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A green data center starts with a bucket of white paint

Every CIO knows that sometimes the littlest changes can make a big impact on the bottom line.

For instance, recently former President Bill Clinton suggested that one of the fastest ways you can save on cooling costs for your data center starts by looking up: What color is your roof? If it’s like most buildings in the U.S., chances are the roof is covered in some kind of dark material, maybe even old-fashioned black tar paper. Cheap black roofs were fine half a century ago, when a muggy, hot day was just a nuisance for the employees, but today, our network servers are not as heat-tolerant as our co-workers and require stringent data center cooling. While the way we’ve thought about what’s in our office has changed, chances are that your roof is still much as it was half a century ago.

Clinton suggests that it’s time for a change from the top down — literally. An easy, carbon-friendly change on your facility can significantly reduce cooling costs.

[Black roofs] absorb huge amounts of heat when it’s hot. And they require more air conditioning to cool the rooms. Every black roof in New York should be white; every roof in Chicago should be white; every roof in Little Rock should be white. Every flat, tar-surface roof anywhere! In most of these places you could recover the cost of the paint and the labor in a week. It’s the quickest, cheapest thing you can do.

It’s a lesson in the scientific term albedo. In nature, fresh snow has the highest ability to reflect sunlight, while dark soil absorbs the most, so you simply make your roof look less like soil and more like snow. Simple, right? Well, one would think. The western approach into San Jose’s Mineta and Las Vegas’ McCarran airports has demonstrated that a fair number of arid-based companies already practice this method of greener cooling management, but the approaches into Chicago O’Hare and Los Angeles LAX airports show a sea of black tar paper.

This isn’t breaking news. During the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu claimed that making all of the country’s roofs and pavement white would offset 44 billion tons of CO2. That’s as carbon-friendly as taking all of the planet’s cars off the road for 11 years.

Being kind to the earth is a lofty and admirable goal, but building a green data center is sometimes difficult to sell back to the business. While many carbon-friendly green IT initiatives cost more than traditional “gas hog” technologies, Secretary Chu predicted that a white roof would save 10% to 15% on cooling a single building, while Clinton suggests that it’s actually closer to 20%.

Given that IT tends to be the single largest consumer of energy in an organization, this is an excellent opportunity for you to lead positive change for your organization that affects the entire business as well as the cooling of your data center.

Besides, a bucket of white paint is cheap and if these estimates are correct, it would pay for itself over Labor Day weekend alone. It seems silly not to grab a roller and get painting.