Public Power Magazine

Monitoring Goes Mobile

From the September 2013 issue (Vol. 71, No. 6) of Public Power

Originally published July 1, 2013

By Alice Clamp
July 1, 2013
Barry Chrisman, hydroelectric superintendent for the Snohomish County Public Utility District, is usually the first to check things out on his smart phone. Until recently, the engineering staff had to interpret alarms and decide if it needed to be addressed right away, Chrisman said. Photo courtesy of Snohomish County PUD.


The Snohomish County Public Utility District’s service territory embraces some 2,200 square miles. Within that area lie the PUD’s three hydropower facilities—Jackson, Youngs Creek and Woods Creek.

Three hydropower facilities lie within the Snohomish County Public Utility District's more than 2,200-square-mile territory — Jackson (above), Youngs Creek and Woods Creek. Photo courtesy of Snohomish County PUD.                 

Situated in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, the powerhouses that control the three dams are a good hour east of the PUD’s headquarters in Everett, Wash. And its largest dam is another 30 minutes away. Until recently, a member of the engineering staff had to interpret an alarm from a dam or an image from the camera system and decide if it needed to be addressed right away, said Barry Chrisman, the PUD’s hydroelectric superintendent. An immediate response entailed a long drive.

Now, thanks to a new software system, the engineering staff has more information than the people at the dams, said Chrisman. And the staff has that information at its fingertips—anytime, anywhere. “We can log into the computer remotely and view the screen on our iPhones,” Chrisma said. “We can look at temperature trends and cooling water flows—for all three sites.”

Chrisman is usually the first to check things out on his smart phone, calling in one of two engineers if he needs their special skills.

“We have to make sure that the alarms we receive are correct, and that what we’re seeing is good information,” Chrisman said. He praised the powerhouse staff. “They’ve been instrumental in making the iPhone app work,” he said. “Without their help, we wouldn’t have such good outcomes.” 

The system consists of interconnected hardware and web-based server components that link the utility’s intelligent electronic devices with the smart phones. The hardware—called Gateways—is installed at the PUD’s hydro facilities, where it collects data. Fresh data and status changes are transmitted securely over communication networks to the PUD’s server, called the DataCatcher. Access to the data is password-protected.

The simplest portion of the app that Snohomish PUD is using on its smart phones is SCADA Nexus, developed by Resource Associates International, a Washington-based company. Users just login to a secure website to view water related data. This can include non-PUD employees such as appropriate regulatory agency personnel.

The system is capable of controlling the hydro facilities as well as monitoring their performance. But the PUD has chosen not to use the control option, Chrisman said. “If necessary, I can call someone at the powerhouse and advise them on the control measures to take.”

Although the PUD’s information technology department designed a security system for part the app, Chrisman said he would have to be convinced that using the control function is an acceptable risk.

Benefits. The SCADA Nexus system clearly saves staff time, Chrisman said. But he points to a bigger benefit. “I can see the alarm on my iPhone, and watch the rate of temperature increase, for example. That lets me be more proactive, and send an engineer out if necessary.” Because the PUD can get someone on the scene relatively quickly, it has saved units from tripping. “We lose from one to five hours if a unit trips,” Chrisman said.

The system also helps ensure that the PUD complies with its license. “With this iPhone app, we can look at our minimum flow gate and what it is passing, what is going over the spillway,” Chrisman said. “This allows me to verify that we are not out of compliance for fish kill, even though—on one occasion—the gate was broken.” The problem, he said, was a damaged drive nut. The solution? The gate was opened and the PUD remained in compliance.

Finally, the iPhone app enables Chrisman to monitor those areas that are difficult to reach in the winter because of deep snow. “Being able to see what’s going on gives me peace of mind.” All the doors are monitored, so if someone goes into a facility on the weekend, Chrisman can verify that the person is supposed to be there.

“All in all, we’re happy with the system,” Chrisman said. “We’re able to monitor our sites better than in the past and keep a close eye on what’s happening. This morning, for example, I could see that one of our turbines came back on line after recent rains.” The previous weekend, Chrisman got a cooling water alarm. “I looked at the instrument display on my iPhone and pinpointed the problem: a strainer was getting clogged. That shortened the time required to identify the problem.” 

Origin of the app. Several years ago, Resource Associates International approached the PUD with the idea of adopting the SCADA Nexus system as an add-on to the utility’s SCADA Wonderware system, said Scott Hamilton, RAI’s president. “Having a mobile workforce that is informed about the status of all generation facilities seemed logical,” he said.

SCADA Nexus, developed in 1999, was first deployed as an advanced AMR at one of Umatilla Electric Cooperative’s substations. The goal, said Hamilton, was to give utility managers nearly instantaneous status updates on the assets for which they were responsible. 

RAI added full SCADA capabilities to SCADA Nexus over the next few years, with multi-platform web browser support—including smart phones—offered in 2007. “Unique uses for SCADA Nexus include Snohomish PUD’s hydro monitoring system,” Hamilton said.

“We wanted to meet the needs of a changing workforce—an emerging group of employees and managers who expect to have secure status, data and control literally at their fingertips,” Hamilton said. “Today, utility staff in the field need access to key performance data that in the past was limited to centralized facilities.”

SCADA Nexus works on any type of smart phone—iPhone, Droid and Blackberry—as well as the iPad, Hamilton said.

Security. The SCADA Nexus system design is based on the latest Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers standards on network data security, Hamilton said.

At Snohomish PUD, staff log into a virtual private network and access the server. “It’s a very secure link,” Chrisman said.

Beyond hydro. The SCADA Nexus system can also monitor other types of generation facilities. “I’m sure it could be used anywhere you have a human/machine interface,” said the PUD’s Chrisman.


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