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Data Center Decommissioning: Safe and Smart Disposal of Mechanic-Electrical Assets


IT assets are the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of data center decommissioning. Yet, this process encompasses more waste components such as electrical devices, mechanical equipment, and other systems. Let’s see what the safe decommissioning of these pieces of hardware entails and how it can be approached strategically, sustainably, and profitably.

It’s not all about IT assets

IT assets are the focus of each activity performed during the data center decommissioning.  There is a strong reason for this and it has to do with the security of sensitive data stored on this equipment. Also, IT assets often contain components and raw materials that can be either dangerous (toxic) or too valuable for unsafe treatment. This is why these are set aside for recycling, reuse, reclaim as part of the safe disposal approach.  

Apart from these, data centers feature many electrical and mechanical systems that also need safe disposal as part of the decommissioning process. These include diverse systems such as HVAC, air conditioning in server and computer rooms, racks, cabling, and video surveillance systems. All of them can impact the environment at the end of their life cycle. In the course of the decommissioning, the majority of these systems will be scrapped and salvaged for valuable raw materials.

Based on the focus on the protection of the sensitive data stored on IT assets, secondary systems at data centers such as the above often play the second fiddle in the decommissioning planning. Yet, by doing so, these firms rob themselves of the valuable opportunities presented by approaching the decommissioning process more strategically.

Equipment sourced from data centers has important advantages

This includes considering attractive options such as those involving the purchase of second-hand non-IT equipment. A generator, for example, can cut procurement costs significantly while offering operational excellence that can easily rival the highest expectations of a host facility. Missing out on these rock-solid assets in planning for an upgrade represents a commercial and technological oversight.

This is particularly true if an organization considers buying decommissioned assets from data centers. These come with a significant advantage: their standard life cycle has been cut short almost as a rule. Consider an example of a generator sourced from a data center as an illustration of this phenomenon. Data centers are critical infrastructure and even a minor power loss can be devastating to these facilities. This is why their managers often decide to decommission perfectly working devices on the account of meeting strict regulatory and technological requirements related to redundancy.

Being averse to risks of this type, they often decommission devices such as generators despite the fact that they can have a decade or two of operational functionality ahead of them. Finally, there’s also a psychological factor at play as people sometimes feel better about buying new equipment, despite the reused technology offering the same level of functionality.

Apart from that, many potential buyers are wary of the loss of the level of control over a piece of equipment they buy. The “unseen” operational history of these assets at a data center will simply never sit well with potential customers simply because they have doubts about the reliability of the devices they did not maintain or service.

Planning for decommissioning from day one

Devices such as generators sourced from data centers are actually fully functional, considering that they are likely to not be overused during their lifespan. Prospective buyers sometimes also forget that these assets have been regularly and professionally maintained at data centers. This encompasses all types of devices from UPS hardware to generators and switches.  This means that their projected lifespans have been maintained or even extended, promoting them as a healthy and cheaper alternative to buying new equipment.

To help data centers profit from the equipment reuse, they need to approach the decommissioning planning strategically and with a long view of future operations. Data centers that want to have safe and smart decommissioning would do well to plan for easy physical removal and manipulation of the assets to be decommissioned from their premises. This refers to making sure that no equipment remains trapped at a facility during the attempts to perform safe decommission without resorting to dismantling.

Failing to plan for the inevitable decommissioning can lead to significant costs down the line as equipment dismantling is no easy feat. Also, less visible but no less important costs refer to the elimination of an opportunity to safely evacuate electrical-mechanical devices and earn from placing them on the market for reuse.  To add insult to injury, dismantling is also a less environmentally sustainable operation, bringing the final tally of such an oversight to unacceptable levels.

Decommissioning as an opportunity, not a cost 

How do we prevent this and ensure that everyone profits in this ecosystem? First of all, planning for easy decommissioning of larger pieces of equipment is a bit abstract when you set the foundations for a new building. The same goes for the eternal drive to try to cut costs, such as those relating to the construction works. The safest way to go around these obstacles is to plan ahead for decommissioning not as a source of inevitable expenditures, but as a source of income through the sales of used equipment.

This combination of an incentive in the form of a potential revenue stream and the awareness of the importance of sustainability throughout the decommissioning process is the much-needed larger perspective that can have global implications. Organizations need to understand that cutting costs while preparing for the decommissioning of their data centers will come back to haunt them later when the time for the actual operation comes. The decision-makers will then face the consequences of approaching this process without collecting up-to-date information on the potential and best industrial practices in this field.

It’s important to keep one’s options open as well. For some organizations, upcycling and refreshing their equipment is an equally valid alternative to reuse. Once done, this equipment can be easily relocated to other locations, with a great cost-cutting potential.

Finally, it is necessary to ensure the full understanding of the potential of each asset instead of approaching them in a more generalized manner. Devices such as generators, for example, clearly have more reuse and recycle potential than other devices at data centers, together with various switches and fire-fighting equipment. UPS and CRAC devices with fewer than 10 years of operational history can be easily reused as well, or, alternatively, salvaged for valuable components. The same goes for copper and non-PCB transformers. At the same time, regular transformers and server racks have a harder time being given a second chance, just like batteries that often end up in landfills.

Finally, the easiest way to get a clear picture of the financial and environmental potential of an individual data center decommissioning operation is to consult professionals and learn more about it both as a decommissioning customer and a potential buyer of reused, recovered, or recycled components.