Ethernet Explosion

July 9, 2008

About the author: Bob Douglass is the vice president of sales and marketing for Sensaphone, Inc. Douglass can be reached at 610.558.2700.

Explosive is the only way to describe the adaptation of Ethernet technology for automated controls in industrial applications, including water and wastewater utility systems. But more and more treatment plants are seeing improved operating efficiencies by extending Ethernet applications throughout their facilities, particularly in helping detect controller malfunctions that could lead to costly downtime.

Controllers in Charge

Controllers are the backbone of water treatment facilities, automating the entire treatment process efficiently. From primary processing, which includes pretreatment, to secondary and tertiary, each phase removes specific matter from the water, eventually making it clean enough to return to the local ecosystem. The entire process relies on controllers to activate necessary equipment and ensure proper treatment is complete so any water returned to the local environment is clean and free of harmful bacteria; however, the system is never problem-free. Pumps malfunction, water tank sensors fail and pipes break. Many scenarios will bring the entire treatment process to a screeching halt.

Ethernet: Second in Command

Typically, Ethernet is deployed to create local access networks (LAN), which collect and share data across a relatively small geographic area. Ideally, it enables managers with access to multiple computer terminals to watch over operations within that network. More IT managers and facility supervisors, however, are learning that limiting the use of Ethernet technology to data sharing keeps them from taking full advantage of its capabilities.

Ethernet technology has been around for quite some time. Developed by Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the early 1970s, it originally used coaxial cable to allow two networked devices (computer and monitor, for example) to communicate. Eventually, point-to-point links connected by Ethernet hubs and switches replaced the coaxial cable. Data packets are sent and received over those links, enabling faster and more reliable communication between the devices and, consequently, improved data delivery.

Today, public utilities like water and wastewater facilities use Ethernet as part of their LAN, from which they control an entire facility’s operation. But some facility managers have taken it up a notch and deployed Ethernet capabilities in new ways, like integrating a remote infrastructure monitoring system to watch over utilities’ controllers.

With this setup, instead of limiting its reach to monitoring traditional environmental conditions—such as tank levels and water flow—a remote monitoring system directly monitors automatic controllers and alerts facility managers of potential problems. This application grew popular in computer room settings. IT managers would install Ethernet-based monitoring systems, like the IMS-4000 or IMS-1000 from Sensaphone, to alert staff members when network devices stop responding or critical network paths are suddenly unavailable.

Trumping Downtime

With the increased availability of Ethernet connections, water and wastewater utilities are also installing IMS systems to monitor their automatic controllers. Facility managers can be proactive and avoid downtime by using a system that issues alerts when a controller or a function of the controller fails to operate properly. With this system in place, instead of waiting for a pump to fail, the remote monitoring system uses the Ethernet connection to alert personnel that a pump is showing signs of failure. Facility operators can also learn about power failures that occur off the clock and arrange for someone to respond.

The system means early detection of potential problems, limited unplanned downtime and improved system maintenance. Those responsible can take corrective action immediately, limiting the disruption. IMS systems are designed for industrial applications, so they are durable enough to withstand the dirtiest industrial environments.

Selecting a Remote Monitoring System

Water and wastewater facilities that could benefit from Ethernet technology by investing in a remote monitoring system should consider the following factors when it comes to their selection:

Scalability. Can the system grow or change with the needs of your facility? If pricing is a concern, planning becomes more important and adds value to the initial purchase.

Installation. How difficult is the system to install? Does it require a team of experts spending multiple days to get the system up and running? Or is a plug-and-play option more valuable?

Peripherals. What are the peripherals and accessories offered by the system manufacturer? Are the components designed for that system, or are they universal components? Have those components been tested with the system? Would you need another vendor to complete the transaction?

Notification. What are the capabilities of the notification system? Are landlines, cell phone, e-mail and pager notification options available? Does the system automatically cycle through the contact list until someone responds?

Return on investment. How much does the system cost, fully installed, and how does that compare to the cost of the equipment managed by your automatic controllers? In some instances, it may cost several hundreds or thousands of dollars to replace failed equipment should a system fail. Is spending a few thousand dollars to protect that investment worth it?

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About the Author

Bob Douglass