REI Datacenter-Cooling Upgrade Pays for Itself in a Year

A refit cut cooling costs more than 90 percent at REI

Making datacenters more power efficient has become a priority for datacenter managers at most companies. Environmentally friendly power policies may be a little higher priority at companies like Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI), the outdoor-equipment retailer whose support of environmental causes is tied closely to its brand image.

REI lost its last CEO in February after she was appointed to head the Department of the Interior for the Obama Administration.

It brags that six of its facilities are LEED-certified for power efficiency, that 10 percent of the power it needs for its retail locations comes from solar power, that it founded the enviro-friendly Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and that it helped invent the Higg Index tool, which is designed to estimate the impact the manufacture, transportation and resale of an article of clothing has on the environment.

The Internet retailer is a co-op partly owned by customers and employees that publishes annual reports on its greenhouse gas emissions, waste and recycling, energy use and its aspiration to improve each area, even assigning a deadline to goals such as “become a zero waste-to-landfill organization by 2020.”

So, revelations about the datacenter on which it depends being as big a power hog as most of its ilk might have been an embarrassment to have listed on the same page describing power saved by installing solar cells at retail stores, refitting heating systems, or moving toward renewable-energy sources rather than buying power from plants fired by fossil fuels.

In 2009, the company virtualized many of its servers to reduce the number of boxes it had to run, and replaced the lighting in much of its headquarters to save power. It also installed sub-metering systems in the datacenter to better track where the power was all going and figure out how to attack the problem.

The lighting system cut power use 37 percent, but the datacenter remained the company’s power hog.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into putting this type of efficiency into stores, distribution centers, warehouses, etc.,” according to Kirk Myers, the retailer’s corporate social responsibility manager, as quoted in InternetRetailer. “Since 2008, we’ve kept our energy use essentially flat, even though we’ve grown.”

The company’s 2012 sustainability report showed that electricity use was responsible for 43 percent of the company’s greenhouse gas emissions – a problem that turned out to be difficult to attack because of the 800-lb. gorilla using most of the power.

“[REI managers] told us their data center had recently been identified as their single largest energy user in their entire company’s complex,” according to Bill Gast, an energy efficiency specialist at energy management consultancy ClearResult Consulting, Inc., in a Puget Sound Business Journal story about the project. “But because they’re a large internet retailer, they couldn’t have any problems with the data center.”

Neither REI nor ClearResult, which did the energy-use evaluation and refit for REI’s data center in Kent, Wash., offered specifics on spending or energy use, but Gast said datacenter cooling can amount to half an Internet retailer’s operational budget.

ClearResult recommended that REI replace its fairly typical large-scale air-conditioning systems with an evaporative “free cooling” system that uses air blown in from Puget Sound to cool water that is then piped in to suck heat out of REI’s servers. Evaporative cooling systems are becoming a common choice even for large-scale datacenters owned by Google, Apple and other IT-industry giants.

It also installed in-row cooling systems to make the heat exchange as focused and efficient as possible.

ClearResult recruited Puget Sound Energy to help with the conversion and negotiate incentives to help pay for it. The utility also refused to give specifics, but told Internet Retailer the incentives typically equal 50 percent to 70 percent of an energy overhaul budget.

The result was an overall savings of 1.7 kilowatts per year, 20 percent more than ClearResult had predicted, and a reduction in energy costs of 93 percent the first year.

The savings paid for the project within the first 12 months, according to Gast.

 

Image: REI, Inc.

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