A phased approach makes RTU and SCADA upgrades seamless and cost-effective


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Utilities that are replacing their legacy remote terminal units (RTUs) and SCADA systems are doing this to ensure system reliability, improve usability, and promote future scalability—while taking advantage of technological advances in data connectivity and remote management. But how a facility handles such a project is critical to ensuring that upgrading its system is smooth and cost-effective. Those who adopt a phased approach give themselves the opportunity to comprehensively assess the feature set of new technology and assess its compatibility with existing equipment, which is critical to the extended transition to new technology. It also helps in the integration of new features so that the tool can take full advantage of what its new system has to offer. Getting started is also a smart capital move because it doesn’t commit to project dollars before a comprehensive assessment and implementation plan is completed moving forward. Glades Electric Cooperative, a distribution cooperative of 16 substations serving the power needs of four counties in South Florida with more than 2,700 miles of power lines and 17,000 meters, faced this challenge recently when it began the process of replacing their RTU and SCADA networks. Although installed relatively recently in 2015, the current RTUs did not meet the Glades reliability requirements. “We were experiencing a partial job loss at one of our substations,” said Jose Cordova, Director of Engineering Operations at Glades. “One of the RTUs had four feeders, and there were times when they didn’t respond to commands consistently. We also had a recloser that wasn’t working properly.” Compounding the issue is the almost no technical support from the vendor despite paying a fixed annual service contract that exceeds the product license fee. “We had service tickets that were months old and they were never resolved,” Cordova said. A contributing factor to the Glades’ difficulty in quickly resolving their technical issues was the vendor’s use of a proprietary communication system between the RTUs and SCADA. “The connection between the devices was a proprietary technology, and so we weren’t able to solve the problems alone,” Cordova said. “When issues arose at a substation, it required us to deploy staff to sort out the issues manually, eliminating the benefits of remote management that the system is supposed to offer.” So when one of Glades’ substation RTUs failed completely in February 2020, they decided to look for a replacement from a new vendor. Searching for a new system “We started our search for an alternative by scanning our system and prioritizing what wasn’t working or working less than optimally,” Cordova said. The Glades had three primary goals in mind with their replacement. Given the inconsistencies with their current system, reliability was paramount. Scalability was also a key criterion. They wanted a system that could grow with their network, which also meant the ability to integrate with the peripherals in their substations. Finally, the new system should be easy to use. “Our typical substation contains voltage regulators, transformers, and circuit inverters,” Cordova said. “We also have voltage regulators, capacitor banks, re-locking devices and downstream trip savers. To maximize operation we need to integrate all of these devices into our SCADA system.” Cordova added: “We have a team of nine, Not having to travel to upgrade these devices saves us money and time and most importantly improves employee safety. We want to reduce the time people spend in direct contact with equipment at our substations.” Cordova attended a user seminar hosted by a leading substation automation company, Pennsylvania-based NovaTech Automation, where he was introduced to the company’s Orion RTU and SCADA systems. “I attended a two-day class that included a demonstration of their system,” Cordoba said. “I was able to work with and configure some of their devices, and that was very helpful. Having that kind of hands-on experience and access to product information enabled us to complete a comprehensive evaluation. One of the things we liked was the intuitiveness of the Orion web interface.” Gradual implementation Glades approached their system replacement in a step-by-step approach starting with the replacement of a single RTU. The idea was to connect the Orion RTU to an existing SCADA system to assess its performance and compatibility before making a more significant investment. “We have taken advantage of Orion RTU’s integrated online connectivity to serve communications more efficiently,” Cordova said. “By typing in the IP address of the new RTU, we can access it directly through a web browser to see the substation online.” Based on this initial stage, Glades decided to proceed with the implementation of the second RTU. At about the same time, a second RTU was delivered to the next network location, the transmitting station, and the current SCADA upper end unexpectedly failed, causing Glades to temporarily lose situational awareness at that location. Chronic tech support response time issues with existing Glades is leading the vendor to decide to upgrade their entire system at this point – 16 substations and their SCADA. NovaTech addressed the need for domain situational awareness by configuring a SCADA system. The devices in the substation present their own data in a graphic display. A sophisticated unit in the office controls all these units and allows a single view of the network without entering an IP address for each substation. To further improve efficiency, NovaTech installed the Orion SCADA server in the IT room at Glades to act as a hub or data center. Today, Glades is nearly halfway through a collaborative RTU-scale replacement after it has installed Orion modules at seven of its substations along with a data center. Upon completion, they will have replaced their RTUs at all 16 substations. Collaboration for optimal configuration According to Cordova, implementation has been very smooth despite the upgrade being carried out while operating under pandemic restrictions. The scope of the project included product, configuration, assembly and testing services, and site operation. For the project, NovaTech hired an engineer to build the system from scratch while working closely with Glades technicians. “Having an expert involved helps us tremendously because it enables us to customize during construction,” Cordova said. “This ensures we have the features we need to make life in our operations center easier.” Cordova adds: “For example, we’ve added an overview page that gives us an overview of the entire system at a single glance, eliminating the need to scroll through multiple screens to see what happened at any of our 16 substations. If there’s an alarm, you’ll see a page Overview of exactly what happened and where in a very easy-to-understand layout.” NovaTech is designing a load management page that will help Glades decide which feeders to shut down in a blackout turnover response to an electrical emergency. “With the latest advances in technology, there is a lot that can be automated. Many utilities are not using their systems adequately, simply by not turning on features that could eliminate manual interventions,” Cordova said. There is a lot of data that we could and were not collecting.” “The bottom line, we simply weren’t taking full advantage of what we had. So, this time, with the help of NovaTech, we have created a product that is more useful, tailored and better supported as well. A cautionary tale The lack of customer support Glades faced prior to choosing NovaTech resulted in a partially optimized system configuration that created unnecessary manual labor for their employees and increased their vulnerability to product failure due to long vendor response times. Complicating matters further, the vendor was charging support through Service contract plus significant annual product license fee Support charged as a fixed cost whether or not they service the technology With Glades’ new RTU and SCADA system, it’s not only better configured to meet their needs, providing more automation support and capabilities Remote management, but no fixed support fees beyond the cost of licensing Glades pays for service only when they need it Progress towards success Technology update is an important project for a tool that includes configuration, assembly services, testing and site operation It is critical that the tool takes the time to perform Fully assessing the compatibility of a new technology with its existing systems, making full use of new features to reduce manual interventions, and ensuring that licensing and support fees are in their favour. e needs through a phased approach in ensuring that the upgrade of the RTU and SCADA system is smooth and cost-effective. .


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