An Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) revolution is happening across essential power systems, and it’s helping make the challenges of maintenance walk-throughs a problem of the past. With more data and predictive diagnostics readily available from electrical equipment, maintenance can be scheduled based on real-time data that arms personnel with the information they need to fix problems before they result in an outage.

This data-fueled transformation is critical, because how likely is it that maintenance personnel will schedule an electrical system walk-through for the exact moment a potential equipment issue arises? What’s the likelihood that they even have the knowledge and tools to address the problem immediately? The chances for both scenarios are slim. Plus, close proximity to electrical equipment is the last place maintenance personnel want to be if there is a problem.

1. Without major changes to existing management platforms and processes, maintenance teams can use Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies to predict and prevent problems. Courtesy: Eaton

Maintenance and inspection walk-throughs cannot be eliminated, but the advent of IIoT (Figure 1) can reduce peoples’ proximity to, and time near, energized electrical power equipment. While specific inspection and maintenance requirements vary according to site, these exams may need to be conducted monthly or even weekly. An operator can now be more prepared for each walk-through and could choose to do fewer in person, or shorten the duration that personnel need to be in front of electrical equipment.

What does the digital evolution of switchgear look like? Data-driven technologies are rapidly changing the way the world works. And the more connected devices flourish, the more cybersecurity matters. Cybersecurity is essential to create trusted environments, providing confidence that connected devices operate securely throughout their lifecycle.

It is essential that suppliers embed security throughout the entire product development process. Strict procedures and cybersecurity protocols need to be integrated at every phase of product development that involves people, processes, and technologies.

Overcurrent Protection Becomes Intelligent

The fundamental function of circuit breakers has evolved to provide more than personnel and equipment protection; this foundational electrical component is also able to deliver data and analytics through embedded metering. Overcurrent protection for switchgear has moved from thermal magnetic circuit breakers to circuit breakers with microprocessor-based electronic trip units that enable communications, metering, monitoring, and control.

Modern circuit breakers are also able to trend information rather than just providing raw data that needs to be interpreted. In the event of a fault, circuit breakers can provide visibility into where and why a fault occurred, making it easier and faster to restore power.

The move from manual to remote operation of circuit breakers means people no longer need to stand in front of equipment (inside the arc flash boundary) in order to operate it. Years ago, maintenance personnel would need to manually push a button and pump charging handles to operate a circuit breaker. Now, maintenance personnel can remotely monitor and operate equipment over the intranet or internet.

Digital meters and protective relays today collect more data and make it easily accessible, and with far more accessible and in-depth data, there’s a virtual breakthrough—the ability to gather critical data and manipulate equipment setpoints to facilitate switchgear maintenance. Intelligence also provides the ability to monitor harmonics, runtime, circuit breaker operations, under- and overvoltage, overcurrent, and short-circuit events. This means situational awareness can be achieved from anywhere.

There was once a time when getting data from a meter or relay required standing in front of the equipment, and logging current and voltage readings. Communication protocols were later developed that allowed meters to transmit data through various networks. However, the protocols were proprietary, and it could be difficult to get equipment to communicate, resulting in data that was often left stranded.

Thanks to today’s manufacturer-agnostic platforms and improved data aggregation software, digital meters and relays can log historical data and enable remote access to troves of essential and easily usable data. It is now far easier to bring previously stranded devices into monitoring systems.

Remote HMIs Provide Dashboard Information

Human-machine interfaces (HMIs) have been used for years to operate equipment. The challenge has been in getting HMIs configured and commissioned in order to communicate with power system equipment. Now, there is little need to custom-engineer HMIs. Instead, interoperability and standardization right out of the box make it fast and easy to connect, monitor, and control power system equipment. Dashboards (Figure 2) can be easily created on modern HMIs through intuitive menu-driven and drag-and-drop interfaces to show the desired information, and can be updated as devices in the switchgear are added or removed.

2. Eaton’s Power Xpert Dashboard was the first power management product certified to the UL 2900-2-2 standard for cybersecurity in industrial control systems. The user portal to Eaton’s switchgear enables customers to monitor, diagnose, and control devices from outside the arc flash boundary. Courtesy: Eaton

HMIs also provide richer data in a dashboard view that can be accessed via the cloud, and far away from the equipment. The information coming from components and electrical equipment can be trended and analyzed so that problems are more easily identified and fixed before they lead to unplanned outages. Additionally, with richer data from equipment, HMIs are able to deliver on predictive diagnostics and make it available to maintenance teams on the ground, and operations and management teams many miles away.

Operating Equipment Via HMI Advances Safety

Intelligence is increasingly coming from the device level, such as the circuit breaker. Arc flash reduction maintenance systems have helped provide extra protection during maintenance by temporarily overriding programmed delays in the circuit breaker.

3. A dashboard view, such as that provided by Eaton’s Power Xpert technology, can provide a reminder of needed personal protective equipment in real time. Courtesy: Eaton

These systems now can be enabled via an HMI dashboard. Further, the dashboard can provide personal protective equipment (PPE) recommendations based on enabled arc flash reduction maintenance systems. This means that personnel can be farther from equipment to activate safety systems. In addition, the equipment (Figure 3) can provide a reminder on the needed PPE in real time.

Sensors enable monitoring, data-gathering, and trending, which supports safety, uptime, and maintenance operations. Years ago, when there was a power outage, maintenance personnel would have to guess at the cause. Now, there’s an opportunity to prevent the outage altogether by analyzing trends in the data.

Continuous Thermal Monitoring Streaming Data

Utilities concerned about loose electrical connections and related failures can use historical data to perform predictive diagnostics, without sending personnel to the equipment. When switchgear is installed, cables are run from the circuit breaker to the load. The cables are bolted to the back of the circuit breaker and could potentially loosen over time.

With the advent of infrared (IR) windows, maintenance personnel could avoid exposure to energized conductors, but were still potentially inside the arc flash boundary. Now, intelligent equipment can communicate information and trend data captured by temperature sensors, so maintenance personnel can predict an impending failure. The sensors enhance safety through remote monitoring, and save time by avoiding the need for regular IR scanning.

Intelligent electronic trip units make periodic preventative maintenance on circuit breakers a thing of the past. Maintenance personnel tasked with preventative maintenance on circuit breakers used to take the equipment apart, inspect it, and reassemble it. Intelligent trip units give far more information on circuit breakers than taking the equipment apart could ever yield.

Today, electronic trip units can monitor the number of operations, fault current, internal temperature, runtime, and the total health profile of the circuit breaker to provide real-time data on all these parameters and ultimately an estimate of when the circuit breaker will need to be serviced or replaced. With the ability to communicate information to a network, new actionable analytics about the circuit breaker and what’s happening across the electrical system in real time and over time is possible. As with continuous thermal monitoring, intelligent trip units can reduce labor costs by eliminating unnecessary preventative maintenance actions.

Here are seven benefits of IIoT in power distribution:

■ Keeps personnel informed with critical data through integration into existing supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and distributed control systems (DCS), or via equipment dashboards, enabling access to switchgear from anywhere.

■ Provides improved notification capabilities and enables personnel to address issues remotely, such as from a tablet, which means personnel can be farther from equipment and outside the arc flash boundary.

■ Helps spot energy usage anomalies and enable personnel to adjust equipment.

■ Further enables the shift from preventative to predictive maintenance with more data and built-in intelligence at the device level that can be shown on power distribution dashboards.

■ Enhances safety and reduces cost by avoiding unnecessary, calendar-based maintenance of all circuit breakers that could expose maintenance staff to shock and arc flash hazards.

■ Provides the detailed forensic data to determine the root cause of power problems, which reduces walk-through time and electrical exposure when adjusting and repairing power distribution equipment.

■ Delivers long-term power and energy usage information needed to make smart capital investment decisions. IIoT is an enabler to presenting data to cloud and edge storage systems.

Utility switchgear systems are designed to have a service life of decades with proper maintenance. As power systems are upgraded, expanded, or otherwise maintained, there is an opportunity to make targeted upgrades for more intelligent and IIoT-enabled systems.

The vast amount of information transmitted from IIoT-enabled equipment can make it intimidating to integrate new data into existing systems. However, with dashboard views, automatic reports via email or text, and insights coming directly from power system components, maintenance teams can still reap the benefits of IIoT-enabled equipment without making major changes to existing management platforms and processes.

Enabling a virtual maintenance walk-through of switchgear improves safety and productivity while reducing costs and labor. For utilities where maximum uptime is required, and an outage can have far-reaching consequences, the ability to remotely predict and prevent problems can result in a more stable operation and more satisfied customers.

Adams Baker is product manager for low-voltage switchgear at Eaton.