Remote monitoring can maximize uptime and minimize your investment.

With the increased demand for uptime and decreased tolerance for unplanned shutdowns, industrial facilities are under more pressure than ever to keep their electrical systems running properly. And corporate belt-tightening means you must find efficiency gains, which can be a challenge under the best of conditions. One of your chief problems may be figuring out how to integrate data among multiple sites to ensure equipment runs properly without having to travel hundreds of miles per day. And if you're only responsible for one site and have limited resources, it's challenging to keep reliability levels high. Remote monitoring can provide the necessary information you need to stay on top of equipment conditions and power status, regardless of the size of your operation.

An appliances manufacturer recently implemented a power monitoring system connected by a communications network to smart metering devices, protective relays, circuit breaker units, and motor starters. In addition to monitoring two manufacturing plants in Ohio, the company tracks power usage at plants in Texas and Mexico using dial-up telephone modems. Emphasizing the value of access to this type of remote data, the company's senior staff engineer foresees a time when the company will be able to “wheel on-site generated power from one site to another during peak power or load-leveling conditions.”

Advances in networking and Internet technologies hold the key, because they enable real-time power system monitoring from a central location. Remote power monitoring systems perform the same functions as conventional systems — only the location is different. They gather real-time statistical and historical data for a central team — which may be outsourced — to analyze and act on. This team can apply customized load reduction strategies, help schedule the idle time of the processes around peak usage, compare utility rate structures, recommend predictive and corrective maintenance based on trends, and troubleshoot problems.

The remote monitoring and control model allows the exchange of information across organizational boundaries, via easily accessible channels like the Web, and consolidates resources across company locations. This eliminates the need to staff multiple sites or pay for travel between them. For single sites, it eliminates the common problem of being “resource-poor” when it comes to electrical engineering expertise.

When developing a remote monitoring and control strategy, don't limit your considerations to the basic functions of monitoring, control, and analysis. Providers of these systems offer features like advanced power quality monitoring, cost allocation and sub-billing, and instantaneous alarm notifications via e-mails. You'll want something you can use easily, so be sure the software has an easy-to-use graphical user interface, pre-configured reporting capabilities, and preventive maintenance functions.

How do you do it?

Imagine this scenario. Your company has decided to distribute resources across multiple locations. It's the middle of summer and you're facing peak load problems and undervoltages at these sites. You can't be everywhere at once, so you'd like to implement a remote monitoring system to monitor the HVAC system, selected lighting loads, and several production processes by monitoring their supply breakers. How do you transform this vision into a reality?

First, assess your existing infrastructure. Decide what you can and can't use. Identify what types of intelligent devices you have — power meters, breakers, local displays, transformer temperature monitors, or generator controls. Determine whether you already have a common communications bus like Modbus, Profibus, INCOM, SEAbus, Ethernet, or RS485 twisted, shielded-pair cable.

Next, take an inventory of what you want to monitor, like mains, breakers, process loads, and selected critical feeders, particularly in data centers where it's wise to keep the servers and air conditioning on, and in manufacturing environments where it pays to monitor for process control.

If you decide it's necessary to invest in new communications devices, you'll need to retrofit existing equipment with smart breakers, power monitors, transformer temperature monitors, and other intelligent devices. For maximum advantage, use the appropriate electrical monitoring devices as data concentrators.

Consider installing an intelligent device that includes digital inputs for breaker status, relay outputs for alarm indication, analog inputs for temperature and pressure, and an Ethernet gateway to place multiple devices on the Ethernet without requiring additional hardware. These devices can include analog inputs to sense generator parameter status like oil pressure, fuel level, and bearing temperature. Whenever possible, install a single device capable of handling multiple tasks so you don't have to invest in several expensive devices.

An advanced power quality meter with Web server technology can monitor transformer temperatures, breakers, and generators, while at the same time provide high levels of power analysis and a sequence of event recording.

Should you DIY?

A fundamental choice you'll need to make is whether to outsource or not. Whether you manage electrical assets internally or externally will depend on several factors, such as cost, how much internal infrastructure is in place, and pressure to downsize in-house resources. Outsourcing power monitoring to an external provider allows you to have trained engineers monitor, diagnose, and manage electrical equipment — with economies of scale that may reduce costs dramatically. This team can log, track, and alert you to problems as needed.

If you opt to offload responsibility for some or all of your remote monitoring functions and infrastructure to an application service provider (ASP), begin by weighing the costs. Do you have the budget to pay the monthly or quarterly maintenance fees? Next, consider the reputation of the provider you're considering as a partner. Ask the prospective provider to demonstrate its technology to make sure it will generate the desirable results. Determine who will run the system and be trained on it.

Even if you offload the majority of responsibility to an ASP, you'll still need a high-speed communications line like a T1 to connect your site to the hosted Web site — a separate connection with a separate firewall and a separate router. In terms of costs, consider and calculate the IT investment required to make the outsourced model work. While outsourcing does transfer the headaches to the outsourcing provider, fees can be high — the cost for a T1 line can be in the vicinity of $1,000 per month.

While remote monitoring may not be for everyone, it makes sense for many. A connected infrastructure that supports remote data acquisition and selective sharing of data among multiple sites enables organizations to leverage real-time energy information in the most efficient and cost-effective manner — at a time when uncertain market and economic conditions place a premium on doing more with less.

Newsome is senior marketing engineer, Siemens Energy and Automation, Atlanta.