How much water do Apple’s thirsty online services need?

As Apple's online services expand, how much water is it using at its data centers?

Apple, iOS, OS X, server, online services, Apple Music, iCloud, Water, Environment
Credit: Sander van der Wel/Flickr

How thirsty is your Apple Music collection? How much water gets used up when you send an email through iCloud? Not a great deal, but the truth is the data centers that drive services like these are incredibly thirsty creatures.

Drop by drop

Every online photo, all those Apple Maps requests, Siri interrogations, FaceTime chats, Apps downloads and iMessage exchanges all use drops of water.

In most cases the data servers enabling all these Apple services are kept cool by pumping water through the systems.

Apple used 160 million gallons of water across its data centers last year. (It used a total 573 million gallons (2.1 billion litres) of water across its entire US business).

The amount of water being used to drive online services is vast. US data centers consumed 626 billion liters of water in 2014, according to the US Geological Survey.

This includes both the water used to cool the servers and the water used to generate the electricity powering them. (Apple data centers have been 100 percent renewable since 2013).

A grain of rice

To put these figures into some kind of context, it takes around 5,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo or rice, which means US data centers could be estimated as using as much water as it would take to produce a year’s supply of rice for just under a million Americans.

Data centers aren’t the biggest water consumers.

Agriculture accounts for around 70 percent of all fresh water use, though 60 percent of that use is wasted.

Water is also linked to electricity generation, which accounted for about 17 percent of water used in California in 2010.

The big four

Apple owns four data centers that support “the vast majority” of its online services in Maiden, North Carolina; Newark, California; Reno, Nevada; and Prineville, Oregon.

Apple’s most recent Environmental Responsibility Report shows it recognizes it has a water addiction. As noted by Data Center Knowledge, the company states:

“The profile of water use at our data centers, corporate offices, manufacturing sites, and retail stores differs significantly depending on the climate and nature of activities. We have begun to map those operations against indicators of water risk, which include water scarcity, business risk, and habitat and livelihood impact to the basins in which we operate. This analysis will help prioritize our conservation efforts across our operations.”

Apple has big plans for services, which it couples with a sense of corporate responsibility as evidenced in its annual environmental reports.

“We’re constantly working to minimize our water use, so we monitor it within our cooling, landscaping, and sanitation processes and at our manufacturing sites. Then we develop targeted ways to reduce it. That includes creating cooling systems in our data centers that can reuse water up to 35 times.”

Don’t waste water

Apple recently announced a new water conservation attempt. It is paying for a water treatment facility to recycle water from Prineville, Oregon’s regular sewage treatment system for use cooling its huge data center there. The biggest water consumer in the city, Apple used 27 million gallons of the fluid to cool its data center there last year. "We are proud to partner with Crook County and the City of Prineville on this effort, and are committed to doing our part to preserve natural resources,” Apple told Wateronline.

“By recycling water for Apple instead of taking it straight from the tap, the city says its new facility will save nearly 5 million gallons a year,” The Oregonian reported.

The company needs to be committed to water preservation. Apple already has one large data center in Prineville, is building a second, and last month proposed building a third. As it expands its services offering, you can imagine its water consumption will also increase. What’s reassuring is the effort the company puts into minimizing its water addiction. It’s an attempt that should be matched by any other online service provider.

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