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Integrating Intelligent Devices into Existing Power Systems

The world around us is advancing at an unprecedented pace. Over our nearly 40 year history in on-site power generation, Generator Source has seen all types of minor and significant changes. The evolution of diesel engines as they get more efficient and cleaner every year, adoption of natural gas, the advancement of smart building technology, rapid advances in remote monitoring of power generators, and the rise of the microgrid. This article dives into some of the basics of the current grid electrical infrastructure, shows how utilities are advancing and software is being used, describes how smart building tech plays a role, touches on remote monitoring trends, and talks about when we may see Artificial Intelligence in the coming years.

Basics of Electrical Infrastructure

Power Plant Transformers Supplying Substations
The first step to integrating intelligent hardware and software into your complex or building is to understand how basic electrical infrastructure is constructed. Electrical infrastructure can be thought of as all the equipment that supplies electrical power to your business. The United States is divided into distribution grids. Canada is also connected to our electrical infrastructure and has the ability to sell and buy power. A simplified electrical infrastructure example is presented below:
  • A power generation station creates power and routes it through transformers
  • Transformers step-up voltage and route it to substations via high-voltage lines
  • Substations use transformers to supply need voltages on local grids
  • Voltage is distributed to business and residences 
ENERGY.GOV published a document entitled Understanding the Grid. This document states that parts of the electrical grid are over 100 years old. Seventy percent of transformers and transmission lines are over 25 years old. And, the average age of power plants is 30 years. In the last 30 or so years, technology advancements have allowed digital monitoring and control of electrical components.

Intelligent Technology

Electrical companies are replacing failed equipment with intelligent devices. Microprocessors allow metering, monitoring, and controls, and they capture information on an electrical grid. The amount of smart equipment determines the amount of system automation. Advancements such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth communications allow remote monitoring and control. 

This can be controlled by Software as a Solution (SaaS) that is cloud-based. Encryption software allows for a connection to the cloud to access equipment control and monitoring programs. Hospitals, data centers, and correctional facilities are a few of the businesses that require critical power. These backup power systems include an Uninterruptible Power Source (UPS). Buildings that do not have critical power requirements can also benefit by employing smart devices.

Smart Building Technology

Smart Distribution Center Components
Power companies are installing smart devices as they upgrade and replace components on the electrical grid. The production industry has used smart technology for production equipment for a long period of time. Total building control and monitoring are accomplished with an advanced system.

The distribution center for a smart system includes the components that are responsible for circuit protection and distribution of power to various pieces of equipment. Many large buildings receive multiple power inputs. This can be supplied from the utility company or their dedicated substation. Each input is routed to the main circuit breaker. Main circuit breakers route the current to individual circuit breakers. Individual circuit breakers provide protection to systems and equipment. Smart circuit breakers allow monitoring capabilities to individual and multiple circuits. 

Most industrial buildings have one auxiliary or supporting system. Compressed air, heat treat machines, cooling water, grinding coolant, and finishing additives are all examples of these systems. They supply critical products to production machines. Power is routed through a circuit breaker to a control panel. Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) are a popular method to operate and monitor the system.

Again, each system is specifically designed, but the common auxiliary system controller contains the following components:
  • Power Supply - Receives input power for the machine and converts it to Direct Current (DC) for use by the Central Processing Unit (CPU).
  • CPU - Brains of the control panel. Receive inputs and calculates & distributes outputs. The CPU is controlled by ladder logic software. Ladder logic is an industrial programming standard and can be designed system-specific.
  • Input/Output (I/O) Unit - Allows the CPU to communicate with system components. The Input section delivers signals from devices such as proximity, temperature, and photo sensors to the CPU. Calculations are made by the CPU and distributed to the Output section of the I/O. Control signals are routed to devices such as relays, actuators, and indicators.
  • Relays - Receive the DC signal from the I/O output unit. Relay contacts are either open or closed, depending on the design. Contacts receive voltage from a dedicated bus bar within the controller and distribute or interrupt current to the device.
Distribution, auxiliary, ventilation, fire, and security are all some of the systems that have an independent control system. Before the technology advancements of today, each system needed a specific operator/technician to maintain. Ladder logic diagrams consisted of many thousands of lines of programming that was distributed through hundreds of pages of documentation. Many times, engineers were needed to decipher the complicated software.

Today, all systems are interfaced with one controlling software. Building functions can be monitored and controlled from one station. Easy to understand operating software allow personnel without an engineering degree to maintain day-to-day tasks. Troubleshooting software with individual control systems has also become more troubleshooting-friendly to the technician. Much time is saved when a technician can be directed to a specific area to begin with.

Backup and Emergency Power SystemsIndoor Emergency Generator and Auxiliary Systems

An emergency power system supplies power to all emergency systems associated with the building. Mostly, systems are associated with the evacuation and safety of people. Backup systems are designed to support equipment operations during a utility power failure. Diesel or Natural Gas (NG) powered generators are the industry standard for backup and emergency power supply. 

A diesel engine operates on compression and atomized fuel. The NG engine has a different fuel supply system to the cylinders and has the addition of spark ignition. Both engine fuel types have their advantages and disadvantages. Diesel fueled engines can be located in remote locations where gas utility is not present and operated as long as diesel is available. NG fueled engines can operate as long as the utility supply is not interrupted.

Outdoor Generators

Fuel systems aside, there are two styles of generators used. Indoor and outdoor generators are designed to accommodate all building needs. Outdoor generators are housed in weather-resistant or weather-proof enclosures. Complete units include fuel tanks and can be located on any flat level surface that will support its operating weight. It is not uncommon for these units to be located on the rooftops of large buildings. An equipment room located indoors can house paralleling and controls equipment.

Indoor Generators

Indoor generators are complete power generation units that require auxiliary support. These systems can employ the most advanced technology available. Fuel is routed from a primary tank to a day tank as needed for generator engine operation. This is one of the stand-alone support systems. Generators must be located so that the radiator has access to the outside air. A Heat Exchanger (HEX) system can be used when fresh air access is not available. HEX systems are a sub-system of the emergency or backup generator system and have an independent controller interfaced with the main generator system.

Integrating Smart Technology into an Existing System

Circuit Breakers with Monitoring Capabilities
There are many reasons to integrate intelligent devices into an existing building electrical system. Some businesses prefer to begin the upgrade in a step-by-step process. Prevention of arch flashes and advancements in circuit breaker design supply a good starting point for smart device installation.

Arc Flashes

Arc flashes occur in switchgear when a short circuit occurs between a phase bus bar, neutral bus bar, or ground. Commonly known as an electrical explosion, it can kill anyone nearby, injure workers in the area, and cause damage that is not repairable. Installed circuit breakers do not offer a quick enough response time to suppress an arc flash event. When an event occurs, it can cost weeks of downtime added to the cost of the destroyed equipment and the cost of life.

Arch quenching switchgear can save the company millions of dollars of lost revenue caused by an arcing event. This gear can respond to a possible arching event in milliseconds suppressing the explosion. Light sensors are located throughout the switchgear. When the sensor registers the light from the beginning of the event, the current is directed from the switchgear into the arch quenching unit. The switchgear is de-energized, and the quenching unit must be replaced.

Circuit Protection Monitoring

Circuit breaker design advancements have included electronics in the circuit breaker. Monitoring and grounding fault capabilities are part of the package. The ground fault capabilities aid in troubleshooting circuits with motors on them. Previously, this could be a complicated and time-consuming process. 

Smart circuit breakers now have the ability to monitor electrical usage for their individual circuits. Some circuit breakers have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology and can communicate via cell or wireless network. An example of this use is: A commercial refrigerator is on an isolated circuit controlled by a smart circuit breaker. The refrigeration compressor begins to fail using more electricity during operation. This breaker senses the increased use in power and notifies responsible parties. This allows the problem to be repaired before it fails, saving downtime costs and extra electrical charges from operating a failing piece of equipment.

Replacing old technology circuit breakers throughout your building's auxiliary and controls system is a perfect way to create a chart for trend analysis of electrical use. Cost savings are experienced in advanced monitoring and communication. The above were just two ways to begin to integrate smart technology into your electrical distribution plan. Review your system and utilize the technology needed to design a plan to add the necessary components.

Remote Monitoring Hardware and Software

Remote monitoring is rapidly gaining in popularity as companies begin to see the many benefits it can provide. Whether it's for monitoring a single standby generator set to make sure it's operational to much more advanced operations like fleet management or paralleling at large data centers, remote monitoring is all the rage. Depending on the solution employed, most require some type of hardware and run off cellular networks. These can be set up with basic details or much more advanced for things like load shedding at electric power utilities. Most solutions offer a web-based monitoring system that can be accessed via a web browser or a smartphone.  To a see a previous article few examples and read more on remote monitoring generator sets click here includes additonal figures and diagrams.

Artificial Intelligence and Generators?

Big data companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are all trying to figure out new and exciting ways to help machines learn and essentially think for you with the use of artificial intelligence. Things like driverless cars are already employing various degrees of intelligent devices that can learn and apply these things on their own. Most of these still have a ways to go before full-fledged sci-fi level adoption, but they are currently trending towards it, and it won't be long. While many advances in this field are nearing full-scale deployment, we do not currently see a direct offering for their application with industrial power. However, it actually does make sense that we will one day soon see this evolution when utilities or data centers. For example, we can begin to have their systems manage power and shut down generators on their own based on things they have learned during previous outages by paralleling for peak performance, and more. For now, most of the core details must be programmed into the firmware and/or software, which is still a long way from where we started decades ago.

While technology evolves, the basics mostly stay the same. Almost every business or facility can benefit from having a backup power system in place. Is your company prepared for the next power outage? If not, call us today at 800-853-2073 or contact us online to discuss your options.

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