Retrofit or Replace? Four Scenarios for Optimizing Cooling Systems

Greg Myers • June 28, 2018

Vertiv has released four payback scenarios that detail the cost of upgrading cooling equipment and the projected payback periods. In virtually every situation, retrofitting or replacing data center cooling systems makes financial sense.

I recently met with executives at two regional colocation data centers and an enterprise data center with facilities in different stages of their lifecycles. Each has wrestled with the question of whether to retrofit or replace their aging cooling equipment to maintain energy efficiency and availability targets. One has chosen to replace older units, one went with retrofits and one is retrofitting within a planned replacement cycle.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of “Retrofit or Replace?”. Vertiv has developed several case studies on this topic, including vXchnge, QTS and Verizon Wireless.

To help get you started, Vertiv has released four payback scenarios that detail the cost of upgrading cooling equipment and the projected payback periods. In virtually every situation, retrofitting or replacing data center cooling systems makes financial sense.

Payback periods vary depending on the age of the equipment and the goals of the company in managing product lifecycles. Yet, these payback periods are all relatively short – from 18 months to just under four years – thanks to gains in energy efficiency, the availability of energy rebates and lower maintenance costs.

Vertiv looked at four common scenarios for cooling equipment:

  1. Obsolete Equipment, More than 15 Years Old
  2. Newer Equipment, Less than 10 Years Old
  3. Older Equipment already on a Short Replacement Schedule
  4. New Equipment Less than a Year Old

The starting point for each was a 1MW data center, operating in Columbus, OH, with a raised floor and 14 rows of 14 racks. Retrofitting included adding variable speed drives or fans, adding modern controls and installing aisle containment and wireless sensors. Replacing meant adding new equipment featuring free-cooling economization, advanced system controls, wireless sensors and aisle containment.

You can find all four scenarios here, but today I’m focusing on two at the opposite ends of the payback range. The costs and payback figures are calculated as approximations and not meant to reflect actual results you might experience.

Scenario 1: Dealing with Obsolete Equipment within a Tight Budget.

You have 17 Liebert Deluxe System/3 cooling units that are 15-years old or more - multiple generations out. You’ve been making them last and you hope to keep making them last. But money is tight and you don’t see a path forward using retrofits or replacements.

Doing nothing isn’t a good option. Up until now, you’ve been wasting energy and incurring higher and higher annual maintenance costs. With equipment this old, here’s a look into your immediate future: more repairs, added service costs, downtime to take care of the fixes, and energy dollars out-the-door 7x24.

So, what can you do?

Retrofitting would be an easy route. However, you’d probably only gain another 10 years of operation before the units would have to be replaced anyway.

What about replacing the units? In this case, you’d replace the 17 old units with 10 new Liebert DSE free-cooling economization units and add multi-unit system controls, wireless sensors and aisle containment.

Let’s look at the numbers for that scenario:

The cost of the replacement – equipment and installation – would be about $1.7 million. You might be thinking “That’s a lot of money!” But wait. Annual cooling energy costs could drop from a whopping $462,000 to only $128,000 – a $334,000 savings – EACH YEAR.

Plus, you could qualify for an energy rebate, which would average around 25% of equipment costs – or $431,000 right off the top of that system and installation cost.

Your annual maintenance costs would drop as well, because you go from operating 17 obsolete units to only 10 new units. Your PUE could drop from 1.53 to just 1.16.

And your payback period? 3.8 years.

Plus, you could recoup about 44 percent of your total investment cost in the first year.

If you didn’t have the capital to spend on purchasing right away, then there’s another option: leasing. It spreads out your costs, and the savings start immediately.

Now let’s consider the opposite extreme.

Scenario #4: Upgrading New Equipment for Higher Efficiency

In this case, your data center has 10 of the ultra-efficient Liebert DSE free-cooling economization units with advanced controls. Right now, you’re getting everything you expect: high reliability and redundancy; maximum energy efficiency and unit-level monitoring and control.

So, with all that, what else could you possibly need? Given how new your equipment is, a bit of fine-tuning and optimization are worth considering so you can maintain or even improve the high levels of reliability and efficiency as you make changes in your data center.

Optimizing your unit controls can help you do that. And, adding the new Liebert iCOM-S thermal system supervisory controls with wireless sensors and aisle containment will let you run your cooling system even more efficiently – and will likely increase economization hours.

Let’s look at the numbers.

Adding the Liebert iCOM-S thermal system control, wireless sensors and aisle containment could would cost about $96,000. You could reduce your annual cooling energy costs from around $183,000 to $128,000 – a $53,000 annual savings! Your PUE could drop a bit – from 1.19 to 1.15.

Your payback period? Just 18 months, and 55% of your investment would be recouped in the first year.

Making the best decision about retrofitting or replacing cooling equipment will be based in part on how you answer the questions like these:

  • What are your capacity needs—near term and in the future?
  • What’s your tolerance for a service interruption?
  • What are you spending on maintenance?
  • What will it cost to retrofit versus replace?
  • And, what’s your payback period?

No matter the condition of your cooling equipment or the age of your data center, it’s worth calculating payback periods for different scenarios. You might be surprised at how quickly you can recoup your investment.

Share how you’ve improved data center performance by upgrading or replacing cooling systems.

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