Servers generate a lot of heat. That’s a big part of what gives data centers their characteristically large carbon footprint. Not only do the servers themselves consume a lot of electricity as they perform their computing tasks, but the air conditioning required to keep them cool sucks up even more. What if you could use the heat generated by servers to warm your home?

That’s what a Dutch company called Nerdalize wants to do. It’s seeking investors to fund its production of a dual server/heater. It plans to test its invention in Norway, a country where 98 percent of the residents use electric heaters to heat their homes for 10 months of the year. Consumers will be reimbursed for the electricity the data furnaces consume and will receive free heating into the bargain.

Making Technology Greener

Sustainable technology requires a multi-pronged approach. Using refurbished equipment, like refurbished servers from xByte Technologies, is one important way to conserve resources and protect the environment. Energy efficiency is also an important component of sustainable tech.

Today, computers, and especially data centers, are the biggest drain on our energy resources. Data centers account for one to three percent of the world’s energy consumption. In 2011, researchers at the University of Virginia and Microsoft Research investigated the possibility that forms the foundation of Nerdalize’s proposal — whether the wasted heat emitted by servers in data centers could be put to better use in heating people’s homes.

According to a paper the researchers presented at that year’s Usenix Workshop on Hot Topics in Cloud Computing, the concept is entirely feasible. Any home with a broadband Internet connection could serve as a micro data center, the researchers affirmed. A single-family home could install one to three conventional server cabinets where its furnace would otherwise go, and connect them to the home’s existing ductwork to heat the house in the winter. In the Earth’s coldest regions, the researchers estimate, a home would need about 110 motherboards for heat. In the warmer months, the heat could be vented to the outside of the home; in hot climates, however, the servers would have to be powered down for some portion of the year.

Not only is the idea practical, but the researchers found that it had already been done. “We heard from several people [after publishing the paper] who are already heating their homes with computer systems, which shows that it works,” said Kamin Whitehouse, the paper’s co-author and an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Virginia.

Data Furnaces Could Cut Costs All Around

Nerdalize doesn’t plan to install server cabinets in people’s homes; instead, it wants to design stand-alone electric heaters for the European market. Nerdalize asserts that their data heaters are 60 percent more efficient than conventional data centers, and the research confirms it. The UVA/Microsoft team found that the average yearly cost of running a 40-server cabinet in a data center is about $16,000, but the same cabinet could be operated in a private home for less than $3,600. That means that even if the company paid the homeowner’s electricity costs for the furnace, which Nerdalize plans to do, it would still save money. Of course, the homeowner saves money too, in the form of free heat. That could mean a savings of about $900 a year compared to the cost of heating with normal electric heaters.

Nerdalize’s data heaters could provide both free heating to home owners and cheaper data to corporate customers. They’d be effectively using the energy twice, turning one of the biggest electricity drains in the modern world into one of our most valuable energy resources. They intend to sell their computing capacity to universities and corporations and donate any excess to worthwhile research.

Nerdalize isn’t the only company jumping on this idea; the German company AoTerra is also working on a data furnace prototype. Some European cities are working on insulated water-cooling systems that would transfer the heat from data centers to entire neighborhoods of private dwellings.

Data centers are responsible for 1 to 3 percent of global energy consumption. With help from companies like Nerdalize, processing power could soon transform from a drain on resources to a source of free heating for homeowners and businesses around the world. The idea is as brilliant as it is simple — put those servers into private homes and let their heat keep the residents toasty and warm.