Radio Communications Tackle Box

March 28, 2011

About the author: Daniel G. Steele is business development executive for FreeWave Technologies Inc. Steele can be reached at [email protected].


Sporting anglers today have the latest gear and lures available to help catch that prize fish in their favorite fishing spot. The new rods are more flexible, lighter and stronger, and the same applies to the reels that hold the fishing line, down to the hooks and lures: The use of technology is seen everywhere. The same is true of the wireless communications market for the water/wastewater industry.

Radios have become faster and smarter, and it is easier than ever to program and upgrade firmware. The biggest advancements are happening on the input/output (I/O) side of the pond. We see more options and frequencies that can be used today. The same is true with cell modems and satellite radios to competitive radio hardware. With so many possibilities, it is important for an operator to understand his or her options in order to select the best possible communication tools for a particular water application.

Tackle Box Contents
The radio communications tackle box might consist of a laptop computer; diagnostic software (ToolSuite, Wireshark, etc.); Bird 43W meter; radio spectrum analyzers; test radios; Omni and Yagi antennas; RF coaxial cable; cable jumpers; lightning protection; weatherproofing and grounding kits; radio path studies; diagnostic tools; DC power supplies; radio antenna masts and towers; and knowledge of radio types and SS and licensed frequencies and serial and/or Ethernet devices.

Radio diagnostic information both locally and network-wide is easier. A newly added solution is a spectrum analyzer tool that shows what the local noise floor looks like on the frequency that is being used at the time. Programs like Tool Suite have a design template that can be used to create a new network, and later the user can program the radios from this template. Those who may have been using older diagnostic tools can import those networks into Tool Suite and perform a reverse design template build to have a template of their existing network.

With the release of several new I/O and IP products in both 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz, users have more options today at a lower price point. Wireless I/O and IP SCADA applications are becoming more common in the water/wastewater industry.

Going Fishing
Wireless technologies are affording new applications that the water/wastewater industry is beginning to embrace, such as incorporating video surveillance or secure access control for certain types of emergencies. A video application can be as simple as monitoring the flow of some type of drainage canal or water tanks. With wireless technologies, water and wastewater treatment plants can monitor flow or water levels via video or monitor storage tanks or reservoirs to maintain security from potential threats.

Regardless of the type of water/wastewater application, preparation and knowledge are essential. There are several important considerations for choosing a wireless radio:

  • What are the short- and long-term plans/goals?
  • Who is the master/administrator, and does he or she knows what is expected?
  • Who is going to do the work?
  • What is the timetable and time of completion?
  • Do you have a radio path study?
  • Do you have a network design and list of end devices and connection types? Will there be IO devices, either local or using Modbus protocol? Are you looking at hybrid networks using Ethernet and serial radios? Will there be IP security cameras?

Leading radio manufacturers are developing several new products to help with this demand. There are I/O radios and a new series of radios that include I/O expansion modules that utilize Modbus protocol, which is the industry standard. A new radio has four RJ-45 ports—two for Ethernet and two for serial communications.

New cathodic radios have the ability to connect to rectifiers from 110 to 480 VAC, with a one-step-down transformer that will drop the voltage down to 12 VDC. It can accept either positive or negative voltage shunts and bring in pipe to soil test points.

Adding I/O into existing networks that already have serial radios makes this task simple, and if repeaters are needed, they can be added to the radio network. There also are new software programs that act like a Swiss army knife: Some can program the radios, update firmware, create network design templates and gather diagnostics all from the same software. Users can create a network design, program the radio for each specific location and know that it has all the correct settings required.

Hybrid Networks
Sometimes, more than one solution can be used to meet water and wastewater needs. This is where taking a hybrid approach can be best. Hybrid communication networks can have several variations of radio type and frequency, and they may be licensed or spread spectrum. Ethernet, serial and I/O all can work together as an integrated communication network. Often the best solution is not a single technology, but the mixture of two or three different brands. By upgrading critical sites and adding new technology when needed, end-users can get the biggest bang for their buck.

In order to select the best possible hybrid network, operators are advised to do their homework—check references, products, features and warranties; get a path study; and find out whether diagnostic and history information is readily available. It is essential for critical decision-makers to check their tackle box for all possible options.

The key to building a successful radio communication network for a water or wastewater application is to examine all of the tools in your communication tackle box. The options are endless, with continually improving radios, software and the option of hybrid solutions to optimize communications.

In order to have the most reliable system possible, it is essential to plan, understand the technology, be aware of the total budget and know the market. This will open users to the infinite possibilities and let them learn about applications others have tried and proven in the field or pond.

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