Harnessing Heat Vision for Smarter Substation Monitoring

As decision-makers look for practical and worthwhile ways to improve substation monitoring, they often turn to heat-vision applications, such as infrared thermography. Such methods allow people to use specialized equipment to see abnormal temperature patterns—such as hot spots or unusual coolness—within industrial assets. This approach supports substation reliability by reducing outages and warning people earlier about issues that would cause significant disruptions if not promptly addressed.

Better Substation Monitoring Caught a Faulty Switch Early

Heat-vision technology can allow people to transition to doing their substation inspections more frequently. Many substation assets only get inspected once a year, leaving various opportunities for problems to arise relatively soon after a technician does a check. Although professionals know how to spot the many signs of a component that will imminently fail, some parts fail with little or no warning. This reality makes it sensible to prioritize better substation reliability through heat-vision applications and increased inspection frequency.

The diversity of possibilities within thermal imaging technology can also help power companies and electrical professionals deal with labor shortages and minimize occupational risks. In one example, a Midwestern power provider serving 10 states used a thermal-imaging-equipped drone for the early detection of a faulty switch component showing an elevated heat profile. The utility had previously only checked the switch component annually, but drones with thermal cameras allowed leaders to change to a more frequent inspection schedule. It only took the provider a day to address the problem, potentially saving hundreds of thousands of dollars with this proactive repair. Catching the problem early also eliminated downtime that would have caused substantial customer disruptions.

Infrared Viewing Windows Bring Better Substation Reliability

Even when technicians have years of real-world experience and formal training, they need easy access to and good visibility of substation equipment to check it. Otherwise, it’s much easier to miss a major problem.

A lack of visibility was a problem that emerged for the operators of a Florida power plant. They needed an 8,000-amp generator breaker checked, but sun exposure had degraded its viewing windows. Although those factory-installed components lost their transparency, they originally made inspections safer by allowing technicians to verify the breaker’s open or closed status before proceeding.

After familiarizing themselves with the market’s options, the power plant’s decision-makers approved replacing the now-useless original windows with infrared-viewing options. The spacious replacements were large enough to let technicians inspect multiple components through each window, whether using only their eyes, infrared-vision equipment, or other specialized tools. The chosen infrared windows come with a lifetime warranty, giving leaders peace of mind knowing these components can keep performing in harsh outdoor conditions.

Infrared inspection windows may seem like relatively minor components to upgrade when making asset-related improvements. However, they increase safety and facilitate substation monitoring by maintaining a constant physical barrier between technicians and the equipment they inspect. Then, a person has no unnecessary risk exposure caused by checking equipment that’s still performing as expected and needs no maintenance.

Additionally, infrared windows are more versatile than their name suggests. People can do visual, infrared, and ultrasound inspections through them. That flexibility is ideal whether power plant leaders already require all such checks or will start mandating them soon through a planned process change.

Two-Substation Trial Applies Mobile Robotics to Heat-Vision Testing

Drones are not the only ways to automate inspections. Some companies pursue better substation reliability by letting robots check substations with thermal cameras.

A trial involving two Connecticut substations is an excellent example—it will use a mobile robot to read analog gauges, record thermal images, and detect damaged equipment. On-board cameras can capture thermal images to compare the transformer and breaker phases, or zoom in 30 times to get a closer look at specific substation components. At one of the two substations, those involved will test the viability of having an on-site operator control the robot with a tablet. However, wholly remote operations may eventually be possible.

One person involved with this project said she believes the robots will support substation reliability by giving people more granularity over asset data. Since the robots will do their checks more frequently than technicians, people can see how equipment functionality changes due to loads, seasons, times of day, and more.

Additionally, people can use thermal imaging data taken from the robots to identify hidden problems or previously unknown trends. These capabilities will reduce the likelihood of outages while simultaneously building customer confidence.

Heat-Vision Assessments Enable Better Prioritization

Technicians do more than verify that problems exist. They must tell clients whether the identified issues are urgent enough to deal with immediately or whether they can wait a short while before addressing them. Such tiered assessments assist clients in appropriately allocating their resources and preventing outages.

Perhaps a substation technician used thermal inspection equipment to find a hot spot on a transmission switch’s blade. A closer investigation could indicate the component only requires cleaning due to corrosion between the blade and its fingers. Similarly, if substation monitoring reveals localized temperature rise of approximately 20F, this might indicate load increases or ambient temperature changes are to blame, rather than a more serious issue. Conversely, technicians typically classify temperature differentials of 150F as critical problems when observed between phases of the same load in one location.

Substation inspectors are in-demand individuals, and their clients want assurance that these professionals will quickly and competently find the matters that most require their attention. Substation monitoring equipment that relies on infrared-vision technology provides the visual indicators professionals need to determine an anomaly that deserves a closer look. Once a technician verifies what caused the unusualness, they can advise clients about how to deal with the issue and how promptly they must do so to avoid service interruptions.

Better Substation Reliability Is Possible

An emphasis on substation reliability can allow people to reduce unnecessary expenses caused by urgent matters noticed too late. Although infrared technology is not the only way to improve substation monitoring, it’s an increasingly popular option due to many compelling real-world applications.

Emily Newton is an industrial journalist who regularly covers stories for the utilities and energy sectors. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized.

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