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BOFH: You say goodbye and I say halon

I say 'Yes', Boss says 'No'. Boss says 'Stop' … and I say 'Go, go, go!'

BOFH logo telephone with devil's hornsEpisode 13 "You're taking the halon away?!" the PFY gasps.

"We have to," the Boss responds.

"It's the Montreal Protocol," the fire engineer says. "You shouldn't even have halon in the first place."

"It was installed years ago," I say. "It was purpose-built for the site."

"It still should have been replaced," he shoots back. "And your site didn't even appear on the national register. I only noticed it when I was doing an audit. It's illegal even to have it."

"Maybe records got lost?" I suggest. "And we hardly ever look at the bottles so I guess we just forgot they were there. Someone should have said something."

And so it is that our halon system is to be decommissioned. One of the last vestiges of "Computing as it was," it too has to be replaced.

"What will we replace it with?" I ask the Boss.

"Do we even NEED fire suppression with all our data in the cloud?"

"With SOME of our data in the cloud, of course we do. But which system to use?"

"There are other options to consider," the engineer says. "Some places use water – with the problems that can cause with electronic equipment, some use CO2 – though obviously there's still the issue of thermal shock from the ultra-cool CO2 entering a room. Then there are other inert gases – each with their own problems, but they all have the thermal shock consideration."

"What about if we ran the room as a permanent CO2 environment?" I ask.

"It could work, though there are a number of safety issues which would need to be worked through."

"Yes, yes, but the room's pretty much an airlock now as there's only a tiny amount of introduced air – the rest is recirculated. And the room is already designed to be an airlock because of the halon. In the event of a fire the make-up air vent shutters trip and the room is sealed up like a drum. We could just trip them and recirculate CO2."


"It's not the stupidest idea I've heard," the engineer says. "I mean obviously you'd need a vented airlock, breathing apparatus, appropriate signage, but it could be done."

"WHA—" the Boss gasps.

"It's an unusual situation but it would definitely work. It's not what's known as a 'Preferred Solution' but it would fall under the realm of 'Acceptable Engineered Solutions' – with the appropriate safeguards of course."

"But it would be cheaper to run, wouldn't it?"

"I guess once you had your initial charge you could just top the system up from an airlock," the engineer says, thinking furiously. "But you'd completely eliminate the thermal shock situation – and with high CO2 presence fires wouldn't even start in the first place."

"So it's decided!" I blurt.

"NO IT'S NOT!" the Boss snaps. "No one's bloody decided anything! We're not going to fill the building up with carbon dioxide!"

"We're not talking about the building, we're only talking about the server room – and it's completely sealed!"

"You could use nitrogen for that matter," the engineer says, thinking some more. "I mean air's 80 per cent nitrogen anyway. You could put a nitrogen generator on the roof and just pipe nitrogen into the room. No bottles, nothing. And you'd just vent the excess nitrogen back to the atmosphere on the roof. It would be even cheaper than CO2."

"So it's DECIDED!" I say.

"IT'S NOT BLOODY DECIDED!" the Boss snaps again. "What about health and safety?"

"It's a locked environment," I say to the fire engineer. There's only two people that have access any more, plus an emergency card."

"You'd need a rescue plan to outline what would happen if someone got trapped in the room or their air supply ran out," the engineer says.

"Simple!" I say. "We just change the HALON HOLD-OFF button to a PURGE button. If there was an emergency you could just hit the purge button and a fan would pump air into the room."

"Well I guess that would work – but I'd have to calculate maximum travel distances to the purge buttons – and you'd probably need to install several extra buttons."

"A piece of the proverbial!" the PFY says.

"So it's DECIDED!" I blurt.

"NOTHING IS DECIDED!" the Boss snaps yet again.

"I would like it noted in your records that we tried to assist you in the removal of the halon system but HE was against it," I say to the engineer.

"I'm not against it, I just want a proper solution."

"That nitrogen environment is unusual, but it would definitely work. And if the room's airtight – which we'll obviously verify for ourselves – I think it's a workable solution. And very cost-effective."

"But you can squander the Company's money if you like," I suggest slyly to the Boss.

… Two weeks later …

"And there we go," I say to the Boss. "A nitrogen environment. Well, when I say nitrogen I mean mostly nitrogen. It turns out that by taking less than ten per cent of the oxygen out of the air you effectively prevent combustion."

"And that's nitrogen in there, is it?" the Boss asks.


The Boss isn't totally convinced. Even with the removal of all the bottles and the eye-watering halon disposal fee, he still thinks that somehow we're up to something.

"So if I went in there without breathing gear …"

"You'd probably pass out not long after you went in – unless you purged the system."

I can see the Boss has his suspicions, but he doesn't have the bottle to try it for himself. He decides to leave it and wanders off.

"He'll be back," the PFY says. "Most likely with someone who'll say a nitrogen environment is reckless."

"You're right," I say, reaching for the drill. "Best I fireproof his office too." ®

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