Inductive Automation
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News / April 16, 2009

Interview: Henry Palechek from Helix Water District

For this month's interview, Don Pearson of Inductive Automation caught up with Henry Palechek, the Information and Process Control Supervisor for the Helix Water District in San Diego, California. Henry is currently in the process of piloting Inductive Automation's Web-Based SCADA to replace his legacy system which has become obsolete. The following is a transcript of the interview, which you can listen to below:

Don (I.A.): Henry, can you give me some sense of what's the biggest challenge that you face with your job right now?

Henry (Helix): There are a couple of challenges that we face. One is the end of the life on Windows XP which has created a significant problem for water utilities that have legacy SCADA systems. A lot of the older SCADA systems simply can't be made to run on Vista. That then forces you into an upgrade or looking at what you're going to do for your future SCADA solutions.

Don: When you look at that, what challenge does that offer to somebody, I think offer is the wrong word, what does it present somebody with in terms of the economics they should be looking at?

Henry: I think water utilities can no longer look at economic issues the way they have in the past. There are definite pressures, economically, on the districts to do a better job in a more cost effective fashion so water utilities will no longer be able to drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on replacement SCADA systems every 10 years just because a system has been in service for while.

Don: When you look at that, obviously one of the goals regarding Inductive Automation's software was to create an end-user friendly licensing model with a server based licensing model consisting of unlimited tags and unlimited clients. Do you find that valuable in the short term economics and for expanding as you develop your own 3 and 5 year plans?

Henry: The number of tags licensing issue did come into play for our district. We have an ozone system that was a stand alone product and when we went to merge that ozone system with our main plant SCADA system, our existing licensing did not have a high enough IO count and the vendor no longer offered a higher IO count -- that was the next step up and so we had to purchase a significantly more expensive license addressing that feature. In our treatment plant as a whole we have 16 SCADA terminals where operators can enter new set points and acknowledge alarms as they move through the facility and when you're looking at a classical SCADA system you're looking at $4 or 5,000 per computer to license it so to eliminate the licensing requirements on the client is very attractive. Another way that it's attractive is in using Internet Explorer as your client software. This makes the system easier to administer since I don't have to install various versions of the SCADA software and patches to try to make the system work. I simply use Internet Explorer that comes with the PC.

Don: What does that mean in terms of time? How long does it take if you to launch a new client? Compare maybe system A and system B to launch your new client.

Henry: Previously, it typically took me half a day to set up my classic SCADA system because I'd have to get the disks and then the update patch on the disks and then I would have several disks that I'd have to load and install the operating systems. I was able to shorten that by moving some of the CD copies to a network storage drive and run them through the network storage drive. But it still took a few hours to set up a brand new PC where it could run the SCADA system. Now, since Internet Explorer and Java are pre-installed once the computer is bootable then you're pretty much set.

Don: So it's minutes not hours?

Henry: Right. In addition it adds a level of higher availability and if I have a computer system crash, I no longer have to spend 4 hours re-building a SCADA box. I can grab an office machine and with a couple of configuration changes on its IP address move it to my SCADA network and I'm good to go.

Don: How has Inductive Automation software assisted you with California's reporting requirements?

Henry: Our water district takes and logs the requirements for the Surface Water Treatment Rule. Things like the chlorine and turbidity go into the database and then that helps generate our monthly report. In addition we have a large distribution area. We cover a 50 square mile area, 50 sites and from our tank and pump stations we load tank level suction pressure and flow rates. That is also logged in the SQL database and our distribution manager is able to use Excel to pull up a very nice summary of reports because the ability to run a report in Excel against an SQL database is very easy.

Don: What's the learning curve to get to the point where there's some benefit to be had from Inductive Automation in terms of ease of use. Maybe we'll break that into two pieces basically saying the learning curve for Factory SQL versus Factory PMI.

Henry: Mostly, it was really was double click drag and drop for the historical data logging. Boom done. FactoryPMI being object driven is different.

Don: How did you make the decision to go with Inductive Automation software because you're running a good size district, you've got a plan to go forward, what lead into the decision and how to evaluate it?

Henry: Well we needed to store the data reliably in our SQL database. Our SCADA package did not originally have an embedded database when we purchased it back in the mid-nineties. So we were setting up a Microsoft SQL database and had the SCADA software do a SQL DB insert. Over the course of time that proved to be a little less reliable than we wanted. So we went to a new solution of using an OPC-to-SQL logging software similar to Factory SQL. The OPC to SQL logging software we purchased was stable but somewhat cumbersome to use in that it could take dozens of mouse strokes to add even one signal. And if you made a typo or tried to correct or change a signal name it would often crash the system when you were doing the change. That is when we looked for a system that would be a little bit easier to administer. I downloaded evaluation copies of all of the popular OPC-to-SQL logging software and found that the Factory SQL product installed fairly easily and I was able to set the logging up in another 15 or 20 minutes. It's really plug and play.

Don: You previously mentioned how the Helix Water District has gone through various technology changes and that there are different price points of those technology changes. How would you compare that evolution in terms of price points for functionality?

Henry: Our first SCADA system was a VAX EMS system which used proprietary software. It was hard to use and cost somewhere around $1.2 million. In the mid-nineties we changed that over to a Windows based SCADA system where we replaced the central software and the hardware in the distribution system and that cost somewhere around $350,000. Now we are at with the end of life on XP Service Pack 2. If we do a classical SCADA system I will need to budget somewhere between $75 - 100,000 just to replace the software. So the Inductive Automation product looks fairly attractive from that stand point. I think most of the SCADA providers that have development software for building the screens charge somewhere around $11 or 12,000 for that and I can purchase a redundant product from Inductive Automation for less money than that. So I think it's something that a lot of utilities should look into.

Don: Can you maybe make a short comment on regulations, economics, and new ways of doing business?

Henry: In the water treatment arena the laws are getting more stringent as time goes by and so we need better reporting tools and better ways of looking at our processes and how they are performed. Unfortunately classic SCADA systems tend to be weak in their reporting capabilities so the ability to have plant process data and distribution data stored in a SQL database where a manager can query it and generate a report is very useful.

Don: There are a lot of pressures on municipal governments and water districts as revenues to run government are going down. What do you see on the horizon in terms of the water districts options?

Henry: There are a variety of challenges that the water districts are facing from an economic standpoint. We're seeing the cost of raw water and treatment costs beginning to rise and increases in chemical costs, increase in the cost of energy to run our distribution systems and a lot of water utilities have older distribution systems that have cast iron pipe which is fairly expensive to replace. This has affected what we do at the treatment plant in that some of our longer term capitol projects have had to be scaled back so that there was funding available to do the cast iron replacement. And that's why looking at a SCADA package that has some price and some technological benefits is something that I think is prudent for a lot of utilities.

Don: Final question. Managers need better ways of doing business now. Can you comment on the challenge of doing business in better ways and how a product like Inductive Automation software could be of value to a water district?

Henry: Our department head likes end of month reports on how various parts of the treatment plant distribution system are working. One of the duties of logging data to the SQL database and using the reporting tool is that they allow us to create end of month reports and to get a summary. So at our treatment plant we summarize the cost of chemicals for the month, the cost of energy in terms of dollars per acre foot to treat it and dollars per acre foot to pump it. Giving our managers this type of information helps them execute their long term strategic plan.

Don: Thank you very much.