Data centers are significant consumers of natural resources, and while carbon emissions and electricity consumption are at the forefront of people’s minds, water usage is gaining increased recognition. Water is used in data center cooling systems, which ensure that the heat produced by these massive facilities is controlled, such that their internal servers can run uninterrupted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Data centers use large amounts of water for their cooling system, which includes cooling towers, chillers, pumps, piping, heat exchangers / condensers, and computer room air conditioner (CRAC) units. Additionally, data centers need water for their humidification systems and facility maintenance.
Globally, data centers are located in all different types of countries and climates, including many facilities in water-stressed regions of the world, which are prone to droughts. According to the United Nations, by 2025, 50% of the world’s population is projected to live in water-stressed areas, making data center water usage a key environmental area to prioritize change.
Dgtl Infra provides an in-depth overview of data center water usage, explaining how data centers use water and how much water they consume on an annual basis. Additionally, we track key water metrics and sustainability initiatives from some of the world’s largest data center operators, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft, Google, Facebook (Meta Platforms), and Apple.
Why do Data Centers Use Water?
Data centers use significant amounts of water on-site primarily for their cooling system, which is comprised of cooling towers, chillers, pumps, piping, heat exchangers / condensers, and computer room air conditioner (CRAC) or computer room air handler (CRAH) units. Below is an illustration of a typical data center layout showing some of these cooling system components:
To a lesser degree, data centers also need water for their humidification systems and facility maintenance.
Notably, data centers indirectly consume large amounts of water off-site – at a power generation plant – in order to supply the data center with electricity. For the purposes of this analysis, only water used on-site, for the operation of a data center’s cooling and humidification systems will be considered.
Traditionally, data center air conditioning equipment is either water-cooled or air-cooled, with water-based cooling via evaporative cooling systems more common, particularly for large data centers. These cooling systems remove and release all of the heat produced inside a data center – from servers, IT equipment, and mechanical infrastructure – into the outside environment, through a cooling tower that uses a water evaporation process.
In a water-cooled system, water-cooled chillers and cooling towers produce chilled water, which is supplied to computer room air conditioner (CRAC) units for cooling both inside and outside of the data center room.
Data centers use water in the operation of humidification systems, which help maintain humidity levels in the facility’s server rooms. Specifically, humidifiers use electricity to vaporize water, creating steam in the air.
How Much Water Does a Data Center Use?
Data center water consumption varies depending on several factors, including the size of the facility, cooling system used, and outdoor temperature and humidity. Typically, data centers use less water during the winter months and more during the summer months. To this end, higher outdoor air temperatures mean that more energy – and thus more water – is required for a data center’s cooling system, to lower the facility’s internal air temperature back down to appropriate levels.
Below are two examples of data center water consumption for varying facility sizes: i) hyperscale data centers and ii) wholesale and retail data centers. In both instances, a single data center consumes several million gallons / liters of water annually.
|Water Consumption||Hyperscale||Wholesale and Retail*|
|per day||450k gallons (1.7m liters)||18k gallons (68k liters)|
|per year||164m gallons (622m liters)||6.57m gallons (24.9m liters)|
Hyperscale Data Centers – Water Usage
Hyperscale data centers are very large, often single-tenant facilities for cloud service providers (CSPs) and large internet companies. These data centers individually comprise tens of megawatts of power capacity and can reach millions of square feet in size, meaning their corresponding water consumption is very high.
Google operates hyperscale data centers to support its cloud regions and the company’s core products and platforms, such as Gmail, Google Drive, Google Maps, Google Photos, Google Play, Search, and YouTube. In 2021, the average Google data center consumed 450,000 gallons (1.7 million liters) of water per day, equivalent to 164 million gallons (622 million liters) of water annually.
Wholesale and Retail Data Centers – Water Usage
In late 2021, Prince William County, which is part of the Northern Virginia data center market, studied water consumption for its 25 operational data centers. These facilities were much smaller, typically ranging from 100,000 to 250,000 square feet, meaning their corresponding water consumption was meaningfully lower, as compared to Google’s hyperscale data centers.
Based on the county’s findings, the average daily water consumption of a single data center building was about 18,000 gallons (68,100 liters) per day, equivalent to 6.57 million gallons (24.9 million liters) of water annually. While the maximum daily water consumption of a single data center building was about 88,000 gallons (333,100 liters) per day, equivalent to 32.1 million gallons (121.6 million liters) of water annually.
Where do Data Centers Get their Water?
Data centers get their water primarily from a municipal or regional water utility company, which provides water supply for the data center’s cooling and humidification systems.
For cooling purposes, data centers typically draw potable water, meaning drinking water, from the water utility and, to a lesser extent, they source non-potable / greywater and recycled water, which is treated sewage. For example, Google utilizes some reclaimed or non-potable water at more than 25% of its data center campuses.
On average, less than 5% of a data center’s total water supply comes from alternative sources such as on-site groundwater, surface water, seawater, produced water (byproduct of oil & gas extraction), and rainwater capture systems.
What Happens to Water Used to Cool Data Centers?
Water used to cool data centers is either consumed, meaning it evaporates into the atmosphere via the data center’s cooling towers or discharged, as industrial wastewater, usually to a local wastewater treatment plant.
Effective water treatment, either on-site or off-site through a wastewater treatment plant, means that the water can be reused in the cooling system multiple times, if the water quality (e.g., hardness) is acceptable.
Do Data Centers Reuse Water?
Data centers reuse water by recirculating the same water through their cooling systems multiple times. According to Google, this practice saves up to 50% of water when compared with “once-through” cooling systems.
However, eventually this reused water needs to be replaced with new water, due to the risk of scale formation or once the conductivity of the water is too high.
The need for new water results from the build-up of scale-forming minerals in the reused water – such as calcium, magnesium, and silica, which become concentrated over multiple evaporative cooling cycles.
Ultimately, the spent data center cooling water can be treated and reused (or recycled) for other purposes such as irrigation or toilet flushing.
Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE)
Data center water usage efficiency employs a metric known as water usage effectiveness (WUE), which measures the water a data center uses to cool its equipment. Specifically, water usage effectiveness (WUE) is the ratio of the annual water usage for data center operations in liters, divided by the energy consumption of the IT computing equipment in kilowatt hours (kWh). Therefore, WUE is signified using the units of liters per kilowatt-hour (L/kWh).
READ MORE: How Data Centers Impact the Environment
Per Facebook (Meta Platforms), the industry average WUE metric for 2021 is 1.80 liters of water per kilowatt-hour (L/kWh) of electricity used.
Data Center Water Usage by Hyperscaler
Cloud service providers (CSPs) and large internet companies, collectively known as hyperscalers, have disclosed metrics on their data center water usage. Moreover, hyperscalers including Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft, Google, and Facebook (Meta Platforms) have all committed to be water positive by 2030.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) – Data Center Water Usage
Amazon Web Services (AWS) has committed to be water positive by 2030, returning more water to communities and the environment than it uses in its direct operations. Specifically, AWS’ water positive commitment applies to AWS leased, owned, and colocation data centers, as well as AWS offices. The company’s data center commitments form the basis of its water use strategy for each operational AWS Region.
Presently, AWS uses recycled water for cooling in 20 data centers around the world, including those shown in the map below, namely Virginia (United States), California (United States), Oregon (United States), United Kingdom, Brazil, South Africa, India, Indonesia, and Singapore.
Water Positive Calculation
AWS calculates its progress toward its water positive goal as follows:
Water efficiency improvements by AWS will be reflected in a declining volume of incoming water. If the percentage is under 100%, that means AWS has not met its water positive goal. Whereas if the percentage is over 100%, that means AWS is returning more water to the community than it is using – meaning AWS is water positive.
AWS’ four key strategies to become water positive are:
- Improving water use efficiency across its operations
- Using sustainable water sources (e.g., recycled water)
- Returning water for community reuse
- Supporting water replenishment projects for communities and the environment
Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE)
In 2021, AWS’ global water usage effectiveness (WUE) metric was 0.25 liters of water per kilowatt-hour (L/kWh) of electricity used on average across AWS data centers worldwide. On an annual basis, AWS will report on its WUE metric, new water reuse and recycling efforts, new activities to reduce water consumption in its facilities, and replenishment projects.
Cooling System Strategies
AWS’ preferred cooling strategy for its data centers is known as direct evaporative cooling. In this system, hot air is pulled from outside and pushed through water-soaked cooling pads. The water evaporates, reducing the air’s temperature, and the cool air is then sent into the server rooms.
Direct Evaporative Cooling
To reduce the water use of its cooling systems, AWS also employs a free-air cooling system. At its data centers, AWS installs sensors that track weather parameters like temperature and humidity. As soon as the conditions drop to a safe operating range, the evaporative cooling system shuts off, and cool air from outside is pulled into the server rooms.
Microsoft – Data Center Water Usage
Microsoft has committed to be water positive for its direct operations by 2030, which means that Microsoft will replenish more water than it consumes on a global basis. Particularly, Microsoft’s water consumption strategy has two main pillars:
- Reducing Water Use Intensity: the water Microsoft uses per megawatt of energy used for its operations
- Replenishing Water: in the water-stressed regions where Microsoft operates
Focusing on data centers, Microsoft has committed to reduce the water used in its evaporative cooled data centers globally by 95% by 2024. This reduction represents an estimated 1.5 billion gallons (5.7 billion liters) of water annually.
READ MORE: Microsoft Azure’s Data Center Locations
As an example, Microsoft is leveraging a method called adiabatic cooling, which uses outside air instead of water for cooling when temperatures are below 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 degrees Celsius).
Google – Data Center Water Usage
Google has committed to replenish more water than it consumes by 2030 and support water security in communities where it operates. Specifically, Google will invest in community projects that replenish 120% of the water it consumes, on average, across all its offices and data centers.
To achieve its water commitments, Google is focusing on three areas:
- Responsible Water Use: enhance management of water resources across Google office campuses and data centers
- Watersheds and Communities: replenish Google’s water use and improve watershed health, while supporting ecosystems in water-stressed communities
- Water Security with Technology: share technology and tools that enable everyone to predict, prevent, and recover from water stress
Google uses water to cool the data centers that support its cloud regions and the company’s core products and platforms, such as Gmail, Google Drive, Google Maps, Google Photos, Google Play, Search, and YouTube. Water is also used in Google’s supply chain, in the manufacturing of its data center equipment.
READ MORE: Google Cloud’s Data Center Locations
During 2021, Google’s global data center portfolio consumed 4.34 billion gallons (16.4 billion liters) of water, equivalent to the water needed to irrigate and maintain 29 golf courses in the southwest U.S. each year.
Of this global total, Google consumed 3.37 billion gallons (12.7 billion liters) of water (78% of total) across its 15 U.S. data centers and 971 million gallons (3.68 billion liters) of water (22% of total) through additional global data center locations.
Google Data Centers – Annual Water Metrics for 2021
|Berkeley County, South Carolina||541.3m gallons||65.9m gallons||475.3m gallons|
|Council Bluffs, Iowa||1,111m gallons||265.2m gallons||845.8m gallons|
|The Dalles, Oregon||358.3m gallons||83.8m gallons||274.5m gallons|
|Douglas County, Georgia||421.8m gallons||61.7m gallons||360.1m gallons|
|Henderson, Nevada||68.9m gallons||28.4m gallons||40.5m gallons|
|Jackson County, Alabama||92.3m gallons||22.1m gallons||70.2m gallons|
|Leesburg, Virginia||59.6m gallons||15.0m gallons||44.7m gallons|
|Lenoir, North Carolina||352.2m gallons||21.5m gallons||330.7m gallons|
|Mayes County, Oklahoma||863.1m gallons||192.0m gallons||671.2m gallons|
|Midlothian, Texas||51.3m gallons||11.4m gallons||39.9m gallons|
|Montgomery County, Tennessee||166.5m gallons||27.3m gallons||139.2m gallons|
|New Albany, Ohio||27.0m gallons||11.1m gallons||15.9m gallons|
|Papillion, Nebraska||34.2m gallons||16.7m gallons||17.5m gallons|
|Sterling, Virginia||51.3m gallons||9.3m gallons||41.9m gallons|
|Storey County, Nevada||0.6m gallons||0.6m gallons||0.1m gallons|
|Subtotal – U.S. Locations||4.20bn gallons||832.0m gallons||3.37bn gallons|
|Additional Global Locations||1.33bn gallons||361.2m gallons||971.0m gallons|
|Total Locations||5.53bn gallons||1.19bn gallons||4.34bn gallons|
Google defines its water “Consumption” as “Withdrawal” less “Discharge”. Therefore, in 2021, Google’s global data center portfolio consumption of 4.34 billion gallons (16.4 billion liters) of water is comprised of withdrawal of 5.53 billion gallons (20.9 billion liters) of water, less discharge of 1.19 billion gallons (4.5 billion liters) of water.
Notably, in 2021, the average Google data center consumed 450,000 gallons (1.7 million liters) of water per day, equivalent to 164 million gallons (622 million liters) of water annually.
Facebook (Meta Platforms) – Data Center Water Usage
Facebook, part of Meta Platforms, has committed to be water positive by 2030, meaning the company will restore more water to the environment than it consumes (i.e., evaporates) for its global operations. To achieve this goal, Meta will restore 200% of the water it consumes in high water stress areas, and 100% of the water it consumes in medium water stress areas.
Facebook (Meta Platforms) follows a water usage strategy that focuses on:
- Sourcing water responsibly
- Driving water efficiency across its facilities and operations
- Investing in critical water restoration projects in the same watersheds where its facilities are located
Facebook (Meta Platforms) uses water at its data centers to cool servers and maintain optimal humidity. During 2021, Meta’s total data center portfolio consumption was 636 million gallons (2.41 billion liters) of water, comprised of withdrawal of 903 million gallons (3.42 billion liters) of water, less discharge of 267 million gallons (1.01 billion liters) of water.
Facebook (Meta Platforms) – Data Center Water Metrics for 2021
|Consumption||636 million||2.41 billion|
|Withdrawal||903 million||3.42 billion|
|Discharge||267 million||1.01 billion|
Below is a further breakdown of the water withdrawal of Facebook (Meta Platforms), by each of its data centers:
|Altoona, Iowa||37.0 million||140 million|
|Clonee, Ireland||245.2 million||928 million|
|Eagle Mountain, Utah||15.3 million||58 million|
|Forest City, North Carolina||16.9 million||64 million|
|Fort Worth, Texas||67.1 million||254 million|
|Henrico, Virginia||21.1 million||80 million|
|Huntsville, Alabama||10.3 million||39 million|
|Los Lunas, New Mexico||40.4 million||153 million|
|Luleå, Sweden||10.3 million||39 million|
|New Albany, Ohio||32.0 million||121 million|
|Newton County, Georgia||27.7 million||105 million|
|Odense, Denmark||98.5 million||373 million|
|Papillion, Nebraska||28.0 million||106 million|
|Prineville, Oregon||93.5 million||354 million|
|East Coast Leased Data Centers||147.4 million||558 million|
|Data Center-Related Facilities||11.9 million||45 million|
|Total Locations||903 million||3.42 billion|
Over 99% of the company’s total water withdrawal was sourced from third-party water, such as a municipal water supply.
Additionally, in 2021, Meta’s restoration was 617 million gallons (2.34 billion liters) of water throughout its operations. Looking forward, Meta has contracted 1 billion gallons (3.79 billion liters) of water per year for restoration.
Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE)
Data center buildings which Facebook (Meta Platforms) completed in 2021 exhibit a water usage effectiveness (WUE) metric of 0.26 liters of water per kilowatt-hour (L/kWh) of electricity used. Historically, the company’s annual data center water usage effectiveness (WUE) metrics have trended as follows:
Facebook (Meta Platforms) – Data Center Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE)
According to Facebook (Meta Platforms), the company’s innovative server cooling process enabled its data centers operating in 2021 to be at least 80% more water efficient than the average data center.
Apple – Data Center Water Usage
Apple is committed to reduce water impacts in the manufacturing of its products, use of its services, and operation of its facilities (offices, data centers, and stores). Specifically, Apple’s efforts to address the water footprint of its corporate sites and of its suppliers’ sites focus on the following key efforts:
- Using water efficiently
- Minimizing freshwater use by expanding the use of alternative water sources, including on-site reuse
- Improving the quality of water it discharges
- Protecting shared water resources and keeping watersheds healthy for all who rely on them
During Fiscal Year 2021 (12-months ended September 25, 2021), Apple’s worldwide corporate facilities consumption was 636 million gallons (2.41 billion liters) of water, comprised of withdrawal of 1.407 billion gallons (5.3 billion liters) of water, less discharge of 771 million gallons (2.9 billion liters) of water.
READ MORE: Apple’s Data Center Locations