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Wireless Sensor Technology

Equipment health monitoring for the modern utility.

Fortnightly Magazine - July 2014
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Wireless technology marks a big part of our life today. We use it when we scour our phones for voice, text, or interesting video tid-bits, and as we log on for important messages from home or office.

Yet many other functions that we take for granted now have proliferated. That garage-door opener, that TV remote control, that Internet of Everything - all are enabled by wireless sensors that are getting smaller, smarter, cheaper, and more nimble. The utility industry also has benefitted, but in a more surreptitious manner: the technology has enabled very accurate equipment health monitoring in ways that were not done before nor contemplated.

When wireless technology was introduced in the 1980s - remember those brick-sized phones? The bandwidth capabilities for data (the amount of information that can be pushed through per unit of time) were more than adequate for industry applications for condition monitoring. Whereas for voice information verbal drop outs give a choppy feeling to conversations, for data the information could be simply resampled since there was no hurry to get real-time information. Even as the alphabet soup of wireless standards evolved, the potential for utility application only grew, from measuring vibration of rotating components to on-demand sensing of components. What was missing then was the whole package: flexible networks to be able to deploy in field conditions, economy and security. Today wireless sensors are widely used in a variety of applications from traffic management to home security to automated gas, water and electricity meter reading to equipment condition monitoring in industries. Indeed this is what could save utilities in curbing operations and maintenance costs with potentially 24/7 monitoring and avoiding costly unplanned shutdowns.

What is a Wireless Sensor Network?

Figure 1 - The New Bi-Directional Grid

WSNs are a boon to utilities even as they adapt to business demands for more and more strategically placed remote assets which are very unlike legacy equipment. These include solar systems, fuel cells and other distributed generation technologies that are reaching grid parity and providing customer choice like never before. Utilities were always reluctant to monitor the health of their assets due to cost concerns but also for reasons that drove utility behavior for many years: if you monitor you must report and sometimes bear onerous legal consequences for potential miscalculations. So the head-in-the-sand attitude was painless during years of high growth, easily passing increased replacement costs of equipment to rate payers through a friendly PUC. That of course changed in the late 1990s as economic realities became clear and competition in the industry intensified. But there were simpler

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