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Meta thirsts for desert conditions in datacenter water quest

Finally testing out the honesty of that one engineer who always says: 'It's not the heat, it's the humidity'

Facebook parent Meta is aiming to cut the volume of water used in its datacenters by operating servers at higher temperatures but lower humidity, as part of a commitment to become “water positive” by 2030.

Meta said it has been testing operating datacenters at an upper limit of 90 degrees (Fahrenheit, that is, or just above 32°C), a temperature that should require less cooling to maintain. This move is intended to reduce both the water and energy consumed by the company's global IT infrastructure, the social giant said during a conference in San Antonio.

According to Meta, it has been running pilot programs in which it adjusted the environment in one half of a datacenter, while keeping the other at the existing level for comparison, and the most recent tests raised the upper operating temperature from 85°F to 90°F (29.4°C to 32.2°C).

Meanwhile, the company ran a similar test in a New Mexico datacenter in which it ran half the facility at 13 percent humidity. It found that key metrics like electrostatic discharge remained within tolerable ranges, while reducing water use by about 40 percent, Meta said during the event. The savings in datacenters in other regions with differing climate conditions may show different savings, Meta said, estimated to range from 10 to 65 percent.

Other changes Meta plans to deploy for water savings include reducing the frequency of backwashing used to clean filtration systems, and adjusting the water softening systems used at some of its datacenters.

There is no data detailing exactly how much water Meta expects to save from implementing all of these measures, with the company only making vague statements about saving millions of gallons of water annually.

Back in 2021, before the name change to Meta was revealed, the company announced it was not only committed to reaching net zero emissions by 2030, but also set itself a new goal to be water positive by 2030, meaning that it would return more water to the environment than consumed for its global operations.

But this may not be easy. According to figures from GlobalData, Meta consumed 2.57 million cubic meters of water during 2021, which represented an increase of 16.67 percent over the previous year. Meta’s own figures put its water use at 678 million gallons, which actually works out at just over 3 million cubic meters.

Meta is not the only industry giant aiming to become water positive. Earlier this year, Intel said it intends to become net positive on water across all its operations by 2030, and claimed it has already done so at its manufacturing facilities in the US, India, and Costa Rica. Others including Microsoft and Google have made similar pledges.

Also earlier this year, a group of organizations representing the datacenter industry presented the European Commission (EC) with proposals for minimizing water use in their operations. This included the proposal of setting a limit of 0.4 liters of water per kilowatt-hour of compute power (0.4l/kWh) deployed.

In the UK, one water company, Thames Water, announced in August that it was looking into the amount of water used by datacenters in the area it serves around London and said it wanted to work with new datacenter operators to reduce their overall water usage.

One novel approach in South Korea is to colocate datacenters with sewage treatment plants. The idea behind this is that heated water from the datacenter can be used to boost waste water processing, cutting energy requirements, while some of the treated water then becomes cooling water for the datacenter, saving both energy and water overall. ®

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