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Jul 09, 2019

Open Standards Help Utilities Maintain Consistent Data Communication

SCADA technologies help water districts manage data flow throughout the organization.

Henry Palechek
For Henry Palechek, open standards provided a solution for a data entry pain point at a water district in California.

Maintaining a consistent flow of data across the enterprise can be challenging, especially for utilities with old supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. Most legacy SCADA systems are built to communicate only with a specific, vendor-endorsed database and are often unable to connect to SQL databases. This inaccessibility often results in decreased efficiency and innovation. 

Newer SCADA system technologies provide utilities with open standards that allow unlimited connections to almost any programmable logic controller (PLC), database (including SQL), device, and enterprise system. 

Built on information technologies like SQL and Python, Inductive Automation’s Ignition SCADA platform allows utilities to integrate all of their systems and to manage and maintain a consistent flow of large datasets throughout the enterprise. For utilities that need to run old equipment alongside newer equipment, Modbus, OPC UA, and MQTT drivers ensure that utilities can connect to any PLC and create a unified system— a benefit even for smaller organizations. 

Although the wastewater plant in Lynchburg, Virginia, is not a huge utility, it still saw the benefits of open technologies.

“We had two different PLC manufacturers primarily at the plant, so the ability to connect to two was great,” said Jason Hamlin, former head of operations and technology at the plant. The city also added Modbus drivers and connected about 20 devices from five or six different brands.

For Henry Palechek, instrumentation and control systems supervisor at a water district in California, open standards provide a solution for a data entry pain point that the plant had been experiencing with their power meters and variable speed drives (VSDs).

“Sometimes when you’re talking to a device like a VSD, it may support the Modbus protocol, but it might not support it in the standard format that a Modbus PLC would format the data. When you’re reading from a power meter or from a VSD, they’re maybe counting in hexadecimal. And so what happens is if you’re trying to match the numbers, it messes you up,” he said. 

With Ignition’s OPC UA Driver, a user can enter octal, decimal, or hex data into a table that’s built into the software, and the Modbus registers natively to how the VSD power monitor or PLC will show. 

“They’ve made it super easy. The conversion is pretty open and powerful technology that’s in the background taking care of something that’s cumbersome, so that’s no longer a pain point for us anymore,” Palechek said.

Open technology also gives utilities the freedom to push out necessary updates to their operating systems and virus software without any impact to SCADA software. This frees them up to choose whatever database best meets business needs.

“If you were to look at a legacy product, you wouldn’t be able to upgrade from the latest data historian without doing a version update to the SCADA software itself because they’re almost married,” said Palechek. “With Ignition, I was able to transition from a Microsoft SQL database to a MySQL database, keep the MySQL database up to date with newer versions as they came out, and transfer from 32-bit technology to 64-bit technology completely independent of any upgrades that I had to do on the SCADA software.”

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