After auditing data centers for 15 years, I officially encountered the presence of zinc whiskers.
What are zinc whiskers?
Zinc whiskers are tiny conductive filaments of zinc typically less than a few millimeters long and only a few thousandths of a millimeter in diameter. They grow from metal surfaces (e.g., steel) that have been electroplated (galvanized) with zinc for corrosion protection.
This problem was not consistent with traditional zinc whiskers condition. Most zinc whiskers issues in data centers cause system, disk drive and power supply failures. The data center we were working with had experienced power supply failures only. This data center site had experienced much higher power supply failures for several years but it did not fully expose it self until a data center revitalization was being completed. As additional activity in the data center was completed, the number of power supplies failing continued to increase.
New power, grounding and cabinets were installed as a part of the renovation. The equipment was moved over to these new cabinets and power supply failures increased greatly. We believed the issue must be related to the power or grounding of this new environment. Although we found and resolved some small issues the power supplies continued to fail.
When we launched the new additional cooling unit for manufacture startup we experienced even more power supply failures. After aborting the start up of the new cooling unit a few times we started to further investigate the situation. We discovered zinc whiskers. We now know the additional air flow under the raised floor broke off more zinc whiskers which were then sucked into the power supplies and shorted them out. After losing (43) power supplies a solution to this problem was a necessity.
After we confirmed zinc whiskers were present, a team was assembled to remove the entire raised floor in the data center area. As with any data center we were not able to shut it down and take our time to complete the project. The entire data center stayed in operation as the raised floor was removed. Removing the floor, as it is the delivery solution for cooling to server and network work hardware, was difficult. Maintaining the clean areas as they were completed was also a challenge.
Zinc whiskers do exist and with research, time and effort they can be dealt with successfully.