Cloud computing powers many good things — online ordering, music and movie streaming, social media, big data insights. But the “cloud” is a watercraving beast, one that drinks more every day as data centers — the cloud’s earthbound “factories” — multiply at a rapid pace. Most rely on water to keep temperatures cool and data-crunching servers performing at their best.

Luckily, where there’s water, there’s Ecolab. In recent years, through the perseverance of Nalco Water Institutional Light Corporate Account Managers Michael Lesniak and Michael Obradovitch, we’ve expanded our water treatment expertise to many of the dominant cloud services companies, helping them reduce, reuse, recycle — even stop using — precious drinking water in their data centers.

“Data centers leave a big environmental footprint, mostly because they use enormous amounts of electricity generated by fossil fuels,” said Michael Lesniak. “Their main sustainability focus has been to convert to renewable fuels. In many cases, they have not given as much attention to water consumption. When we point out that electricity and cooling water are directly related, they ask, ‘How did we miss water?’ So they increasingly recognize the value of what we can do for them.”

Each data center has its own water challenges, but our work at Microsoft’s data center in San Antonio, Texas, provides a snapshot into how we are helping data centers save natural resources, operate efficiently and provide uninterrupted cloud services.

Microsoft: foregoing fresh water, yet delivering the cloud efficiently

San Antonio is a hot, dry place. The region’s two million residents and hundreds of businesses and farmers rely on the Edwards aquifer for water, a large but limited underground reserve.

To protect the aquifer, as well as endangered species that depend on it, water withdrawal is either reduced or stopped if the aquifer falls to certain levels.

“If that happens, there’s no other source for potable water,” said District Account Manager Anthony Wilke, who has helped local companies manage their water with Nalco Water solutions for more than a decade.

“Downtime is not an option for data centers,” Anthony said. “If there is no cooling for the hundreds of servers that fill Microsoft’s 500,000-square-foot data center, the servers slow down — or, worse, they melt down.”

To ensure 100-percent service uptime, the center uses two, mirror-image cooling water systems, each consisting of a water tower, a chiller and a mammoth storage tank holding chilled water — a back-up if all other cooling systems fail.

The systems take advantage of water’s excellent ability to absorb and transfer heat. They pipe chilled water through the data center where it collects heat from the air, then moves on to the cooling tower where evaporation transfers the heat, and some of the water, to the outside atmosphere. As evaporation occurs, make-up water must be added to the system.

Using water to transfer heat is an efficient way to cool, unless the inside surface of the cooling tower and other parts of the system collect scale, biofilm or corrosion. Even thin layers can impede heat transfer. To prevent any build-up, Anthony and his team recommended Ecolab’s 3D TRASAR™ Technology to continuously monitor for conditions leading to scaling, biofilm formation or corrosion — and dispense appropriate chemical treatments to avert accumulation.


To make the case for investing in 3D TRASAR Technology, the team used the Ecolab Water Risk Monetizer, an online modeling tool powered by TruCost and Microsoft, to quantify water’s true value at the San Antonio facility. The model showed the full value of water — which reflects potential costs related to scarcity and other risks — to be 11 times the amount charged by the city. The findings convinced Microsoft to invest in the technology.

In water-restricted San Antonio, however, the challenge ran deeper than efficient cooling. The data center also needed to assure sufficient water for cooling during water-restricted dry periods. Anthony and a team of Nalco Water field engineers joined with Microsoft managers and the city to identify a source: treated wastewater effluent from the city’s water treatment plant. It was an alternative that aligned with Microsoft’s corporate goals to dramatically reduce its use of potable water in data centers.

But using wastewater posed potentially costly risks. Impurities in the water could decrease cooling system efficiency — and increase the need for electricity to operate it. They also could contribute to the early demise of costly cooling system components.

To address the challenges, Anthony and his team again relied on 3D TRASAR Technology, a solution that optimized performance while controlling scale and corrosion via automatic adjustments to variable grey, or waste, water sources.

By using recycled water, the data center is freeing up more than 58 million gallons of drinking water a year for San Antonio residents and businesses. And, by using 3D TRASAR Technology and recycled water, Microsoft is saving more than $140,000 in annual water costs.

Most important, the cooling system is doing its job, helping to keep Microsoft’s servers — and cloud services — humming. That’s important to Microsoft, of course, and also to its customers, including Ecolab. Through a partnership, we provide data center water management to Microsoft while Microsoft provides us with cloud services for storing and analyzing data collected by our digital technologies at customer sites — from factories and food processors to data centers.

Putting money into a customer’s pocket

It’s not often you get to present a check for $101,000 to your customer. But it does happen. Just ask Rich Gust, Nalco Water district manager in the Los Angeles area.

The story began with Rich paying a visit to a data center customer. It wasn’t his biggest customer, but Rich wanted to see what else he could offer beyond standard cooling water treatments.

In reviewing the customer’s water bill, Rich quickly noticed a potential opportunity. Businesses get charged for sewer services based on the amount of water they take in. Data centers often are overbilled because a lot of the water they take in evaporates from the cooling towers before it can go down the drain.

It’s not often you get to present a check for $101,000 to your customer. But it does happen…

Rich explained that the customer was “paying for sewage on 93 percent of the water that was coming in even though 70 percent of it was evaporating away.” His discovery started the difficult process of applying for an evaporation credit.

Working with an engineer, Rich gathered meter readings and other documentation to build a solid case. “The sanitation department fought us tooth and nail because it didn’t want to lose the revenue. But we documented our case and we got the credit going back about 18 months.”

That seems like a nice ending, but the story goes on. “The data center’s regional purchasing manager was in the building the day I presented the check and I told her the story,” said Rich. “That opened her eyes to the possibility of evaporation credits at other data center locations, and it showed how committed we are to adding value to their operations.”

Protecting against the other kind of bugs in a digital world

When data center operators worry about bugs, they’re likely to focus on software glitches.

But there’s another kind of bug they need to heed — waterborne bugs that hitch a ride on droplets from cooling towers and, if inhaled, can cause illness or death. Legionella bacteria is the most notorious of these microbes.

“There are many data centers in dense, urban environments,” said Michael Obradovitch, Nalco Water corporate accounts manager. “Operators need to recognize that waterborne pathogens are a risk associated with their cooling towers.”

To help data centers avoid the harm waterborne microbes can cause to people and brands, we now make waterborne risk management a standard element of our data center proposals,” Michael said. “I’m glad to say, it’s been adopted very well.”

“With internet traffic continuing its rapid increase, there is no end in sight for the growth of data centers,” said Mike Johannsen, executive vice president & general manager, Nalco Water Global Light and Water Services.

“It’s exciting – and gratifying — to be part of helping them deliver the advantages of digital while caring for the precious fresh water we all share.”