Question: How do you take something as boring as uninterruptible power supplies and make it sexy? Answer: Talk about how much more energy efficient your products are and how the power savings will reduce the amount of carbon spewed into the atmosphere by power plants.

Buy this product: Do your part to fight global warming.

That was the message at a meeting at American Power Conversion's headquarters last week, where speakers repeated the energy efficiency and carbon argument. That theme fits in well with the mission of its new parent company, Schneider Electric SA, which sells building automation and control systems for everything from HVAC to lighting and security systems.

APC co-founder and CTO Neil Rasmussen carried the message with a sartorial flair: a bright green and white striped shirt accented by a black tie with images of light bulbs on it.

A one-megawatt data centre generates the same amount of carbon as 4,300 cars, Rasmussen argued, and today's inefficient data centres waste "more than 1,000 cars worth" of carbon due to poor design. "I’m talking about stupid waste that is happening every day. And we have thousands and thousands of these data centres around the earth," he says. Most data centres can achieve a 20-30 percent improvement in power, cooling and lighting efficiency and a 20-80 percent improvement in IT equipment efficiency, he claims.

Rasmussen was both passionate and outspoken in stating that the focus needs to be on overall data centre energy efficiency and not individual components. He dismissed metrics such as power usage effectiveness (PUE) used by others in the industry. "Those people don’t know what they’re talking about. You can’t characterise a data centre with one number," he said.

But he says when it comes to managing heat and power loads the low-hanging fruit isn't in the IT equipment. "The air conditioning is where the big losses are," he said.

Data centre efficiency drops with load, so he sees two ways to increase efficiency on the IT equipment side: "Raise the curve or push people up it by increasing utilisation," he said.

APC, which claims to be the world’s largest consumer of lead acid batteries, made several announcements with regard to its own energy efficient products and initiatives.

Improved efficiency in home and small business UPSes

On the home office front, the company claims its newest Back-UPS products (such as the yet to be released Back-UPS BE750G) are three to five times more efficient than those of competitors.

Energy efficiency jump for data centre products

In the data centre, its latest Symmetra PX power system, scheduled for shipment at year end and shown to editors last week, offers more efficient batteries and an inverter that increases AC to DC conversion efficiencies from 92-93 percent today to 96 percent. Inverter efficiency gains over the past few years have resulted in products that now limit power conversion losses to one sixth of what they were in APC UPSes sold 10 years ago.

Those types of AC to DC conversion improvements, says Rasmussen, should drive a stake through the heart of those who argue that data centres should use DC power distribution schemes to reduce AC/DC power conversion losses. "With what you can build today there’s no savings with DC. The general consensus among OEMs is that the savings are more around one per cent. So you won’t see APC investing in [DC power]," Rasmussen says.

Pushing European power standards for US data centres

APC also announced that, from now, all new APC products will support power distribution to the data centre using both the US standard of 480/208 volts and 400/230 volt European standard. The European standard eliminates the need for intermediate power distribution unit (PDU) transformers for stepping down the power. That saves on PDU equipment costs as well as energy costs. "You could save 3-4 percent of all losses in US data centres right off the bat by doing this," Rasmussen says. Most IT equipment is already designed to support either US or European voltage.

The savings in copper and power distribution systems is substantial, Rasmussen claims, because data centres use so many of them. "A 1 MW dual path data centre is redundant so double the number," he says. Then, because IT doesn't know exactly where the loads will be on the floor it over-sizes the transformers, which doubles the number of PDUs again. So that 1 MW data centre may have 5 or 6 MW worth of transformers.

While Rasmussen said APC's data centre customers are demanding the change, he acknowledged that that number of US data centres using European voltage standards today is "Zero." But, he said, "The math is so compelling right now that all the major engineering firms have said we have to do this." What's holding it up is that the electrical codes aren't updated to cover breakers and other devices to the European standard. "We'll overcome that in the next few months. We will see data centres by end of year coming out with this," he predicted.

Publishing efficiency specs

Finally, APC is using energy efficiency as a marketing weapon. Today, Rasmussen said, you can buy UPSes with efficiency specifications but not a complete data centre designs. "We will put together canned specified system designs with efficiency ratings. APC will be the first company to publish not only full efficiency data for all of our products but math models for efficiency to be fed into automated design tools, he said.