Wireless technology in the refinery

Wireless data gathering can mean lower capital costs and gains in efficiency, provided the limitations of available bandwidth are taken into consideration

Jeff Becker and Jerry Stanek
Honeywell Process Solutions

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Article Summary

The geographical locations of 
oil pipelines and refineries inherently place challenges on operators working to keep systems functional and maintained. In the US, with the majority of refineries located along the country’s Gulf Coast, the equipment endures hot temperatures, high humidity, thunderstorms and hurricanes.

With these types of environmental factors, refinery equipment and transmission pipelines are placed under an immense amount of stress, in addition to normal operating conditions. For technicians charged with keeping equipment functional, having accurate real-time performance data is invaluable.

The more detailed information a technician can pull from the plant floor about the operational status of equipment the better decisions can be made about preventative mainte-nance. For instance, a technician who is able to monitor a boiler’s daily run-time, pressure level and exhaust temperature in real-time can use the data to identify a problem immed-iately and fix it before it results in an outage. With historical operations data available, the technician can see the number of cycles the unit has run since its last maintenance check to determine if a repair needs to be made right away or if it can wait until the next scheduled downtime event.

Benefits of wireless
As with all process manufacturing industries, uptime is critical to business success. And the oil and gas and hydrocarbon processing 
industries are no different. Refineries have three ways of monitoring production equipment and their transmission pipelines: remotely by wireless transmitters, using a wired network, or by manual inspection.

However, given the harsh environmental conditions and geographical terrain most pipelines traverse, along with the vast amount of land they cover, monitoring this type of infrastructure manually or with a wired network can be cost prohibitive, if not impossible. The same goes for refineries. Even 
though the location of a refinery will be conducive to manufacturing processes, the operating environment creates a difficult setting for 
wired and manual monitoring of equipment.

This is where wireless technology fits in. It offers the flexibility and mobility to monitor equipment across a facility remotely. The same goes for an oil pipeline. Wireless technology can be implemented across an entire pipeline or at a specific section.

Wireless technology also offers safety benefits for environments with explosive hazards. Where a wired network requires that power be supplied constantly to operate, creating a spark risk, wireless technology uses battery or solar power. A wireless network also provides increased savings compared to a wired network by removing the cost of buying and installing network lines. Instead, wireless technology offers a plug-and-go configuration, greatly simplifying installation compared to running miles of wiring.

Selecting a wireless network
The fundamentals and key strategies for implementing a wireless network are the same across all industrial settings. What varies from installation to installation is the size of the 
network being implemented. A wireless infrastructure can vary from one to multiple networks, and from a small to a multipoint large-scale 
mesh network. Deciding which configuration fits best depends on why the network is being installed. The overarching uses for industrial wireless technology can be grouped into three categories: safety, reliability and efficiency — factors that ring true for the oil and gas and hydrocarbon processing industries.

Key items to consider when evaluating a wireless network are:
•  Will the network be operating in a noisy radio frequency environment?
•  Does your wireless infrastructure need to be capable of supporting wireless transmissions at multiple reporting speeds?
•  Does the battery life of the wireless transmitters meet your needs?
•  Do you need end-to-end data security across the wireless network?
•  Have you identified a plan for future usage and expanding the wireless network with additional applications?

Having answers to these questions at the beginning of the review phase will help ensure the correct wireless technology is selected for current and future applications.

Understanding wireless implementation
The functionality of a wireless 
network goes beyond monitoring and reporting equipment status. With the availability to implement Wi-Fi technology on the factory floor, wireless technology can be used for activities such as aiding first responders in responding to 
an emergency call or equipping employees with real-time data access.

Keeping in mind how wireless technology can extend beyond equipment monitoring is important, especially as you evaluate how the network might be used in the future — a critical component to consider when determining how a wireless network can expand with the business.

For instance, if a wireless network is not quality of service enabled from the beginning, it is possible that first responders may overload the available network in an emergency. This will occur because the bandwidth available to the network may not be large enough to sustain transmissions from both the equipment and first responders’ communications. This is why it is important to consider where the wireless network will be installed.

If the network will be running in a noisy radio frequency environment, it is important to determine if the available infrastructure is capable of mitigating those risks. If you need to add applications later, it is helpful if your network can support various transmissions at multiple reporting speeds without sacrificing battery power. For example, if a network only supports a fast speed, the reporting points that report data at longer intervals can unnecessarily consume transmitter battery life and bandwidth. Conversely, slower-speed networks may not provide adequate reporting for more critical applications.

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