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How to Run a Computer in a Sub-Zero Environment?

Cliff posted about 8 years ago | from the begging-to-be-overclocked dept.

152

Underdog asks: "I've seen tons of Slashdot articles on cooling hardware, but my company may be taking on the task of wiring a large sub-zero (as low as -14) warehouse with temperature sensors and the requisite network equipment and computers to read them. Our initial proposal includes at least a dozen acquisition computers, hung from the racks in the freezer. Does anyone have any experience with installing computers in extremely low temperature locations?"

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Heat it (1, Interesting)

SlamMan (221834) | about 8 years ago | (#15942247)

Run your network gear/servers in a heated environment. Temp controlled server room, spot cooler/heater feeding a rack, use the tools you like, but you're not going to find much that works properly (at the very least, doesnt void warrenty) in en environment that cold.

In addition ... (3, Informative)

A nonymous Coward (7548) | about 8 years ago | (#15942343)

Putting heaters (computers) in an environment meant to be cold is just adding to the cooling workload. If the computer is at any decent operating temperature, it's going to be heating up the immediate surrounding area, and you don't want that.

Put the computers outside. String sensors as needed. If you have to have electronics near the business end of the sensors, put those electronics under the floor or over the ceiling.

Think of your refrigerator. Would you put even a small computer in there to keep your food warm?

Re:In addition ... (5, Insightful)

theshowmecanuck (703852) | about 8 years ago | (#15943369)

I believe you are thinking too small. The OP mentioned the word warehouse. I doubt even several computers would make much of a difference in heat load. I have seen warehouse freezers the size of football fields. There is likely greater heat impact from people opening doors and gaps in insulation in an area that size than from computers. Even in a small warehouse.

Re:Heat it (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942355)

omfg stfu ur a cawksucker

Mainframe-terminal? (1)

Tony Lechner (994093) | about 8 years ago | (#15942488)

I'm not really sure about the poster's specific needs, but why not just go with a mainframe-terminal setup? Keep the server in a room temperature enviroment and then run some CAT5 into the terminals that are in the subzero area.

Re:Heat it (3, Funny)

DarkMantle (784415) | about 8 years ago | (#15942950)

Use intel Pentium 4's. They get hot enough to keep the rest of the electronics warm. ;) But seriously. Seal them off in a little cabinet. and keep that cabinet warmer. At least, say +5 celsius, that's about 40F so that conedsation doesn't form on the electronics and short it out. Remember, electronics run on smoke, when the smoke gets out they stop working.

Like in humid environments (4, Insightful)

chriss (26574) | about 8 years ago | (#15942251)

I have no experience with low temperature settings, but would assume that the main problem would be water condensating on the warmer parts of the computer. So the question would be how to make sure that the water does not short circuit anything. Experience may be taken not only from environments with low temperatures, but also from areas with very high humidity, which might cause similar problems.

Re:Like in humid environments (0)

Tavor (845700) | about 8 years ago | (#15942267)

Agreed. Computers aren't hurt by cold, but to keep them dry is critical.

Re:Like in humid environments (1)

Mr. Slippery (47854) | about 8 years ago | (#15942390)

Computers aren't hurt by cold, but to keep them dry is critical.

I would guess that hard drives might be damaged by cold.

Re:Like in humid environments - !not (1)

Lord Prox (521892) | about 8 years ago | (#15942500)

Ummm. I don't think you have to worry about them being wet or dry. The article said sub-zero. The air will have 0 humidity. As for the cold I don't think it will be that much of a problem to keep them above freezing and they *should* work just fine. Since they generate their own heat use that to your advantage by restricting airflow from the PSU fan and plug up the additional fan ports then grab a can of glue and glue some insulating foam on the sides of the metal case. The foam is cheap 5 bucks at a home improvment store for a 4 foot bt 8 foot piece.
As long at the machine is on it should keep it's self warm enough and the isulation will keep the heat in and not warming your freezer. For further warmth just run folding@home on a P4.


Re:Like in humid environments - !not (2, Insightful)

KingArthur10 (679328) | about 8 years ago | (#15942538)

Unless of course you have workers in the sub-zero environment. Speaking from experience (Kroger Distribution Center Freezer), patches of thin ice are very common with so many people going in and out of the room. Several people (or dozen people) breathing in a room with cause a decent amount of ice buildup on various surfaces.

Re:Like in humid environments - !not (3, Insightful)

theshowmecanuck (703852) | about 8 years ago | (#15943430)

The air will have 0 humidity.

Not true. It will have low humidity, but not zero. However, if the air around the computer is heated from the computer itself, I would be surprised to see any condensation. Low humidity air being heated should be able to hold more water not less. Condensation happens from moisture in warm air coming into contact with cool or cold air. This would be the opposite of what is happening in the freezer. As someone else mentioned, different thermal expansion rates of the computer hardware is probably more of an issue than humidity.

Bottom line, shop for equipment built for the job. If you have a need for this now, it is a very, very good bet that someone has done the same or similar before. I'll guarantee that you aren't the first person to have a need to run computer equipment in low temperatures. You've heard this before, and now, once again: "Don't re-invent the wheel."

For example, in a past life, we needed a gas analyzer shed full of, well, gas analyzers (Gas Chromatography TCD/Mass Spec, associated remote computers, etc.) that would pull in and analyze gas from several process lines. It was basically an insulated hut that sat outside in what could be as low as minus 50 degree celcius temperatures (not counting the bullshit windchill people like to brag with). And yes, it had heaters in it to make sure a the inside temperature was at least around plus 5 degrees C. This is the first time we needed something like this, but yes, there were several suppliers with that kind of experience available who were able to provide bids for the work. Even though it was the first time for us, we weren't breaking new ground. :-)

Re:Like in humid environments (4, Informative)

Bishop (4500) | about 8 years ago | (#15942501)

Computers are hurt by cold. If the operating temperature is too cold the chips and other electronics will heat up and expand faster then the pcb causing solder joints to break. Google for thermal expansion.

Re:Like in humid environments (1)

FlashBIOS (665492) | about 8 years ago | (#15942293)

I have no expirence in this either, but I wonder if submerging the non-moving parts in a non-conductive fluid or even just oil would work for you in keeping the electronic parts from water.

Additionally, it may be best to do away with moving parts like fans (would you need them anyway?), hard dives (use flash storage), and CD-ROMs (maybe use a removable one just when you need it).

Re:Like in humid environments (3, Informative)

Detritus (11846) | about 8 years ago | (#15942315)

Military equipment often uses conformal coating, which is a spray-on plastic coating that protects the components from the environment.

Re:Like in humid environments (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942389)

No. Oil floats on water. If your system isn't entirely sealed, condensing water would go down to the bottom of your container (likely where you've put the motherboard, etc) and ZAP.

Re:Like in humid environments (2, Insightful)

Spazmania (174582) | about 8 years ago | (#15942304)

Extremely low humidity is also a problem: you get static electricity which damages computers.

The target humidity is 50% RH. Same as for human beings.

Re:Like in humid environments (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942308)

There will be no condensation on a warm object in a cold environment.

Re:Like in humid environments (2, Informative)

Braedley (887013) | about 8 years ago | (#15942404)

Correct. Condensation will only form on objects which are below the dew point. Someone more qualified than myself could give a better explaination, but the dew point (usually as a temperature) is defined in terms of the barametric pressure and the humidity. Also, at very low temeratures (ie below zero), you really don't have to worry about the amount of moisture in the air. The partial pressure of water vapor at freezing is 0.61kPa (6.1mbar). As a comparison, one atmmosphere (1atm) is 101.3kPa, and the partial pressure of water vapor at room temperature (usually 22 or 25 degrees C) is about 2.9kPa.

Condensation shouldn't be a problem (4, Insightful)

BobPaul (710574) | about 8 years ago | (#15942337)

Since cold air has a lower capacity to hold water, warming the air should decrease the relative humidity of the air, bringing you farther from the dew point and make condensation less likely. Just let everything sit in the cooler to get nice and cold before you turn anything on and I think it should be just fine.

It's just for things like water blocks with peletiers where the ambient air temp is really right and the heatsink is super cold that you have condensation issues (like a can of pop.) With the extremely cold (and thus dry) ambient air this issue goes away.

My only concern would be if the freezer was often open for long periods of time letting in warm moist air, but even then I would expect it to condence on cold surfaces like the outsides of your cases, etc, and not on places that will short out.

Re:Condensation shouldn't be a problem (0)

chriss (26574) | about 8 years ago | (#15942420)

Since cold air has a lower capacity to hold water, warming the air should decrease the relative humidity of the air, bringing you farther from the dew point and make condensation less likely.
...
My only concern would be if the freezer was often open for long periods of time letting in warm moist air, but even then I would expect it to condence on cold surfaces like the outsides of your cases, etc, and not on places that will short out.

If e.g. the CPU warms the air inside the case and the air now is capable of holding more water, will not the humidity inside the case increase and then the water condensate when it contacts the case which is cooled from the outside? The water would not condensate on the CPU itself, but on the next thing that is colder than the CPU, e.g. the RAM. The only way to avoid this would be to warm everything to a similar temperature and make sure that water that condensates on the (cold) case is run out of the case immediately.

Re:Condensation shouldn't be a problem (2, Informative)

jtev (133871) | about 8 years ago | (#15942439)

Where is this magical water you're talking about coming from? The air in the computer is air from the environment heated up. There is no source for water inside the computer, and it's warmer than ambient. If there is condensation it will be outside the computer.

Re:Condensation shouldn't be a problem (1)

Lotana (842533) | about 8 years ago | (#15943489)

Where is this magical water you're talking about coming from?

The water will come from the breath of the workers working inside the warehouse. The submitter did not specify that computers will be sealed off in an air-proof no-go zone.

Another possible source would be faults in the insulation to the area outside. If the machine is near the frequently used door, there would be plenty of condensation after a few days.

Re:Condensation shouldn't be a problem (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15943621)

The breath of the workers in the warehouse can only increase the relative humidity of the -18 C air to a maximum of 100%. Even if the -18C air is at its dewpoint, and therefore has the maximum possible amount of water vapor in it, when it is heated to 20 C insde the computer, the same amount of vapor will only represent about 10% of what is neccesary to reach the dew point according to this graph [wikipedia.org] , completely preventing even the slightest chance of condensation.

Re:Condensation shouldn't be a problem (1)

StikyPad (445176) | about 8 years ago | (#15942824)

There has to be more than just a capacity.. there actually has to be moisture coming from somewhere. Unless your computer is built out of ice, there's no source of water.

Re:Condensation shouldn't be a problem (2, Informative)

AJWM (19027) | about 8 years ago | (#15943078)

The water would not condensate on the CPU itself ...
make sure that water that condensates on the (cold) case

Aaugh, I can't stand it.

"Condensate" is a noun, it's what you get when water (or other liquid) condenses (verb) on something cold.

Re:Condensation shouldn't be a problem (1)

chriss (26574) | about 8 years ago | (#15943136)

Sorry, native German, English is my third language.

Re:Condensation shouldn't be a problem (1)

AJWM (19027) | about 8 years ago | (#15943158)

No offense intended, just enlightenment.

Re:Condensation shouldn't be a problem (1)

grcumb (781340) | about 8 years ago | (#15943124)

"If e.g. the CPU warms the air inside the case and the air now is capable of holding more water, will not the humidity inside the case increase and then the water condensate when it contacts the case which is cooled from the outside?"

BINGO. As others have rightly noted, the problem with running computers in a cold environment is not the cold, it's the humidity, to coin a phrase.

I ran an ISP in the Arctic for a few years back in the '90s, and our constant worry was not whether the equipment would get cold - computers actually run quite efficiently when they're cold - but what would happen when parts got close to freezing. All our equipment was delivered by plane, and stored in a warehouse that often reached well below -20 deg. C. We had to bring it into a perfectly dry environment and let it sit for a minimum of 24 hours before powering it on. Anything less would be been, er, expensive. 8^)

We had similar contingencies to cope with heating systems failure, which were not unknown in a place that saw at least one major blizzard (i.e. several days of ~100km/hr winds) a year.

Re:Condensation shouldn't be a problem (2, Insightful)

theshowmecanuck (703852) | about 8 years ago | (#15943446)

I too have lived in very, very cold places before. And while what you say is true, in respect to the OP of this article, you have it backwards. You are talking about taking something that is very cold into a warm place with moist air. Of course water will condense on the cold surfaces. But this is not the conditions the OP is talking about. They are not bringing equipment in from the cold, they are taking something into the cold and keeping it in the cold... where the water content of the air is low (not necessarily a low RH). The only chance of condensation would be from someone working on the equipment and breathing on it, or warm moist air somehow coming in contact with the it. The only other way would be if you moved it into an area with warmer, moister air (and not necessarily out of the warehouse.

Re:Condensation shouldn't be a problem (2, Interesting)

BobPaul (710574) | about 8 years ago | (#15943710)

If e.g. the CPU warms the air inside the case and the air now is capable of holding more water, will not the humidity inside the case increase and then the water condensate when it contacts the case which is cooled from the outside?


No. For the sake of making up numbers, lets say the cold air can hold 50g of water per cubic meter and that the relative humidity of the cold air is 75%. This means that the air is actually holding 75% of 50g, or 37.5g of water per cubic meter. Condensation will occure when the air can no longer hold any water, so we have a ways to go before reaching 100% humidity.

Now the air is warmed in the processor so much that it is capable of hold 100g of water per cubic meter. It's still holding 37.5g of water because there is no where for new water to come from. This means that the relative humidity is now 37.5%. We are much farther from condensing that we were before.

Water would only condense on the ram if the ram were so cold that the air immediately next to it were cold enough to lower the capacity enough that water must condense. This won't happen unless the ram is COLDER than the ambient air, like a waterblock/peltier combination or a cold pop can. The pop can is colder than the ambient temperature so the air immdeiately next to the can is cooled enough to lower it's capacity (and thus increase it's humidity) until condensation occurs.

Just make sure that your computer parts are warmer than the air inside the freezer and you'll be fine.

Re:Like in humid environments (3, Informative)

Schraegstrichpunkt (931443) | about 8 years ago | (#15942524)

It's not just water that you have to worry about. Commercial-spec solid-state electronic components are typically rated for operation between 0 and 70 degrees Celsius. Electronic components conduct electricity better (or worse, in the case of many semiconductors) at lower temperatures, so even in a humidity-controlled environment, you could end up melting certain components.

What you need is either computers that are built entirely out of industrial or automotive-spec components that are rated at -40 to 85 degrees Celsius, or you need a temperature-controlled server room that will keep the computers within the commercial-spec range. Both are going to cost money.

I believe you are correct (2, Informative)

jd (1658) | about 8 years ago | (#15942913)

All of the extreme cooling & overclocking sites talk about moisture prevention. Except at extreme cold temperatures (-40c or below), eliminating moisture should be the biggest problem. The solutions I've seen vary, but one popular method is simply to immerse the computer in a fluid that won't freeze, won't mix with water, won't conduct and won't corrode. There's a bunch of synthetic fluids (such as fluorinert from 3M) that meet these requirements. For a major corp, using "proper" tools is probably the best approach. (Cheapos would just use mineral oil.)


Of course, if the air is guaranteed dry, then it's another situation entirely. Dry air can be any temperature above the minimum functioning temperature of the components, and everything'll be just fine. A warehouse keeping things that could get damaged from condensation or ice, for example, is going to be extremely careful to keep the moisture out. If that's the case, you don't need to repeat the process. Let the computer chill out.


Immersion methods won't work well if you have mechanical components, such as hard drives. You also have a major problem of the bearings freezing up. So, if these are "traditional" PCs with mechanical devices, you have to go for a different approach. In these sorts of cases, you really want to have the computer lagged to the hilt (no, I don't mean run slowly) and have some form of active homeostasis - a heat pump that can transfer heat in or out as needed, for example. Under most conditions, a very passive form of homeostasis is sufficient - have cold air or a cold fluid pass by hot components. That's fine, because heat won't generally flow against the gradient, so the temperature of the air/fluid is the minimum temperature the system can ever reach.


When you're varying the amount of heat you're generating, but the amount you're losing is fixed - particularly if the ambient external temperature is too cold for one or more components - then that is useless. The system will sometimes run too hot and sometimes too cold. That's not good. In those cases, what you want is somewhere you can dump extra heat you don't want when the system runs hot, and somewhere you can pipe that heat in from if the system starts getting too cold. Then you can always keep things just right.


The long and the short of it is this: It all depends on circumstances. Not all cold is created equal, nor are all machines the same.

Re:Like in humid environments (1)

JonathanR (852748) | about 8 years ago | (#15943464)

Water will not condense on anything that is warmer than ambient. The most likely cause of condensation would be ambient temperature cycling, whereby components become cooler than the ambient dewpoint. If you can keep the atmosphere at a relatively constant temperature, with an RH margin suitable for the likely temperature range expected, there will be no condensation problems.

On the other hand, whether there are any reasons from an electronics POV (aside from condensation) that require a higher ambient temperature, I cannot tell . I'm a mechanical engineer, not an electronics engineer (IANAEE).

Stable Operating System (4, Funny)

QuantumFTL (197300) | about 8 years ago | (#15942256)

Most important thing is to use a stable operating system, that way it doesn't freeze up.

Thanks folks, I'll be here all week!

Easy... (0, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942257)

Just run regular Pentium 4 chips. You still may need a fan and heatsink.

Intel is your cold weather friend (4, Funny)

Roadkills-R-Us (122219) | about 8 years ago | (#15942261)

Just use any of the Intel processors produced in 2005. Of course, you might have to beef up the A/C to keep the warehouse from thawing...

Re:Intel is your cold weather friend (1)

Johnny Mnemonic (176043) | about 8 years ago | (#15943086)

Seriously--if you just insulated the case with a blanket of something, closing off the air vents, might the natural processes of the computer keep the internals warm enough on their own?

Heat them up (1)

VorpalEdge (967279) | about 8 years ago | (#15942268)

Use quad gpus and have them working (run a game in a windowed mode or something).

Your negative 14 becomes a positive 114.

(and since I don't know what unit of measurement you were referring to (fahrenheit or celsius?), let's just say celsius because that'd be hottest)

Re:Heat them up (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15943374)

He ment Kelvin, you insensitive clod!

Re:Heat them up (1)

mge (120046) | about 8 years ago | (#15943693)

My father's name is Kelvin, you insensitive clod !!!

Close-ish I suppose (5, Informative)

Artana Niveus Corvum (460604) | about 8 years ago | (#15942271)

I once worked for a company that had a computer closet on top of a mountain.It would often get -25 to -50F and sometimes much much lower. If you can find a way to enclose the computers they will keep themselves warm. We just put up some 1"-thick insulation inside the walls of the little shed and the two computers kept it at 40-50F in there at the worst times.

Re:Close-ish I suppose (1)

Artana Niveus Corvum (460604) | about 8 years ago | (#15942287)

I suppose condensation could be a problem but we never ran into it (we had two P3 Deskpros up there along with a switch and a couple of IP-PDUs)

Start up temperature is a problem (2, Informative)

Zadaz (950521) | about 8 years ago | (#15942620)

Most computers should work fine by sustaining themselves with their own heat, but I wouldn't power up a hard drive that I cared about if it was below freezing. I would try to find a tiered power-up system like hard core liquid cooled system use. These go between the power switch and the motherboard, so that powering on first pre-warms the components, and only when they got to an acceptable temperature does the system power on.

Wonder if peltier pumps would be handy since you can simply reverse the current to reverse the heat/cool direction...

New technology to the rescue! (1)

jpardey (569633) | about 8 years ago | (#15943164)

Man, I just heard about this incredible peice of equipment on New Scientist. It's called a "Heater." It has a coil and a fan and stuff. Not quite sure how it works, but I think for the amount of times a nearly always on computer will boot, it might be worth living dangerously and trying one out, in conjunction with one of those newfangled "Thermostat" things.

Awesome! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15943269)

Now try running that "heater" thingee on a remote site with no AC-mains supply, just a solar panel and batteries. Good luck with that.

Mac G4 (4, Interesting)

LennyDotCom (26658) | about 8 years ago | (#15942276)

I left a Mac g4 dual Proc on my back porch in Connecticut for over 3 years summer winter and fall sometimes in winter the keyboard would be covered in snow and I would just turn it over anrd let it dry out it's still working today. I wish I had a Dell siting next to it for a comparasin.

Sorry about spelling and grammer

Re:Mac G4 (2, Interesting)

NMThor (949485) | about 8 years ago | (#15943039)

This of course begs the question: WHY??

Re:Mac G4 (3, Funny)

uncle_riley (655260) | about 8 years ago | (#15943056)

This of course begs the question: WHY??
Its something to do in Connecticut?

look around @ phase-change (1)

michaelmateyko (979292) | about 8 years ago | (#15942277)

you might want to look into how phase-change cooling systems such as asetek (http://www.asetek.com/) deal with the problem. i think they use a heating element under the cpu to keep it above freezing, thus avoiding any nasty condensation problems. you might also have to watch out for contraction of the metallic elements involved - i recall hard[ocp] managed to destroy a chip with a phase-change setup because the heatspreader actually popped off due to the extreme cold.

Remote sensors (5, Informative)

slasher999 (513533) | about 8 years ago | (#15942282)

This may be missing the point of the OP, but why not install the computers elsewhere and use something like the Sensatronics sensors? The sensor device can be outside the freezer - only the probes need to be in that brutal environment. The device connnects via Ethernet. We monitor using Intellipool Network Monitor, although before we had that package I threw together a Perl script to poll the devices via snmp.

Re:Remote sensors (1)

plover (150551) | about 8 years ago | (#15943089)

Agreed. If you're simply looking to acquire data from sensors, there's likely an RF solution that doesn't involve operating a server farm at subzero temperatures -- just the sensors. Of course, you might be doing some really sophisticated analysis requiring precise timing, enoromous volumes of data, etc., but how much of that has to be both "precise" AND "real-time"? Can you collect the data offline with minimal hardware, and perform the analysis later?

To me it sounds like you're thinking of an SPC-type process. In a normal factory you might have a PC at each machine station connected to a half-dozen sensors, and your QC inspector would use those to measure your process. Sometimes the software in those situations doesn't require the inspector to actually use the PC -- the inspector selects the sensor via a hardware switch, takes a measurement, then switches to the next sensor. That's a perfect situation for using short-haul modems to machines located safely out of the harsh environment. The QC inspectors can continue to use the tools inside to measure your process, but the data would be recorded outside the freezer. Someone on the outside could let you know if the process is heading out-of-bounds.

Let there be...heat! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942286)

"Does anyone have any experience with installing computers in extremely low temperature locations?""

A small thermostat electric heater is required in an appropriete enviromental box (no condensation 'silica gel's your friend',thermally insulated).

Hard Disk (3, Informative)

Detritus (11846) | about 8 years ago | (#15942301)

The hard disk is the big problem. It will produce enough heat to keep itself warm and working if installed in an insulated box. It must be kept on at all times or an auxiliary heat-source like a light bulb must be provided when the drive is powered down.

Liquid Cooling/Heating (2, Interesting)

wrfelts (950027) | about 8 years ago | (#15942312)

Although it may be cost prohibitive, the concepts used when cooling a computer through liquid emersion [electronics-cooling.com] may do well in this sort of environment. If the expelled heat of the computers is not enough to keep the liquid up to optimal temperature, you can conserve some energy by utilizing the excess heat from the refrigerant system. This method can also be used to raise the "PC-tank" environment up to optimal for a "cold boot" (sorry, could't resist.) The expelled heat of the computers will add to the load of the refrigeration system as a whole and needs to be calculated into the whole power efficiency equation.

Good luck.

Just an idea... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942313)

How about having them submerged in vegetable oil or some equally inert non-freezing liquid? It would prevent condensation problems, and I'd think that cooling (hah) wouldn't be a problem.

Re:Just an idea... (2, Interesting)

Bananatree3 (872975) | about 8 years ago | (#15943362)

The idea of vegatable-oil submersion definitally works for the motherboard, pci-boards, etc. without any mods. However things like powersupply and hard-drive would require a bit more extra care. You could submerge the hard-drive for instance by covering it in some sort of leak-proof -thermally conductive container, and then silicone the hole where the wires come out.

Competitors? (1)

General_Crespin (840569) | about 8 years ago | (#15942329)

Have you looked for similar businesses to this company, to see what they did and how they did it?

I've done this a lot. (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942335)

Electronics likes to operate in a cold environment. Mechanical stuff doesn't like cold temperatures because the lubricants usually get gummy. I used to put remote equipment in the Canadian arctic. Even commercial grade (as opposed to mil-spec.) ICs were happy to operate at temperatures below -40 deg. F.

There are many boards available which can be passively cooled albeit at sub GHz clock rates. If I had to do it right now, I'd use Damn Small Linux on a flash drive. The guys who put computers in their cars have the situation totally cased (pun intended). Get one of the little Pico power supplies which can run off a small linear fanless power supply.

You have much more to worry about the heat in the summer than the winter cold.

Overclockers have this problem (3, Informative)

zaguar (881743) | about 8 years ago | (#15942336)

When some overclockers use sub-zero equipment, condensation becomes a big issue. With stuff like LN2, some OC'ers dump the entire motherboard into a non-conductive tray of oil. You could look into something like that.

Thoughts (4, Informative)

Spazmania (174582) | about 8 years ago | (#15942341)

Transistors are designed to behave within a specific range of voltages and switching speeds for a particular range of temperatures. Most COTS electronics are targeted for an ambient temperature around 72F and work best at that temperature. When temperature extremes are needed, the transistors are actually doped and constructed differently.

That having been said, there are some things you can consider:

1. Do the computers really need to be in the freezer? If there is a way to build it so that they're not in the freezer, do it.

2. Enclose the cases with no ventilation. At subzero ambient temperatures they'll lose enough heat through the chassis. Insulate until the internal temperature is reasonable but not so far that it'll retain too much heat.

3. Install an electric heating coil in the case to bring the temperature up if it drops too low.

4. Underclock everything on the system: the CPU, the PCI bus, etc. Stretching out the clock cycles should give you a greater tolerance to the change in how the transistors behave and lower than expected temperatures.

5. Don't forget to consider the impact of the heat load on the freezer. You said computers with an S. Each one is going to dump 200 watts or more of electric heat into the freezer 24/7. Does the freezer have enough excess capacity to handle that and still do its job?

Toughbooks (3, Interesting)

Saval (39101) | about 8 years ago | (#15942347)

At least Panasonic Toughbook-29 seems to meet your temperature (and humidity) specifications:
http://www.panasonic.com/business/toughbook/df_tes t.asp#12 [panasonic.com]

Though that is only part of the solution...

Re:Toughbooks (3, Funny)

pimpimpim (811140) | about 8 years ago | (#15942775)

I'm not really sure about those machines, it looks like they have some real problems coming onto them after being dropped, just look:

Drop Test The Drop test was performed in accordance with MIL-STD-810F, Method 516.5, Procedure IV (Transit Drop Test). The Toughbook 28 was sequentially dropped in non-operating mode, onto each face, edge and corner for a total of 26 drops from a height of 36 inches. The drop surface was defined as two-inch-thick plywood over a steel plate over concrete. (...)

Results
The Toughbooks boot Windows® following each drop.

nasa (1)

deander2 (26173) | about 8 years ago | (#15942366)

take a cue from nasa: they supply all their deep space equipment (from probes to rovers) with portable heaters. best way to keep them working would be to insulate the box and stick a small thermal element inside on a thermostat. (it should only need to come on btw, when the box isn't running - computers heat themselves just fine otherwise ;)

Yeah (1)

DurendalMac (736637) | about 8 years ago | (#15942382)

Overclock the hell out of them! You're running in an air cooler's wet dream!

ATIC (1)

twitter (104583) | about 8 years ago | (#15942392)

This [lsu.edu] should give you a lot of help. They fly instrumented balloons in Antarctica. The server does not seem to be responding right now, but that should help you find what you need.

Re:ATIC (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942415)

Taking advice from people who can't keep their server running isn't advised.

cycling, or stable? (1)

bcrowell (177657) | about 8 years ago | (#15942400)

One thing the OP didn't tell us is whether the temperature is going to be a stable -14 F, cycling up and down, or changing erratically. If the temperature is going to be changing between -14 F and room temperature, then probably it's not practical to put an ordinary computer in that environment. There's also the question of whether the machines are going to stay powered up 100% of the time; if so, then the temperature inside the case will probably be relatively toasty while they're on, but recovery from a power outage could invove a nasty swing in temperature that might cause stuff to fail.

The weak point might be the hard disk, in which case it might be a good idea to use flash drives instead, or connect to storage over a network.

Simple fix (1)

xhamulnazgul (996557) | about 8 years ago | (#15942421)

Due to the location of the system being a sub-zero environment and the major problem being the extreme differences between the normally high heat of a computer with the arctic like temperatures in the freezer there is but a simple fix. Use an airtight, insulated box with a thermostatically-controlled liquid-cooling system preferably with a liquid that will not freeze at the temperatures. The initial start-up will prove to be interesting due to the intricies of being so cold at first. A space heater might be necessary until heat builds up inside the computer. USE NO FANS! All connections to be made should be routed through a single hole that is sealed immediately with an expansion insulating foam, silicone, or caulking. Any questions?

Google it? (2, Informative)

martinde (137088) | about 8 years ago | (#15942423)

I ran across this [bsicomputer.com] googling "industrial pc for low temperature environment" (without the quotes):

It's specs say it has an option to go down to -20C operating temperature.

A Chicken Will Do (4, Interesting)

KidSock (150684) | about 8 years ago | (#15942430)

During the Cold War it was proposed that a live chicken placed inside of nuclear bomb would be sufficient to keep things from freezing up. In the case of a computer I would suspect the ambient heat of the electronics would be adequate to keep things at a reasonable tempurature provided the compartment and insulation was good enough.

Re:A Chicken Will Do (2, Funny)

IntergalacticWalrus (720648) | about 8 years ago | (#15942971)

During the Cold War it was proposed that a live chicken placed inside of nuclear bomb would be sufficient to keep things from freezing up.

But they canned the idea when they realized that the chicken would have full access to the warhead's controls.

Re:A Chicken Will Do (1)

CAIMLAS (41445) | about 8 years ago | (#15943100)

I don't know much about nukes (except they're not generally a good source of nutrition), but I do know that a cold environment with a warm source - or vice versa - will result in a great deal of condensation, frost, and potential hardware problems.

Heating Coils (1)

kognate (322256) | about 8 years ago | (#15942434)

If you enclose your gear in an airtight box it still might get colder than you would like. You can just put a light bulb in the box (wattage would vary depending on the size of the box) attached to a thermostat. Light bulbs work just as well as a heating coil, and you can use photoresisters to instrument the box and tell you when the bulb burns out.

You can even run the thing with a digital thermometer, BASICstamp (and board) and photo-resister, you can run the whole thing
from an embedded system and be comfortable with the reliability, even. And you get a neat project.

http://www.parallax.com/html_pages/products/compon entshop/sensors.asp [parallax.com]

Look for Industrial temperature range equipment. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942437)

I getto deal with things like this at work a lot. Here's the short of it.

In general, the "commercial" temperature range for electronics is 0 to +70 Celsius. Most of your off-the-shelf stuff will be in this range. Some embedded systems are available in the "automotive" or "industrial" temperature range of -40 to +85 Celsius; if you can get equipment in that range, you'll have nothing to worry about. You'll want to check the specs on all your equipment; some of those switches may well be industrial temperature range, since the parts in that temperature range don't usually cost that much more these days. (There's also the "military" range of -55 to +125 Celsius, but that's probably overkill for you.)

Failing that, I would recommend you keep the commercial-temperature equipment in an insulated enclosure (room, box, cabinet, whatever you can rig). Put a thermometer on that enclosure so you can check on it without opening it. Then put an electric heating element (oelectric blanket, maybe?) on the bottom and hook it up to a thermostat so it kicks in when the temperature gets near 0 Celsius. If you do that, you'll likely find that the heating element keeps it warm when the computer gear is off, then when the computer warms the place up, the heating element will simply stay off (that's why you want the thermostat). Also, it's important to let the heater get the enclosure up to temperature before you start up the computer; you want to give any condensation time to bake off.

Hope that helps.

USAF Lab (1)

sciop101 (583286) | about 8 years ago | (#15942448)

USAF has a lab at Eglin AFB, FL. They test aircraft to -70F in a refrigerated hangar. Check with them.

I worked in the Arctic (-18F) back in the eighties' and we kept the computers indoors and ran cables to the sensors outdoors. Sensors are cheap and plentiful. Wires get brittle in the cold and break easily.

Enthusiasm diminishes with each trip outdoors: dressing for weather, exiting warmth, finding and fixing each problem, returning to warmth, getting coffee and food, finding out next problem.

I do not complain about the cold anymore!

Amen brother (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942484)

We spent a lot of money on mil-spec cables, thinking they would be better in the harsh arctic environment. Hah! They would crumble if you even looked at them. That was our education in mil-spec. The mil-spec for the cable we bought was for whether it would mildew in the tropics. We ended up using rubber insulated consumer grade cable which worked great.

You forgot to mention that everything takes twice as long when you're working under adverse conditions. It's hard to hold a 'scope probe steady when you are shivering. You get clumsy and your IQ goes down under such circumstances.

If I had to install the equipment mentioned in the story, I would make darn sure it is easily accessible. Trying to change a board when you're standing on top of a ladder with your fingers freezing is a recipe for disaster.

Do you *really* need that many cold computers? (4, Informative)

munpfazy (694689) | about 8 years ago | (#15942450)

For what it's worth, we've always built room-temperature enclosures to house electronics gear and PCs for the work we do in Antarctica. It's almost always easier and cheaper then trying to insure all your equipment can survive harsh temperatures.

For the odd piece of gear that needs to survive out in the open, we test them thoroughly in a freezer ahead of time. Some things - in particular simple solid state single board gear with no moving parts - seem to do quite well down to -50 C or lower. But, as capacitor values drift and sockets and connectors contract, even some likely candidates fail. Anything with lubricants or precision mechanical parts (drives, fans, etc) are almost certain to cause trouble. Expect your batteries to die and a some read-write storage media to fail.

But, is it really necessary to put a dozen full computers in this environment? It sounds like serious overkill to run a bunch of temperature sensors. If you absolutely need to use PCs, see if you can place them just outside of the cold space and run cables. Or, if that's not possible, put them all in a single, insulated, enclosed space with an active thermostat and some electric heaters. Make sure that when all the PCs are running at full tilt the temperature in the box is slightly below your target, so that you can control it with only a heater.

Better yet, replace the PCs with small readout and control boards. If all you need is to record temperatures to within a few tenths of a degree, building a board that will give you dozens of channels and a straightforward digital interface should be a few day's work for a reasonably competent engineer - and fabbing them may well cost less than a dozen PCs. You can then hand pick parts and packaging that is rated (or tested by you) to low temperatures, or you can build in very small heaters that keep individual parts warm without dumping too much heat into the environment. You may even be able to find such a product off-the-shelf if you hunt around.

If you absolutely must have PCs, see if you can't find a small single-board computer that will do the job. Test several over dozens of thermal cycles in a freezer before deciding to use it, and buy a bunch of extras.

Re:Do you *really* need that many cold computers? (3, Informative)

gremlin_591002 (548935) | about 8 years ago | (#15942518)

It would be silly to build a custom board for this kind of work. I deal with embedded PLCs all day, they are all solid state and can read sensors wired to them from hundreds of feet away, even longer if you use 4-20ma. Lots of different models with anything from 4 inputs to 128. This is the brand I use: www.kmc-control.com Ethernet connection available on several of the models, but for this kind of work, RS-485 is cheaper and more reliable.

RS485 Sensor Network (2, Informative)

NoMercy (105420) | about 8 years ago | (#15942473)

If I was riging it up, I'd use something like RS485 into sealed units with a small custom board in a sealed unit with the sensors hanging off of that. Then you only need one or two PC's outside plugged into the networks of sensors to read off the data and log it.

You could plug pretty much any PC with a serial port in, with a converter like:
http://www.advantech.com/products/Model_Detail.asp ?model_id=1-1TWNLI [advantech.com]

The only dificulty left is working out what kind of connectors you can use, if it's all hard wired, then it might be fine to wire the cables though sealed gromits into the boxes for termination.

The protocol could be quite trivial too, say send a couple of characters like R521,53 to say you want to read sensor 53 on unit 521, it'd run out over the bus, get picked up by the right unit, and reply a short time later with something shocking like V521,53,258 (where 258 is -15 degrees in kelvin).

But don't take my word for it, just build a low temprature version of:
http://www.elecdesign.com/Articles/Index.cfm?AD=1& ArticleID=6191 [elecdesign.com]

Be honest. (1)

Kaenneth (82978) | about 8 years ago | (#15942496)

You're actually planning to massivly overclock arn't you?

But I think the leading edge OC'ers have some of the same problems, Condensation, temperature changes warping parts (can pop IC's off boards.) So there may be common solutions. I recall a story of a fellow who suspended his computer in Mineral Oil (non-conductive, used inside electrical transformers) one advantage of which is to naturally exclude water; however I don't know it's freezing point, but there was also discussion about 3M or DuPont producing chemicals specifically designed for this purpose: little thermal expansion, no electrical conductivity, high thermal conductivity, wide range of tempuratures at which it remains liquid.

Another problem I forsee is the cold air and low humidity may lead to static electric buildup.

Styrofoam building insulation (3, Informative)

adminispheroid (554101) | about 8 years ago | (#15942535)

I've done stuff like this with computers for balloon payloads that go up in the stratosphere, where it's around -50 C. Here's two tricks that should help. Trick number one is build a box out of styrofoam building insulation and duct tape. Assuming you're in the US, you'll see a number printed on the insulation like "R5" or "R10." That's the thermal resistance, in BTUs, hours, deg F, and square feet. No, I'm not making that up. Guesstimate the power dissipation of the computer and use that to make the first design, then test and iterate. You'll want to stick a thermometer on the case or other convenient location. If this isn't reliable enough, then trick number two is design your insulated box to run a bit cold, and build a thermostatically controlled heater. We usually designed our own, because we like to do things the hard way, but I believe at someplace like Newark Electronics you can buy a little package that contains a heater and a bimetallic thermostat, you just supply the power.

Doing it all wrong (5, Informative)

grozzie2 (698656) | about 8 years ago | (#15942577)

The first step is to go back and re-visit your overall design. You only need sensors in the freezer, you dont need to put the computers in there. What you really want to do is go shop around in the industrial supply channels, and you will find all sorts of sensor equipment ideal for the job. You probably want temp sensors that speak ethernet out the other side, then either wire the place with ethernet, or use some wireless gadgets to further bring that data out of the freezer. For the life of me, I cannot fathom a system that needs a dozen computers to handle the sensors in a freezer. How many thousands of sensors are you putting in ? One computer (in an office outside the freezer) should easily be able to process the data from a few hundred sensors, all arriving in real time over a dedicated ethernet run.


I've done lots of industrial installations, in places where -14 would be considered 'toasty warm' compared to outside temps in the middle of winter. If I saw a proposal that includes putting full blown computers in the freezer, the first thing I'd do, find another vendor, this one obviously has no clue when it comes to embedded industrial equipment. Mil grade sensors that are good to -40, may not be a dime a dozen, but, there's lots of them out there that you can just buy and install, which will happily feed the data back to a computer sitting in an office somewhere.

The bottom line, if you are going to put rack mount pc's inside the freezer, do your customer a huge favour, and reccommend they find an expert in the field. You will be saving yourself a long term support nightmare, and your customer a whole big pile of money, because the proposed solution is kind of like taking money and flushing it down the toilet.

Easy! (-1, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942622)

Just use computers equipped with Xeon processors, that should keep the whole place nice and warm!

Please, get somebody that knows what their doing (1)

WillRobinson (159226) | about 8 years ago | (#15942628)

There is absolutly no reason to have your equipment in there. There are units that can scan quite a few thermocouples in various areas. Then there is now also equipment that can be driven directly over tcp(pw on unused pairs) think two wire sensors. I could tell you several ways to do it. But really, get a good industrial electrical contractor to do this for you. There are many things your not even thinking about, such as sensors getting hit etc.

Re:Please, get somebody that knows what their doin (1)

pimpimpim (811140) | about 8 years ago | (#15942736)

Please, get somebody that knows what their doing

I should paste one of these standard "Ask Slashdot" forms here, like: "I work for a top 500 company and am responsible for the new e-mail system, should I use some obscure undocumented mailing system because an 18yr old on slashdot has good experiences with this on his home server?"

I'm a nerd as all of you, and the subject is pretty cool (pun!) and interesting. Also there are nice reactions from people that actually dealt with situations like this (in the antartics, yay!). But the company of the poster is running a business, and can not afford to fool around. Monitoring systems in food or chemical industry are a field on its own. There are huge industry expositions and specialized journals that focus just on this subject. Probably there is also a lot of regulation that has to be taken care of as well. If the company the original poster is working for is not in that field, it should either make a serious and costly effort to get into this field if they're interested, or just acknowledge that other people are better suited for the job. Just like parent here, I think that is the only way to solve this problem.

Static Electricity ! (1)

sciop101 (583286) | about 8 years ago | (#15942653)

STATIC ELECTRICITY!

Static Electricity is another major factor in any Arctic temperature, low humidity environment. Alway touch a grounded frame before touching any electronic equipment.

Other concerns: We had Scripto and felt pens dry out if left open in warm rooms. Frozen pens might recover and be usable, but not all!

Inspect and inventory everything! Decide what can and what cannot be stored in the cold!

Ok first look in the right place (3, Insightful)

WillRobinson (159226) | about 8 years ago | (#15942663)

You looking on slashdot, you dont need a IT guy, you need a good controls guy.
This is cakewalk for them.
You will want a HMI for instance google for Wonderware.
Field sensors can be done is several ways.
PLC's with say up to 128 thermocouples, which would be in enclosures to keep out moisture (nema 4) talking to ONE
pc or mutiple (MMI) (Man Machine Interfaces) vi tcp.
If I knew your layout, I could tell you completely. But really, get a good controls or I/E guy.

Re:Ok first look in the right place (1)

hankwang (413283) | about 8 years ago | (#15943434)

PLC's with say up to 128 thermocouples,

I would not use thermocouples. They need expensive wiring and they are not particularly accurate if you want to measure differences of less than 1 C. A thermistor with a four-wire cable (2 for voltage supply, 2 for measuring voltage over the thermistor) is more suitable for such applications. With a thermocouple will need a thermistor anyway for the cold/warm junction compensation. There are companies that make cheap USB thermometers ($30 per piece) based on thermistors. I have positive experience with Papouch [papouch.com] . The sensor cables can be up to 20 m or so and the USB cable up to 128 m. I think there are USB-over-ethernet convertors for longer cable runs. Of course, you still have to make sure that the electronics work at low temperatures, but it's easier than a whole computer.

Hard Drives don't like cold (2, Informative)

MichaelKaiserProScri (691448) | about 8 years ago | (#15942677)

I had the pleasure of setting up a couple of systems in an unheated office in Maryland, in Februrary. It was "only" 20 in the room, but the hard drives did not want to spin up until they warmed up. Aparently there is some sort of lubricant on the platters that turns to GLUE at 20 degrees. So.... Put the servers outside the cold area. Make everything in the cold area diskless. My father used to work for a company that made cockpit voice recorders. The bay the recorders get mounted in is unheated and unpressurized, so it gets 30 below and very low pressure. To compensate for that (and for condensation) they burried the entire circut board in a block of epoxy. If you run terminal server, you may be able to find a dedicated terminal server client that you can just bury in epoxy. The hardest part will be the monitor. As far as I know LCD will freeze at that temp and just not work. CRT will potentially have condensation problems. I don't know enough about how plasma works to know what that will do.

Re:Hard Drives don't like cold (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15942806)

I did some work with an embedded PC in a cold box (-42C) Hard drives don't work. I ended up using a flash disk drive.

Don't (1)

XNormal (8617) | about 8 years ago | (#15942792)

Convert the temperature readings with voltage-to-frequency converters. This digital signal is very robust and can be carried over long distances on unshielded wires with no loss of accuracy. The frequency counters and computers can then be mounted outside the warehouse. You can put a DC power supply and an AC signal on the same wire pair with AC coupling for the signal.

I'm pretty sure it's easier to find a V2F converter to run at these temperatures than PCs and networking equipment.

pony up and pay the price (1)

TLouden (677335) | about 8 years ago | (#15942932)

if you need something like this then you can afford to pay for somebody who knows wtf they're doing and avoid asking a large group of anonymous persons who'll give no warranty.

I once had a guy ask me to install security cameras in his shop (i do this so no problem) but when he took me to the freezer as said he's had trouble with employee theft and wanted a camera in there I sent him to a group that can do that type of installation, you should too.

Been there, done that (1)

holviala (124278) | about 8 years ago | (#15943024)

How to run a computer a sub-zero temps? Place the computer in a really f***ing cold place, connect the cables and fire her up. After about a year the fans start breaking up because their bearings can't handle freezing. Other than the fans, the computer will just run forever...

Don't know whether you're talking about F or C, but it really doesn't matter as they're pretty close to each other near -35 degrees...

I've had my home server sitting outside in a Finnish winter/summer for the last five years with zero problems. Like I said above, the only things that break are the fans, and they probably would have broken inside the house too (because of dust). But since it's cold the fans are next to useless anyway. My server + a three-disk RAID-5 pack have survived ~50C heat (next to no air circulation in that closet) and -36C winter. The only thing I've ever cared about is that if during the winter I take the server out of the closet, I make sure it warms up and dries properly before I put it back there. And I refuse to start the harddrives when they're frozen - so I take the server inside the house, warm it up, make sure it runs ok and then put it back.

So forget all comments about insulation, heaters, remote sensors etc etc - the people who wrote those comments haven't done sub-zero computing.

going about it the wrong way (1)

CAIMLAS (41445) | about 8 years ago | (#15943091)

Why would you want to subject the computers themselves to potentially hostile environments? there are dozens if not hundreds of solutions out there which would meet this need. I personally know a guy who writes software to control and monitor temperature sensors placed in grain elevators. as far as I know the technology would work just fine in a freezer (though its targeted for an outdoor grain elevator - not much of a difference i nterms of hostility). it communicates with the servers over shortwave band (iirc).

Pentium 4! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 8 years ago | (#15943243)

Use a Pentium 4. It will provide your computer with enough heat so that it will run at a good temperature, if the ambient temperature is below zero.

Cold... (1)

dargaud (518470) | about 8 years ago | (#15943251)

Yes, see here [gdargaud.net] . Sorry, don't have the time to comment right now.

Dunno.. but... (1)

Professeur Shadoko (230027) | about 8 years ago | (#15943397)

but I know how to run Sub-Zero in a computer environment.

Forward - Down - Forward - low punch.

            FINISH HIM !

                      Sub Zero Wins !

Isolation? (1)

nurb432 (527695) | about 8 years ago | (#15943687)

Cant you just isolate the sensors from the computers? Even the displays can be run remotely..

Put the computers/network stuff in a heated closet and run long lines out to the sensors?

Bar that, dont use any moving parts in your computers that *have* to be out on the floor at least..
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