Posted By
Allan Evora President, Executive Management Affinity Energy Charlotte, NC
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5 Quick Ways to Optimize SCADA Alarming

PostedTuesday, July 11,2017 at 8:30 AM

5 Quick Ways to Optimize SCADA Alarming

5 Quick Ways to Optimize SCADA Alarming

Most argue that alarming is one of the benefits that makes SCADA so valuable. Why then, do so many SCADA systems feature poorly designed and overly complicated alarm handling systems?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution when it comes to SCADA alarming.

An alarm management system that allows an owner to effectively and efficiently manage their facility, process, and assets requires a significant investment in up-front planning by both the owner (or the owner's designated engineering representative) and the control systems integrator. Decisions need to be made during the SCADA design process regarding naming conventions, alarm priorities, alarm groups, escalation, and other alarm handling system design criteria.

At Affinity Energy, we find the most successful deployments occur when we have the opportunity to discuss alarming early in the design process, versus using generic SCADA specifications as the basis for our design.

Even when armed with proper tools, the experience an operator has with SCADA alarms will only be as good as the investment that goes into planning and designing the system.

Here are five easy ways to improve the user alarm management experience and make an operator's job a bit easier.

1. Understand not all alarms are created equal

A surefire way to make an operator's life miserable is to overwhelm them with too many alarms. To address alarm overload, we recommend creating a comprehensive list of all alarms. Owner and integrator should go through the list and remove alarms that don’t result in a call to action. These are called events. Events are good to know for reporting or record keeping, but should not raise a flag in the SCADA system.

Next, give each alarm a priority. Not every alarm should have the same level of urgency. Generally, alarm priorities are synchronized with service levels/response times and categorized as critical, high, or low.

Critical represents a potential safety risk or significant cost to the business. When operators see a critical alarm, it means drop everything and respond immediately 7x24x365. High alarms require a response within 24 hours. Low alarms usually indicate a response when first available during normal business hours.

2. Turn off obvious alarms

Another reason operators are inundated with a flurry of nonessential alarms is due to obvious facility issues. For example, maintenance on a UPS system will most likely generate alarm conditions.

A systems integrator should be able to give the operator the capability to shelve or suppress selected device alarms for certain timeframes to avoid alerts stemming from obvious situations such as maintenance. Some owners choose to preemptively disable alarms based on planned maintenance activities.

Another good use of alarm suppression or shelving is a malfunctioning instrument. A malfunctioning instrument often results in an alarm constantly going in and out of alarm. Having the ability to suppress these nuisance alarms until they have been properly troubleshooted and fixed will put a smile on most operator's faces.

Another way to reduce alarm volume is using conditional logic (like dependency) in alarm configuration. Say you have a double-ended switchgear with an automatic throw-over (ATO) scheme. Normal switchgear configuration is both main breakers closed and tie breaker open. Alarms are configured if either main opens, or the tie closes when ATO is in automatic mode.

However, when ATO is in manual mode, you would not create those same alarms since is it assumed the owner is manually operating the switchgear. To take it a step further, if the system is left in manual for more than 30 minutes, you could configure the system to generate a critical alarm to warn the operator the system may be compromised.

3. Avoid cut-and-paste points alarming

Alarming only makes sense if the alarm is something you care about. But a lot of engineers employ a cut-and-paste mentality when designing SCADA systems. They take the recommended points list from the manufacturer, and simply copy it over into the alarm scheme. I can’t think of a single instance in my 15 years working in the mission critical industry where that was a good idea.

Not only are you paying extra for the integration data you may not care about, but alarming on all recommended alarm points might not even make sense for your specific application. A great example are the recommended points for photovoltaic trackers in the utility-scale solar energy industry. They come with hundreds of points to monitor and alarm on, but only a handful are important enough to integrate.

Alarming on everything means an increase in irrelevant alarms. An increase in irrelevant alarms triggers the slippery slope of operator indifference toward alarms.

4. Send alarm notifications to pertinent people and groups

Alarms should always be on a need-to-know basis.

One of our customers, a maintenance supervisor at a hospital central energy plant, learned this the hard way. Every time a generator alarm occurred, it caused an organization-wide panic. Operators, shift supervisors, maintenance personnel, and other concerned parties (including hospital administration) received the alarm, and nobody knew if the issue was being taken care of. That meant dozens of concerned calls to the maintenance supervisor every time the generator started.

This is a perfect example of why alarm notifications should be sent to pre-defined groups. Not every staff member is trained across all environment systems, so why bother notifying them? Alarms should only be sent to the group of individuals who can actually provide the corrective action associated with the alarm. A mechanic responsible for the boiler plant may not need to be notified when an alarm associated with the emergency generator comes in.

When setting up alarm groups, use a hierarchy that mimics your organization. Within operations and maintenance, you may have a mechanic group, electrician group, and instrument technician group. Don't forget about your outside facility partners. Including a service providers group may be important for certain critical alarms.

If your organization is going through growing pains or trust issues, your system integrator can set up an alarm escalation scheme. If alarms aren’t acknowledged by an operator within a certain amount of time, a pre-defined person or adjacent group will be notified.

5. Apply custom alarming techniques to your unique environment

In some instances, traditional HMI alarming at a single workstation isn’t effective.

One of our central energy plant customers has three large hospitals controlled through one SCADA system and monitored by only one operator. Responding to alarms at the unmanned locations and during off-hours became quite the challenge. Traditional audible alarms weren’t effective, because the operator regularly works in the loud plant environment away from the workstation.

We integrated a siren into their overarching SCADA system audible anywhere in the main plant. The siren sounds when an alarm occurs at any of the three locations, which means the operator is able to quickly respond to critical issues even when away from the control room.

Audible alarms are a great aspect of situational awareness, a relatively new initiative that makes it easier for operators to identify facility problems with a quick glance at the HMI. With a complete lack of color and animation, the operator has limited distraction. His attention is honed in on anything differing from the norm.

Any system integrator should be able to design and integrate an alarming scheme around situational awareness. The use of different colors, borders, icons, badges, and flashing animation helps operators instantly identify the alarm status of all devices, and distinguish alarm severity and priority.

Understanding the typical way an operator interfaces with his system is crucial. If an integrator designs an alarm handling system around a high definition monitor, but operators are using mobile phones to receive notifications, that system will greatly miss the mark and frustrate the end user.

Don’t be afraid to customize alarming and think outside the box to optimize operator efficiency.

Think differently about alarming

SCADA alarming shouldn’t be a burden operators have to live with.

Today's modern SCADA system has very powerful alarm management capabilities. Most SCADA solutions provide a wealth of tools that allow us to customize the SCADA experience to the owner's work process.

But ultimately, it’s up to owners to demand better system integration, and up to system integrators to provide optimized solutions based on detailed planning and dialogue with the owner.

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Allan Evora is President of Affinity Energy with over 20 years of industry experience working in every capacity of the power automation project life cycle. Allan established Affinity Energy in 2002, and is qualified as a Certified Measurement & Verification Professional (CMVP) Learn more about Affinity Energy to see how they can help with your next power and energy integration project.