Automation Technology: The Future is Now

May 1, 2003
For years, the water and wastewater industry lagged behind other industries when it came to installing automation technology.

By James Laughlin

For years, the water and wastewater industry lagged behind other industries when it came to installing automation technology. While more progressive facilities took the plunge with early automation systems, their success was mixed and the expense was high. All that has been changing over the past few years, as quality and availability of automation systems has improved dramatically while system costs have declined.

In a time when the national economy is tight and every company is putting its bottom line under the microscope, the expense of installing automation systems can be justified by the long-term savings possible, coupled with the goal of improved system performance and reliability.

With the new technologies on the market, companies now have the ability to collect data from remote sites that were once difficult or impossible to communicate with economically. Wireless remote monitoring using radio systems and cellular networks is useful for the water and wastewater industry in a number of areas including the monitoring of lift stations, wells, pumps, storage tanks, effluent overflow, flow meters, temperature, pH, cathodic protection of pipelines and vendor managed inventory, to name a few.

Some of the lowest cost remote monitoring systems use the control channels of wireless cellular networks to transfer information from virtually any remote piece of equipment to a centralized Internet database. A number of companies have sprung up to provide fee-based information management services that compile monitoring data on the Internet, providing data storage and manipulation, plus send out alarms and notifications as needed.

These new systems are attractive because they are relatively inexpensive and quick to install. Many also use Internet browser software that most operators can learn with little training. Using such systems also avoids the cost of purchasing and setting up proprietary software systems.

Improvements have also been made in monitoring and control hardware. Accuracy and dependability of some instrumentation was questionable in the earlier days of automation, but new systems for monitoring virtually any parameter in the water industry now operate with reduced maintenance requirements and increased accuracy.

A variety of new software systems tailored to water industry needs are flooding onto the market, they include maintenance management, process control, HMI software, customer information systems, hydraulic and plant modeling and much more.

While security of automation systems is a concern in this age of terrorism, automation systems themselves can be a useful security tool. The very communication systems, security features and software used to control your processes can be adapted to also control intrusion alarms, entry/exit monitoring, motion detectors and surveillance cameras.

While automation systems have become simpler and more user friendly, they're not something the average plant operator can install on his own. Before jumping in to a major automation project, it would be best to call on a qualified consultant to ensure that you end up with a system that both meets your needs and doesn't break the bank.

Although a new system built from scratch will likely carry a hefty price tag, use of the newer Internet-based services can allow you to target specific processes or monitoring stations that are particularly problematic. This allows you to target problem areas without having to build an entire system.

Either way, automating systems and processes can provide a worthwhile return on investment that will save you money in the long run, while also increasing performance and reliability of your plant.

James Laughlin, Editor