An Evolving System

April 10, 2013

Welcome to the new era of SCADA, and goodbye to the days of basic supervisory control and data acquisition. Today’s SCADA systems are reaching into most every aspect of a utility’s water distribution and treatment operations, for a true enterprise-wide methodology. And most every stakeholder in the enterprise can benefit if the utility is ready to harness his or her SCADA system’s power. All it takes is the time to investigate, and we’ve looked into some systems that demonstrate the many powerful features that can benefit your utility. So read on.

A powerful SCADA system has great tools for boosting operational efficiencies, detecting leaks (small and large), and, in the office, taming the dreaded paperwork monster, says Ray Imhof, operations manager for the water district at the Borough of Ridgway, PA. Ridgway’s Ovation expert distributed control system, from Emerson Process Management, Bloomington MN, tracks their water through four phases: starting with the dam it’s drawn from, through a treatment plant, onto a holding reservoir, and, finally, as it’s distributed to residential and commercial customers. Actually, counting the water’s return voyage as wastewater, we can add two more post use stages of treatment and release.

“We monitor and control the entire distribution system from my office,” explains Imhof. “We have about 80 different points out in our system, and that includes water storage tanks and pump stations. We can set schedules for pump stations and valve controls and can actually open and close different valves with the SCADA system, but one of the biggest advantages in distribution is the fact that we are tracking flow and pressure, so we can upgrade our distribution line.”

As with most water districts using older infrastructures, leaks are a problem, but the SCADA system has helped. “Since we put this online, we have found many small leaks in the distribution system that would’ve never been discovered until they became major problems,” says Imhof. “We track the flow on our main, and if we see an elevated flow over 24 hours, we know there’s something going on that we need to investigate further to avoid a break. If we do get a break in our big, 12-inch main, the alarm system warns us before it causes serious damage underground.”

The system also helps avoid damage to pumps because Imhof monitors electrical supply voltages in pump buildings, and even the interior temperature of those buildings gets tracked. The extensive monitoring and controls are all part of an Ovation platform. “We started using Ovation back in 2004,” recalls Imhof, “and last year we did a complete evergreen, which is Emerson’s term for a complete overhaul of the system. We have all new machines, new servers, and software updates. We added a third server that is primarily used as a historian. The historian remembers everything; so at any given moment, we can pull data from any point that the historian is monitoring and get a complete description of the activities.”

Considering that there are 80 points to monitor on a 24/7 basis, the historian’s memory could be getting quite a workout. So what’s the advantage to logging all that data? “One advantage is in the preparation of Department of Environmental Protection reports,” says Imhof. “Their record requirements are extensive, and in the past we had to take readings off of the screens and transfer them to another computer. But the historian can generate whatever report we design, and we can see specific time frames. We also use it at the wastewater treatment plant where we control the entire plant’s operation, and the historian monitors the flow and effluent, and what’s been released into the river and other data.”

Those benefits have saved the district plenty of time, money, and hardware, adds Imhof, but don’t forget reductions in field maintenance. “Every day we used to have to go to each tank and visually check the tank with the site gauges,” says Imhof, “and we had to visit all of the pump stations daily. So we’ve reduced the time involved significantly, and also greatly improved our accountable water. It doesn’t require less manpower, because you still need good old-fashioned brains and people, but it makes the job 100% easier. It has saved us about 30% overall. For just myself, I save two hours every day because I don’t have to travel to field sites anymore.”

Less time in the field can leave more time to focus on improving plant operations and finding opportunities for boosting energy efficiency, according to Douglas Johnson, VP, Global Supply Chain at Emerson Process Management. “If you have a good, robust SCADA system that covers the entire municipal authority and treatment plant, you can do advanced modeling for analysis of processes and pumping and save a lot of energy,” says Johnson. “In addition, there are other benefits such as reducing maintenance requirements, and, by looking at pump diagnostics information to spot pumps that might be having maintenance issues, you can roll of this data into a model and study how to reduce energy and even avoid having a catastrophic pump failure.”

Johnson credits advances in remote telemetry unit (RTU) technology for much of the progress, and notes that though they began as data recorders, they now have navigational capabilities that allow for modeling pumping requirements and energy efficiency.

“Let’s say we have three pumps,” says Johnson. “How do I run them with the least energy? Do I run one pump at 100% and idle the other two, or run all three prompts at 30%? If you’re just looking at energy requirements, it’s a relatively easy model to build. And you can add other things such as constraints if a pump has certain problems. So you can limit its operations, and the maintenance plan can specify these restrictions and other important information. Then, there’s the option for contingency plans, so if you build a model to compensate for certain failures and run all is data points, you can have the system make the adjustments automatically or control it manually. You can expand beyond that with complex hydraulic models that involve a lot of different situations.”

The ability to monitor hardware data and use sophisticated modeling tools has boosted the power and value of SCADA systems, but there’s more to come from harnessing the data from AMI systems, says Doug McCall, director of marketing at Sensus, Raleigh, NC.

“We look at it as more than a metering solution,” says McCall. “There’s so much data coming in and water authorities are asking how to utilize it. Ultimately the solution is software that lays the knowledge right in the authority’s laps, so all the data becomes something usable. With the SCADA data, you can spot the inefficiencies in the overall network and opportunities to improve. So we work with customer service people, the billing people, and the metering aspect, but there’s a whole scope of the utilities operations such as asset management, the entire financial department beyond just billing. For example, you could be asking what is the electricity bill of a certain location and how does it correlate with the water usage. And then there’s the whole issue of most efficient methods for maintaining water quality such as chlorine levels and maximizing their usage.”

One example that operators would welcome is in leak detection software that analyzes the data and looks at zones to identify the highest potential for leaks. “So if you have a main that’s one hundred years old, you want to know it’s getting the highest priority,” explains McCall. “And you also have the option to model pump relocation strategies. In that case, the capacity of the pumps could be analyzed for maximizing the allocation of those resources.”

With the range of data spanning subjects as diverse as billing to chlorine levels, one thing is certain, the information needs to be clear, simple, and free from clutter. It’s from these demands that software designers have developed the concept of the graphical user interface (GUI), and it’s not unusual to hear the GUI of a SCADA system being compared to a common item–the automobile dashboard. It’s a user-friendly concept that works well, according to Nathan Slider, solutions specialist, SCADA & MES, at Schneider Electric, Palatine IL.

“You have a SCADA system with a dashboard to run your plant just like in your car,” says Slider. “And typically we see people with a campus map of a facility or multiple facilities showing their water and wastewater plants, plus pump stations, storage tanks, and so on. A SCADA system can tie in more than one facility and ideally you could optimize your entire system.”

In past projects, Slider has seen that the process of tying facilities together in a group works well with a master SCADA system that overlays all of the elements in the group. Moreover, it can add a layer of security if those plants are self-contained. “If you have a master SCADA system that overlays the plants you can have one plant be the redundancy of the other,” explains Slider. “We’ve had floods in the South and hurricane Sandy in the North recently, but those utilities that had controls working across a countywide network were still able to control parts of their systems that were partially underwater.”

Photos: Rugid Computers
Lift station control panel with system indicator, lights, HOA switches, and RTU operator interface
Lift station control panel with variable frequency drives

A master system can be an advantageous (and cost saving) feature for allowing plants to run 24/7 without the need for operators on staff for three shifts and weekends because the plant is under the master system’s umbrella. Another cost saving benefit is the ability to automate demand response strategies and optimize distributed generation assets.

“If you have onsite generation and you want to use it for demand response that would be an opportunity for one system that can manage everything,” says Slider. “Let’s say you have a certain number of hours that you can run a generator for peak shaving and your system can manage and watch those hours. If you’re using too much power and in danger of exceeding your demand limits you can click to the screen that shows your power monitoring and see how many hours are available on the allowable generator.”

Such equipment operations can be tied to an asset management system to keep track of on-time hours and alert staff when it’s time for a minor or major rebuild. That alert can trigger a work order and the asset management system can specify the tools and hours needed to complete the job. These procedures can be implemented in steps as part of a master plan, notes Mark Leinmiller, wastewater segment manager, solution specialist for SCADA at Schneider.

“Often during an expansion of the plant a utility considers a master plan because updates are needed anyways and having it to fall back on allows for more flexibility in the system. Another benefit to that is having the staff trained to operate one master system and not have to go through cross training,” he says.

Hiring, training, and retaining staff is a major issue for water utilities. As far back as 2005 industry research revealed that the average age of water utility workers was 45 years old, and the typical retirement age was 56. Well, here we are eight years later, and those operators aren’t getting any younger. But according to Terry Biederman, global industry manager, Water and Wastewater Industry, GE Intelligent Platforms, Fairfield, CT, a powerful SCADA system can maximize operator performance and mitigate the skills gap at a water utility. All the better if the system is designed to work with a utility’s existing SCADA hardware and infrastructure.

But how does the software help operators with tasks such as maintaining or repairing equipment? “Let’s say a pump is not performing correctly,” explains Biederman. “Proficy generates an event from its workflow function and notifies the operator, and gives him the whole series of time-based events. But the key is not only to notify them that the event is happening. Now as part of that solution it finds standard operating procedures or best practices for how the operator should solve the problem. Just to take it one step further, where I came from [director of public works for the Township of Waterford, MI], we had it automatically trigger a work order in our computer maintenance management system and auto-populate several fields, and later recaptured the material and recorded the time and materials needed to solve the problem.”

The approach applies to process parameters, but it’s also possible to prevent problems by using data to predict the need for an early intervention of a process. “Let’s say that the software’s Historian function is collecting information from a process such as dissolved oxygen, and you want to optimize it,” says Biederman. “You have all this historical data that shows blower efficiency, speed, dissolved oxygen levels, and temperature; and those parameters and that historical information combined with the current information can be used to model the specific conditions for the optimum dissolved oxygen. That’s very powerful for the utility, because they can say that this system can check the deviation before it becomes a problem, and notify the operator that, based on historical data, there’s going to be a problem with dissolved oxygen and it needs to be corrected. And you can actually rank the most probable causes for the deviation, so the operator can go through them and do something like check the blower speed and power.”

Tracking labor and material costs for repairs, plus operations data, makes it easy to share the information with other departments, such as IT and accounting. All told, Proficy and similar SCADA-related products provide powerful benefits. But, are utilities tapping their potential?

Photo: Rugid Computers
WiSI all-in-one radio, data acquisition and control, self-powered device

“I’m going to say the industry gets a C+, in terms of implementing the full potential of what SCADA can do,” says Biederman. “But part of this whole equation is changing the culture of your organization. You just can’t throw technology at your staff. We had to actually change our culture, so our operators became consumers of this information, rather than look at it as equipment to monitor and control the staff. Instead, it was products that help their efforts to do their jobs better. They need tools to make their jobs more efficient, because, in the end, it’s all about our customers, and we can’t have failures.”

With the sharing of data and information with departments outside of the operator’s arena–such as IT, accounting, and engineering–the need for security has become a major concern throughout the industry. But, according to Timothy Hicks, president, FlowWorks, Seattle, WA, sharing data shouldn’t include sharing control. “Everybody’s concerned about security for obvious reasons, and because SCADA does control it has to be incredibly secure,” says Hicks. “But, we are suggesting that a system that gives access to the data without control is the answer. So by using a Web platform that’s highly secured, the worst thing that could happen to a system like FlowWorks is that the website could be taken down. However, there is no credit card data and no control happening, so, if somebody could break in, all they’d see is a bunch of squiggly lines and no ability to associate them with any particular system.”

The removal of controls could be critically important as the security risks rise with the use of tablets and smartphones. “Once you have an iPhone app, your data has gone somewhere, and there could be a way to eventually find a security hole,” says Hicks. “So you don’t want to link SCADA systems to other products, because once somebody gets in to just one area, they have access to all of it.”

But if it’s secured, is it still possible to use all of that valuable data? “We offer a calculation engine that allows users to do advanced math on real-time data, and data imaging tools, a rainfall contour mapping tool, and full integration with GIS,” says Hicks. “Utilities can also store photos and videos of past problems at a site, and they can open a work order and look at the history to confirm a repair location.”

With SCADA systems providing more information, more control, and a more enterprise-wide design philosophy, utilities that adopt these systems can realize great benefits in efficiency and performance throughout their operations. But it does require effort, notes Biederman.

“It’s constantly evolving, and people who do not look at SCADA as an evolving system are not optimizing their investment,” says Biederman. I hear it all time from directors of utilities that have put a SCADA system in but haven’t done anything with it since the installation. It’s a living, breathing thing that gives them all that feedback, and with more information and intelligence there are more opportunities to improve the plant’s operations.”

Though we’ve just scratched the surface as far as the many SCADA products and services available, the benefits are great and bode well for utilities that are, indeed, ready to improve the operations. Moreover, all of the companies that contributed here are more than ready to make it easy to take that first step. 
About the Author

Ed Ritchie

Ed Ritchie specializes in energy, transportation, and communication technologies.

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