Compliance managers, site superintendents, and engineering technicians are often responsible for connecting their assets to a monitoring system to ensure compliance with federal and state laws. People who are considering new systems, or need to replace or upgrade their existing ones, should keep in mind the most important factors as they evaluate their options.
How will you communicate?
One of the first things you must consider with monitoring systems is network choice. Some managers choose to install private networks using open frequencies, like 900 MHz or 2.4 GHz. Others may opt for a public setup, using either cellular or satellite systems.
The two primary benefits of private networks are:
- You may already have one in place.
- Once you get them up and running, you don’t have to pay communications fees.
Also, private networks allow technicians to have complete control over throughput and network mapping, so they can be very flexible.
The main challenges with private networks are:
- They require infrastructure and are expensive to install.
- While they don’t incur ongoing data costs, maintenance can be time-consuming.
- The open frequencies are subject to interference. For instance, most WiFi networks operate on 2.4 GHz.
- They often lack the bandwidth for high-frequency data applications.
Unlike their private counterparts, public networks have lower startup costs. The main benefits of public networks are:
- Startup efforts require little capital investment.
- Secure frequency channels receive less interference.
- You aren’t responsible for the infrastructure and associated maintenance costs.
But with the benefits of public networks come tradeoffs, specifically:
- Data costs contribute to operating expenses, and certain networks – like LEO satellite – can rack up costs in a hurry.
- Operators have less control since they don’t manage the infrastructure.
In short, private networks can be a great option for those with larger capital budgets and personnel to maintain them. Just be mindful of hidden maintenance costs and throughput requirements. On the other hand, public networks are great for those who need to get started quickly and don’t want to worry about network maintenance costs.
You should also think about security. Many assume that private networks are more secure since they are not directly connected to the public internet. While private networks can have some inherent physical security, don’t assume that just because it is yours it is more secure. Cellular providers, for example, have excellent security infrastructure to maintain data privacy, and in some cases, “public” networks can be more “private” when it comes to data access.
Can it handle the heat?
Industrial areas are extreme in so many ways. They often have some combination of wide temperature swings, severe weather, sand, dust, snow, water, hazardous and flammable vapors, and lots of heavy moving equipment. Monitoring systems need to be able to withstand the extreme elements of their environment.
When selecting a monitoring system, consider the following:
- What is the operating temperature range? Make sure the range covers even the most extreme temperatures you might expect. And keep in mind that surface temperatures can get much hotter than air temperatures. On that 100-degree day in West Texas, the surface temperature of monitoring devices can exceed 140°
- What is the ingress protection (IP) rating? The IP rating of a device typically includes two numerals, the first of which represents solid particle ingress protection (rated from 0 to 6), and the second liquid ingress protection (rated 0 to 9). The higher the number, the better the protection. Most industrial environments need IP65 or better to function properly.
- Do you need hazardous area certifications? Certain industrial environments pose the threat of explosion due to flammable dust or vapors. International directives such as ATEX determine classification requirements, and manufacturers must certify devices to operate in classified environments. For example, any device which must operate in an area where flammable gasses are present under normal conditions must be certified for use in an ATEX Zone 0 area.
- Can the devices withstand impacts? Industrial environments have lots of moving machinery, and impacts are common. Make sure that device enclosures are rugged and made of impact-resistant materials such as steel, polycarbonate, or ABS plastic.
How low can you go?
Regulatory agencies often have specific requirements for reporting intervals. For instance, the California Geological Energy Management (CalGEM) division stipulates certain tests which require measurement frequencies of 5-minute, 1-minute, and even 1-second intervals.
Ideally, your system should be easily configurable to accommodate multiple use cases with only one or a few devices. For example, your standard operating procedure might call for 30-minute reporting intervals, but a regulatory audit or a short-term test might require you to ramp it up to 1-minute intervals or less.
For adjustable intervals, think about costs. Does your monitoring system have operating expenses (such as data plans) that go up or down based on data usage? How difficult is it to change reporting intervals? Can it be done from a central location, or does a technician need to go to each device?
Where’s the power coming from?
Remote industrial environments often lack access to grid power. In areas where power is unavailable, generators or solar arrays might supply the necessary power.
Monitoring systems should ideally consume minimal amounts of power to be able to run on existing power supplies without drawing too much current. Make sure that solar arrays, for instance, can handle the additional load of monitoring equipment.
Some monitoring devices come with internal batteries. These can be backup power sources or primary power. If your device runs on batteries, this can lower your startup costs, but keep in mind how data reporting frequency can affect battery life. A device which reports once a day will consume much less power than a device that reports every 5 minutes. Consider the frequency requirements defined in monitoring regulations when determining a power source. The lower you go, the more power you need.
It’s also not a bad idea to choose a monitoring system that can monitor its power source, so you are made aware of when power systems may be failing.
Who has boots on the ground?
Don’t forget about the installation. Monitoring systems need to be installed by someone, and installation costs can skyrocket in remote environments where sites are spread out. Look for systems that can be installed by untrained or minimally trained personnel, so that your team can do the install. If you go the self-install route, make sure your monitoring equipment provider has good training materials and installation manuals, as well as a responsive support team. If you are contracting installation services, look for certified contractors and make sure to get multiple bids. Monitoring systems don’t have to be expensive, but installation costs in industrial environments can often exceed the cost of the system itself!
Should you be alarmed?
Some regulatory agencies require the system to provide specific alarms within a certain timeframe. Make sure your system can generate the alarms required. Hopefully, your monitoring solution allows you to flexibly adjust which measurements can be alarmed, who receives alarms, and how often alarms are generated.
Consider the difference between alarms which are generated server-side versus device-side. Device-side alarms are generated at the device; when an anomaly is detected the device will wake up outside of its normal reporting schedule and indicate an alarm. These configurations are stored on the device itself. Server-side alarms are processed as data comes in on its regular interval and are typically configured on a central software.
In general, device-side alarms are more responsive and can be used to preserve device power when necessary. Just make sure you can easily configure device-side alarms from a central location. You don’t want to have to send a technician out with a configuration cable to each device every time you need to change an alarm threshold.
Also, be wary of alarm fatigue. Systems that don’t have ways to intelligently handle incoming data and prevent false positives can lead to desensitization. It’s the classic case of the boy who cried wolf. If your system keeps generating false alarms, you’ll probably stop listening, or just turn the alarm off. At that point, you might miss the real alarm that keeps your assets and people safe.
Can we get a report out?
Almost every regulatory agency requires industrial operators to generate some kind of report about their business operations, from graphical readouts of key measurements to reports on production volumes, to chemical additive inventories.
Many monitoring systems come with pre-packaged reporting platforms that allow you to easily generate reports required for your specific regulatory agency.
But keep this in mind: How much time do you want you and your team building reports on a system they’ve never used before? In today’s regulatory environment, some operators can spend up to half of their time just generating reports! Find a vendor that offers professional services to build the reports for you, or better yet, find a vendor that offers agency-approved pre-packaged reports.
Regardless of the system you choose, the goal is simple: Get insight into your operations and get compliant with regulations. Just keep all of these important factors in mind when selecting the monitoring system to help you get the job done. WellAware offers several solutions to help industrial operators get a better look at their operations and meet compliance requirements. Let us know how we can help.