California drought: Water use in Silicon Valley ‘insane’

California Governor Jerry Brown ordered business and residents to cut water use by 25% last week, but tech-giants in Silicon Valley need to do even more, according to one expert.

A single data centre can consume up to 20,000 litres of water per hour – “as much water as a small city”, according to Peter Hopton, founder of liquid-cooling firm Iceotope. 

“The water use of data centres is insane, especially when viewed in a time of ‘historic drought’ in California, where many facilities are based,” said Hopton

“Under pressure from environmental campaigners, web giants have tried their very best to make these facilities as efficient as possible, but they’ve done so by evaporating clean water in order to cool the air around the electronics. It doesn’t seem like a good trade off to me.

“With a typical server drinking as much water as the average human being per day, I know who I’d rather give it to.”


Water is a more energy-efficient way to cool vast data-centres than air, but those priorities need to be reassessed given the current context of drought, according to Hopton.

Edie has recently looked into the green credentials of both Apple and Google and found a longstanding commitment to reducing emissions and energy use, but less of a focus on water conservation.

The problem, according to water industry leaders, is that there’s no real value in saving water because it is so cheap.


However, as the drought has lengthened and deepened, companies have responded.

Google is reportedly considering installing new urinal cakes containing enzymes that calcify urine so that toilets only have to be flushed a few times each day, saving up to 500,000 gallons of water a year. 

It has also switched to recycled water at several data centres, noting “we soon realized that the water we used didn’t need to be clean enough to drink”.

Another Google facility in Hamina, Finland was built near the coast so it could use sea water to cool without chillers.

Ebay has also installed cooling fans among its computer servers while switching to passive cooling systems. In 2013, the company began using recycled water on its Mountain View campus landscaping, saving nine million gallons of water.

In its most recent sustainability report, Apple admitted it needed to address its rising water consumption, although several of its data-centres are equipped with technology that ‘allows water to be reused up to 35 times’.

Brad Allen

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