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SCADA system communication network FreeWave Technologies

Steps to a successful communication network

When Parker Water & Sanitation District in Parker, Colo., wanted to give its communication network a complete overhaul, it looked to technology solution partner Process Control Dynamics Inc. (PCD Sales) for help finding a real-time, reliable option for wireless technologies. PCD Sales identified a wireless radio technology that was within the district’s budget and would easily integrate into the existing SCADA system. By offering a faster, more reliable communication network, not only would the district ensure optimization of water operations, but also help enhance public safety by constantly monitoring critical data, such as tank level, temperature and pressure on a real-time basis. 

The radio vendor also provided Parker Water & Sanitation District with complimentary network design, path study analysis and diagnostic tools. It mapped and identified locations for network gateways. The district then had a clear path of development and a chance to test the radios before integrating them into its overall communication network.  

By selecting a wireless technology provider, Parker Water & Sanitation District has increased its bandwidth a hundredfold. Much of its success in establishing an integrated communication network can be attributed to network design and path studies. These have allowed the district to develop a network that is capable of delivering real-time communication across long distances, despite the hilly terrain and rapidly changing weather of Colorado. Parker Water & Sanitation District staff also cites its ability to diagnose and configure communication issues from a desktop, along with top-notch customer support, as key success factors.

By utilizing the steps above as a starting point, it is possible to develop a network that not only meets current needs, but establishes a game plan for future growth. This future growth can and should be physical as well as spatial. An ideal communication network is a solution that considers budgetary constraints and technological advancements. It combines existing infrastructure with future hardware selection and deployment. It anticipates the unexpected and is prepared for reliable delivery. It maintains control of resources and processes, and the security to protect critical infrastructure.

Getting Started

Water and wastewater operators looking to build a communication network most likely will have dozens of technology options to choose from. Investing sufficient time and effort into research, planning, testing and implementing this process can become challenging and expensive. Additionally, if the best-fit or suitable technology is not selected or implemented correctly, the operator can expect to spend a significant amount of time and money dealing with network issues and communication failures. With assistance from reputable technology vendors, however, water and wastewater operators can simplify their communication network building process and avoid uncertainties and wasted resources. The end result is the streamlined implementation process of a reliable SCADA network.

Steps for Success

In order to achieve the successful implementation of a communication network that meets current needs and long-term objectives, time must be invested in understanding goals, available resources, different technologies and industry trends. It then is possible to build a communication network strategy complete with tactics and measurable objectives.

The following are some tips and best practices to consider: 

Identify needs, goals and limitations. Operators should consider the equipment and locations with which they want to communicate. Additionally, they must understand the future communication plan. As a starting point, it is important to speak with managers and other internal personnel in the organization and understand the efforts that have been made to date on the communication front, the challenges that have been overcome and the lessons that have been learned. The IT department is a great place to start. It also may be helpful to seek out external trusted sources that have recently gone through the process, and learn from their planning successes and failures. From this information, operators can identify the needs of the system and better understand inherent limitations.  

Identify budgetary concerns or restrictions. After determining the communication network’s requirements, the next step is to analyze its costs. It is important for operators to know how much they can spend for capital expenditure and operating costs. Many costs are hidden in the actual rollout and long-term support of a system. Depending on the technology, the initial purchase (budgeted capital dollars) sometimes is dwarfed by the cost of maintaining a system (operating budget). Know which support is available from both the seller and the manufacturer, including warranties and “promises.” 

Know the market and available technologies.
Research all available options to learn what is available now and what is going to be available in the future. It may be helpful to talk with colleagues or attend association meetings or tradeshows. Each manufacturer and technology has advantages and disadvantages, so investigating as many options as possible is essential. An operator can benefit from learning how various generations of products from the same manufacturer work. If, for example, a radio manufacturer is not compatible with past, current and future generations, an operator needs to work with the manufacturer to figure out a strategy for upgrading when the network needs to be expanded.

It also is important to understand the interoperability between devices and vendors. If mobile access to a SCADA network is required, then it may be best to source a vendor that already has this capability integrated into its offerings. Another example is the need to piggyback slower licensed radio networks onto a faster 902- to 928-MHz frequency-hopping, AES-encrypted network. Operators need to be aware of how combining separate wireless networks of varying technologies and vendors is possible. These are just a few examples that show that a combination of technologies may be the best choice. 

System design, deployment and support. Taking the extra step of having path studies and network design models completed is key to success. Most reputable organizations will offer these services for little to no charge or will waive the fee if the operator buys the equipment. In addition, most vendors have networks of integrators, engineers and consultants who also can be utilized in this process. After reviewing the path study and network design information, an operator can focus on preparing a project plan that details the installation stages prior to actual deployment. Once the installation strategy is complete, an operator should evaluate the need for accessories—coaxial, antenna, surge protection, band-pass filters and proper sealing against the elements are just a few. 

Lastly, make sure the company that sold the equipment is committed to its success. It is not unreasonable to expect a dedicated technical contact that is available to assist you by phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Tony Milone is utility business development executive for FreeWave Technologies Inc. Milone can be reached at tmilone@freewave.com or 610.906.6016.

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