clients in the data center market include Fortune 500 organizations and large higher education institutions.

    Weiss said McKinstry's work includes a wide range of solutions for data center development. McKinstry offers LEED consulting, infrastructure assessments, mechanical and electrical engineering, trade coordination, prefabrication, preconstruction, and BIM coordination.

    McKinstry also performs data center energy audits and modeling, energy monitoring systems, carbon footprinting and energy management. The firm provides data center facility management, preventive maintenance services, remote monitoring and mobile services.

    “Data centers are challenging in many ways,” said Weiss. “Due to the urgency that surrounds data centers and being ‘always on,' the main challenge is time and finding ways to improve delivery and efficiency. The amount of value we can deliver is measured in how quickly we can complete the scope of work that brings the distribution equipment online and makes power available.”

    Weiss said design for reliable power in a data center involves multiple power sources including the main utility, as well as generators and battery backups.

    “Installation of these solutions is where collective intelligence and experience really shine,” she said.

    She added that security is a top challenge for data center designers, and security elements have to be considered in the design and construction timeline and budget.

    Data centers typically have unusual voltages, power requirements, transfer switches and requirements for redundant power sources, she added. Other design issues include the need for raised floors in data center projects and the fact that the facilities require large air-handling systems and liquid cooling and leak protection solutions.

    With COVID-19, data center expansion in the Northwest and the United States grew, as more people worked from home. But even prior to COVID-19, the demand for and reliance on digital infrastructure was growing rapidly, she said.

    “McKinstry's partnerships with data centers have increased and will continue to expand going forward,” Weiss said. “With the increased demand on these systems during the pandemic and remote work, their function became even more vital than ever before. With hybrid and remote work here to stay and ever-expanding capabilities in the digital space like the development of artificial intelligence, for example, reliable, secure, efficient and resilient data centers are necessary to our society and future.”

    As AI promises to put even greater demands on chips, software, processors and data centers, the data segment sector may present a steady stream of work for firms such as McKinstry.

    “Because of our unique capabilities and experience, we approach clients with an all-in-one, single-point-of-accountability solution that ensures leaders of these vital facilities can meet necessarily aggressive schedules and deliverables,” Weiss said. “This allows for efficient project implementation and management from start to finish. Identifying and managing critical path activities are key to maintaining a successful schedule and being prepared for the unique aspects of data center projects.”

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