NSA Data Center To Use 5M Gallons Per Day: Is That A Lot?

Published on 10th January 2014 by Mark Monroe

A few days ago, Data Center Knowledge published an article about a new NSA data center in Maryland getting up to 5 million gallons per day of grey water for cooling. (“NSA Will Cool its Secret Servers With Waste Water,” 06 Jan 2014, Data Center Knowledge). The article went on to say that NSA’s 1 million square foot facility in Utah would use an additional 3 million gallons per day to cool the computers in that facility.

That got me thinking: is that a lot of water? Without some other frame of reference, it’s hard to know how much water goes to other things. Here’s a list of other water users and how they compare to the NSA data center.


Water use

(gal / day)



Data Center


Average American per capita, incl. outdoor water use



USGS, 2005, http://goo.gl/v5y2Ad

US Household, including outdoor use



American Water Works Association, http://goo.gl/Yl4qLs

Golf course in Southeastern U.S.



USGA, http://goo.gl/JTd4NU

Quarter Section (160 acres) alfalfa in CA



Hanson, B., UC Davis, http://goo.gl/So36Xz

1 mile square of corn



Hanson, B., UC Davis, http://goo.gl/So36Xz

NSA MD Data Center



DCK, http://goo.gl/v98qbW

Beaufort County, SC (Hilton Head)



USGS, http://goo.gl/l466E

Oil recovery using hydraulic fracking, per well

2 to 10M

0.4 to 2X

Forbes, http://goo.gl/T8KxWZ

City of Boulder, CO (pop. 98,903)



Boulder Economic Council, http://goo.gl/OC3Bm3

U.S. lawn irrigation



US EPA, http://goo.gl/BO13Pb

Total U.S. daily water extraction



USGS 2005, http://goo.gl/yVEEZg

Yes, that’s right. The NSA Maryland data center will draw one thousandth of one percent (0.001%) of the US water extraction per day, and less water than the golf courses in Beaufort County, SC.

Find your own comparison that will help you put the NSA water use in perspective and add it in the comments section!

But another question is how efficient is that water use? The Green Grid released the Water Usage Effectiveness (WUE) metric a few years ago, and a few companies have started to report WUE to the public. If NSA-MD total expected power consumption is 60MW, we might calculate WUE like this:


  60MW total power capacity ÷ 1.5 PUE* = 40MW IT load x 8760 hr/yr = 350M kWh / yr  (* - 1.5 PUE is assumed; no value has been published)

  5 Mgal / day x 365 days / yr = 1,825 Mgal / yr


      annual water usage                        1,825,000,000 gal / yr

  WUE = ------------------------------------ =      --------------------------------------- = 5.2 gal / kWh IT load

 annual IT energy                            350,000,000 kWh /yr


eBay publishes their corporate-wide WUE average on their Digital Service Efficiency (DSE) dashboard at http://dse.ebay.com. They report a WUE of 2.52 gal / kWh through Q2 CY 2013. Facebook publishes WUE for their Prineville and Forest City sites of about 0.08 and 0.11 gal / kWh, respectively. So, NSA’s calculated WUE is much higher (worse) than eBay or Facebook.

We can’t really compare, because the NSA calculation is based on a lot of assumptions, and the eBay and Facebook values are actual numbers measured at the sites. Still, it gives us an idea of what to look for.


In the end, I would say “don’t sweat it” about the NSA water use. The average person produces about 400-500ml of persperation daily, so it would take the sweat from everyone in the state of California to make up for the NSA water use. It could be more efficient, but it’s not a giant amount of water in the big scheme of things. 


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