Moving to a wireless remote monitoring system

Heed this advice on what needs to be considered when moving from a wired remote monitoring communications to wireless communications.
By Scott Keller July 31, 2017

Having the ability to automatically track and control assets remotely is an important requirement in many applications and it can help to improve operations while reducing costs. Using wired remote sensing systems is the most usual way to achieve this, especially in the oil and gas industry. Sensors monitoring various assets normally are equipped with outputs that require hundreds of yards of wire to connect to a programmable logic controller (PLC).

Analog 4-20mA current loop and Modbus interfaces are examples of communication protocols that can cope with long cable runs.

Wired limits

While wired remote monitoring offers advantages over manual readings from sensors or gauges, it does have limitations—depending on the application—regarding installation cost, sensor flexibility, and environmental influences. If a remote monitoring application requires multiple sensors to monitor various parameters, for example, a wired system requires each sensor be wired back to the controller using an interface port. For large systems, a wired system requires a large interface panel with many different interfaces.

A wireless system, however, often will have a digital communications interface (Modbus RS485), allowing for many sensors to be wirelessly connected to the controller through one port. While beneficial when configuring a new controller, changing from a wired interface with lots of individual input ports, to a gateway-based wireless system with a digital interface does require planning.

Benefits beyond wireless

In lieu of making a complete changeover, wireless modules are available that can convert digital information into individual analog channels, simulating the existing analog interface. Although this is the easiest solution for a quick changeover, and does not require any software changes, it does not use the vast increase in data and diagnostic benefits made possible by changing the complete communications architecture to a wireless sensor control system.

Factors which should be considered when evaluating a move to a wireless remote monitoring and control system instead of upgrading an existing wired system are:

Costs

Wired systems: What is the area over which the wired system will operate?  Costs related to running conduit over large areas, especially if requiring trenching, can make a wired system too cost-prohibitive.

Wireless systems: With no conduit or trenching requirements, a wireless system can be installed at the cost of a wired system with 15m of installed conduit—less if conduit needs to be buried.

Maintenance

Wired systems: When removing sensors for periodic maintenance, wires connecting to units can be damaged. Improper wire labeling can result in incorrect sensor replacement.

Wireless systems: In a wireless system, nodes integrate to sensors that send data directly to a gateway. When removing sensors for maintenance, the wireless node easily detaches and re-attaches without interference by wires.

Environmental

Wired systems: Underground conduit often is ruined by equipment when digging a trench for another underground conduit run. The cost to replace conduit and cable systems can be huge. In addition, lightning strikes on a sensor will propagate along all wires, often destroying equipment attached to the system.

Wireless systems: With no underground wires, nothing must be dug when going wireless. Once installed, lighting strikes to a sensor may damage the single unit, but not interfere with the complete system.

Topography

Wired systems: Certain locations make it impractical to run wires, such as across a highway or river.

Wireless systems: A wireless node can be installed easily on the other side of a highway or river. Self-configuring, wireless nodes automatically connect to the network.

When moving from a wired solution to a wireless one, consider all the aspects of the job. Is there a problem with what you have now? If so, are you willing to change the interface at the controller knowing that this change will allow you to take in much more data and diagnostic information than you had before? Is it more cost-effective when considering the absence of cable, trenching, and interface requirements? Deciding when to invest is always the hardest part.

Scott Keller is CEO at SignalFire Telemetry. This appeared July 9 on the Control Engineering Europe website. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, mhoske@cfemedia.com.

MORE ADVICE 

Key Concepts

  • Wireless can save time and resources compared to wired monitoring.
  • Savings include maintenance, topography, and environmental considerations.

Consider this

Where can you cost-effectively expand your measurements, monitoring, or control by using wireless communications?

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Control Engineering Europe: Moving to a wireless remote monitoring system