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Managing Previously Unmanaged Assets:

How Wireless Remote Monitoring Enables Low-Cost

Data Logging and Control
Managing Previously Unmanaged Assets
Economically meeting requirements for monitoring of mobile assets and remote processes always presents
project engineers a considerable challenge. While the initial requirements are reasonable, complexity
invariably emerges when the needs of all interested parties are assessed.
This is particularly the case when the asset or process consists of a small number of monitoring points. The
requirements can be regulatory or economically-driven. For example, monitoring of combined sewage overflow
(CSO) by water utilities meets a regulatory requirement. Compliance with mandates from agencies such as the
EPA calls for monitoring of remote locations in which only a single measurement, flow or level, is taken per site.
Monitoring of vendor-managed inventory, such as a chemical level in a tank, is an economically-driven
example. Again, only a single measurement, tank level or pressure, is required. Economic goals include cus-
tomer satisfaction and operation of the delivery/service fleet in the most efficient manner.
Leased generators and pumps exemplify mobile assets in which, at minimum, one or two measurements are
recorded. In those cases, however, requirements could grow to dozens of measurements. Customer satis-
faction and optimal management and maintenance of the asset inventory are the goals.
Basic Monitoring Requirements for Asset Management
As the project begins with reasonably simple goals, basic requirements for a remote monitoring device
are established:
Monitoring of discrete inputs such as float switches, on/off status, contacts on doors, entryways
Monitoring of a primary process measurement such as flow, liquid level, pressure, or temperature
Reporting of alarms and other live conditions
Wide-area communications, e.g. cellular or land-line telephone
Rugged packaging for outdoor installation
Compatibility with a corporate computer system or support by HMI/SCADA software
The team evaluates the possibility of packaging data communication equipment (DCE), such as a modem or
cellular radio, or procuring a commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) dialer or notification product.
Even with the packaging requirement, DCE devices represent the least expensive approach. A DCE will reside
on a wide-area network, typically using cellular technology, and can be programmed to communicate with
computer systems.
While a DCE device can readily be adapted to discrete process measurements, cyclical measurement of such
analog inputs as flow, level, or pressure present problems. At a higher but still reasonable price, dialers and
similar notification products are able to process the analog measurements and communicate this informa-
tion to a variety of computer systems.
Managing Previously Unmanaged Assets
In assessing all the locations that must be accommodated by the monitoring solution, the project engineering
team soon learns why those locations are not monitored. Major issues that emerge at this stage include the fact
that many sites lack power sources and are not covered by the communications technology inherent to the DCE
or dialer product they are favoring.
Managing Previously Unmanaged Assets
These two requirements quickly rise to the top of the key features needed in the solution:
Lowest possible power consumption
Multiple communications device options
Once the team determines that power is not available, requirements for alternatives such as battery or solar oper-
ation come to the forefront. Unless the team includes one or more engineers with extensive experience with low
power system design, this aspect of the project can be protracted and possibly prohibitive. This fact quickly nar-
rows the search to COTS devices, such as dialers, data loggers, and remote terminal units (RTUs) with low power
consumption as key features.
Still, power systems costs can be high. A distinction in the industry has emerged between low and ultra-low
power consumption. While a low-power device can operate using a small solar power system, e.g. five-watt or ten-
watt solar panel and a 7 amp-hour lead acid cell battery, an ultra-low power device will use only a single battery
and operate for 5-to-10 years between replacements. The ultra-low power device represents a major savings in
purchase and operation/maintenance costs related to the power source.
Unfortunately, low power consumption and operation of communications devices are competing requirements.
Even in the lowest power DCEs, current draw when transmitting is over 100 mA, typically at 12 Vdc. If the device
operates for long periods in this mode, the battery will drain or the solar power system will fail.
Intelligent management of the DCE device is urgent and will make a major difference in overall power consump-
tion. Project engineers must make a trade-off between power system sizing and cost and the frequency of
communications. If the DCE is only operated once or twice per day, battery life in terms of many years is possible.
A problem with many monitoring devices available today is that they have integrated only one cellular communi-
cations technology. In many areas of the world, North America most notably, multiple technologies are required to
guarantee coverage.
While GSM is available throughout the world, its use is limited in North America where operators find it available
in less than 50% of their coverage areas. CDMA is also a popular technology in North America. Still, a combination
of GSM and CDMA leaves many areas uncovered. While this often leads to suppliers reverting to older, hard-wired
technology such as a PSTN modem, costs of running telephone lines out to assets such as storage tanks remains
very expensive.
To ensure communications coverage, the monitoring device must integrate at least one additional, non-cellular
technology, such as spread spectrum radio. This license-free technology provides a means for the operator to
implement its own private network. Although spread spectrum radio range is limited to about 20 miles, it is normally
sufficient to reach a relay node that resides on a cellular network. Instead of operating an extensive spread spec-
trum network, short paths are used to access the nearest cell.
Advanced Functionality
Very often, additional requirements emerge to meet the needs of IT, accounting or operations:
Historical data logging
Programmable automation
Maintaining long-term or historical information has become a common feature in a number of COTS prod-
ucts. This feature is common in RTU products and is the key capability of a data logger product. The project
team could spend extensive time distinguishing data loggers that include one or more DCE options from those
not offering wide-area communications. A problem with many data loggers is that they offer too few DCE
options to work at all locations.
Managing Previously Unmanaged Assets
Programmable automation capability also is a common requirement for operations. The ability to start or stop
a motor-driven device, open and close a valve, or regulate flow or level are basic requirements. Even if automa-
tion is not needed, some programming capability is necessary for customized calculations. While very few data
loggers offer such capabilities, they are fundamental to most RTU products.
Finally, the engineering team has determined that one product category, the RTU, meets all requirements. As a
next step, the team determines that for small assets and processes, the RTU solution is too expensive.
Requirements Summary
Combining the basic and advanced requirements, which collectively meet the needs of all interested parties,
our list results as follows:
Monitoring of discrete inputs such as float switches, on/off status, contacts on doors, entryways
Monitoring of a primary process measurement such as flow, liquid level, pressure, or temperature
Reporting of alarms and other live conditions
Wide-area communications e.g. cellular or land-line telephone
Rugged packaging for outdoor installation
Compatibility with a corporate computer system or support by HMI/SCADA software
Lowest possible power consumption
Multiple communications device options
Historical data logging
Programmable automation
The project team still has to ask a question. Is there a solution that economically meets all requirements, at all
A Contemporary Wireless Monitor Solution
Todays technology enables a solution that economically meets all technical requirements. When combined
with a suitable array of communications options, an ultra low-power RTU can be effectively deployed in
practically any location.
To meet basic requirements, an I/O mix on the order of two analog inputs, four discrete inputs and four dis-
crete outputs is fundamental. To simplify installation, the RTU must provide power to operate external
transducers or transmitters, including those that use 4 20 mA current.
Particularly in the case of the transmitters, duty cycle operation is a key factor. Fortunately, most asset man-
agement applications do not require high-speed scanning of measured inputs. Some take a measurement
only on an hourly or daily basis. An RTU that is able to operate a transmitter for only a few minutes a day can
run for five-to-ten years using a single lithium battery.
An ultra low-power RTU that uses wide-temperature components eases the package design. Since many
asset locations are outdoors, an IP66 or Nema 4X enclosure is a basic requirement. Such housings are
resistant to wind-blown dust and rain. For locations such as storm drains or sewers, in which the equipment
could be submerged for some time, an IP67 enclosure will be necessary. Enclosures can quickly become
expensive! A compact design will curb the enclosure cost.
Third-party lab approval for operation in hazardous areas is also very important for installations in the oil &
gas industry and other applications in which there may be a hazardous atmosphere. In the wastewater
industry, gas could be present in digesters and sewers. Class I, Division 1 approval is required for areas in
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Managing Previously Unmanaged Assets
which a hazardous atmosphere is often the case and Class I, Division 2 approval meets the needs when a
hazardous atmosphere is present only under abnormal conditions.
Today, alarming and data logging functions are common in RTU products. To make the most efficient use of
public networks, push technology should be employed. Instead of the RTU waiting for a poll from a central
computer, it can initiate communications upon an alarm, event or other, live condition. Push messaging via e-
mail and SMS text can be very informative. FTP messaging over IP networks such as GSM/GPRS and CDMA
can include history files, tables and trends with significantly more information.
Since push technology is event-driven, it allows more sleep time, which translates to longer battery life for
the RTU. Its system architecture is also decentralized. Messages are directed to multiple recipients, who
can acknowledge alarms using their mobile phones or PDAs.
An integral web server is a major benefit, as it provides an HMI capability that can offer significant cost sav-
ings versus licensing for SCADA software. Web pages can be accessed by users, anywhere in the world, via
the Internet or an intranet. The web pages also provide a convenient HMI for use by local technicians.
In order to provide communications coverage for practically any location, a minimum offering of integral,
communications devices will include CDMA cellular modem, GSM cellular modem, PSTN modem and spread
spectrum radio. Intelligent operation of these devices will allow long battery life and take some of the pain
out of maintenance budgeting.
In order to provide communications coverage for practically any location, a minimum offering of integral
communications devices will include a GSM/GPRS cellular modem and at least one non-cellular technology.
A programming environment that includes ladder logic will meet many requirements among OEMs and proj-
ect engineers. A structured text language such as Basic will allow custom calculations and adapt to most
any, asset management application. Microsoft Automation support also continues to gain in popularity. Full-
blown, IEC 61131-3 environments are also migrating down the RTU spectrum.
While a broad variety of commercial, off-the-shelf dialers, data loggers and notification products are on the mar-
ket, new-generation, ultra low-power RTU products are bringing more advanced capabilities to play for wireless
monitoring applications. These products provide intelligent power management, extended battery life, input meas-
urement, alarm management, and data logging in an integrated, weatherproof enclosure. In addition, an integral
webserver, push messaging, multiple communications options and programmable automation comprise the
advanced features that often make the difference for todays asset management and remote monitoring projects.
About Semaphore
Semaphore offers the first IP-based RTU solutions that enable complete integration of SCADA, control, and
communications functionality in one rugged package. Our simple yet powerful products leverage easy-to-use
Web technologies and inexpensive public networks. They are easy to configure and offer dramatically reduced
costs versus traditional SCADA/PLC systems.
Semaphore is a part of CSE-Global, a leading systems integrator with an international presence spanning the
Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The group employs over 1,200 people worldwide,
with more than 85% representing design, engineering, and project management capabilities and experience.
That makes CSE one of the largest independent system providers of its kind.
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