Quick Connection

An off-the-shelf appliance gives smaller water and wastewater utilities a cost-effective way to monitor pumping stations.
Quick Connection
The pump station appliance is designed for easy connection with no specialized knowledge beyond basic electrician skills.

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For years water and wastewater utilities have monitored scattered pumping stations with SCADA systems. But what about communities that have only one or a few pump stations and lack the resources to design, engineer and configure SCADA?

Typically, such utilities have had to monitor pump stations manually, sending a driver to visit each station periodically, inspect its function and record operating data from meters or gauges.

Now, GE Intelligent Platforms offers the Pump Station Appliance, which the company describes as a purpose-built control and monitoring solution that can be purchased online and configured and installed in a day by an in-house or contract electrician.

It’s designed as a cost-effective way for smaller utilities to automate station monitoring and operation. Alan Hinchman, infrastructure marketing director with GE Intelligent Platforms, talked about the offering in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

TPO: What was the thought process behind this offering?

Hinchman: GE Intelligent Platforms has been working in the water and wastewater market for a long time as a supplier of software, controllers and other devices. As we explored where the industry was going, we saw an opportunity for purpose-built monitoring devices that users could order online and easily install and configure. We came up with a few applications, and the first to launch was the Pump Station Appliance.

TPO: What is the basic benefit of this device?

Hinchman: If you look at how rural communities manage their wastewater lift stations, in some cases it’s with auto-dialers, and in others it’s having technicians drive around to each pump station, doing physical inspections, recording pump run times and start times and other information. With our device, all that data is collected electronically. So they save labor because they no longer have to go out and gather that information. The second thing the appliance does is notify you very rapidly when something is wrong — that a pump has failed, that you’re overflowing, or that you’re underflowing and may be at risk of burning up a pump.

TPO: How would you basically describe this appliance?

Hinchman: It’s based on our PACSystems RXi controller and RSTi Slice input/output unit. Customers can go to our website and learn about it, and they can actually order it from the website. We ship it to them in a box, just as you would a computer printer. The appliance has a white cabinet enclosure. It includes picture-based instructions that enable an electrician to install it without having any special capabilities. All the wiring and connections are color-coded. They mount it and run a single piece of conduit from our cabinet to an existing box or motor starter, and then they connect it to the physical components of the lift station.

TPO: After the appliance is installed, how does it acquire its ability to communicate information?

Hinchman: Once it is all put together, the unit powers up, and a built-in police-grade encryption modem ties to the Verizon network off a 3G VPN connection. It connects with our server, and through a subscription they can use a smartphone, iPad or Android device and complete the configuration by way of the Web. We ask just 20 simple questions. What type of level measurement are they using? We can support analog instruments like ultrasonic sensors or floats. How many pumps do they have? We can handle one to four. Do they have influent or effluent flowmeters? Who do they want the alarms emailed to? How long do they want a motor to try to start before it fails? Do they have safety alarms on the pumps like high vibration or high temperature? Once they answer these and the other questions, the Web page interface configures itself and they are ready to operate the device.

TPO: If they have multiple lift stations, do they need an appliance for each one?

Hinchman: Yes. If they buy a second, third or fourth unit, we just stack them up. The main page on the website goes to the street address of whichever pump station they choose.

TPO: Why is a device like this necessary? Don’t most communities have SCADA systems that would enable this kind of monitoring?

Hinchman: In looking at the marketplace, we found that rural communities with one to 10 pump stations and somewhere between 500 and 3,500 people, sometimes upward of 5,000 or 6,000 people — these make up the vast majority of lift station implementations, and very few have SCADA systems. Furthermore, very few have access within 50 miles to a SCADA systems integrator. And so this appliance makes for a very nice small rural water system solution. We believed that if we offered those utilities a solution that had no specialized IT requirements, that they could order in a very simple manner, without having to do engineering or design, they would be very interested. And that has been the case.

TPO: Does this device have applications in communities that do have SCADA?

Hinchman: For utilities that have SCADA, we offer a version that doesn’t include the radio or the subscription-based service. They get the same white cabinet and they can just tie it into their SCADA software. It gives them a factory-built unit where they can install their own radio.

TPO: For these smaller communities, how would you describe the advantages of this solution versus SCADA?

Hinchman: The key advantage is that they don’t have to stand up their own SCADA server. They avoid that computer, all the infrastructure around doing a master radio solution, and all the cost and management involved with a systems integrator. They’re moving away from programming to simple configuration. We designed the system around operators, who tend to be more mechanically rather than programming focused, and we provided everything in their language. Finally, because it’s pre-built, they know every one they order will be exactly the same, made in the USA, using common stock parts, all UL-approved and in a NEMA 4 enclosure. We believe it’s a cheaper, faster-deployment device than the traditional business model folks have been using.

TPO: Do buyers of this system need support from GE to complete the installation?

Hinchman: We spent a lot of time thinking about the customer experience, and we provide really simple instructions, down to pictures of how to install the unit. We provide a one-page document that walks them through all the installation instructions. There’s a small manual if somebody wants to go a little deeper into warranties and other information. A typical installation takes about seven hours. We can provide support through our regular call center, but that rarely has been needed.

TPO: Can a utility use this unit to actually operate a pump station remotely?

Hinchman: The online version does not allow for manual operation. It simply cycles the pumps according to the configuration. The version built for SCADA does allow manual operation from the SCADA interface.

TPO: What is the ideal size of installation for this appliance?

Hinchman: The unit is priced at $8,995, and the annual subscription cost is $600. There are some quantity discounts, but as you get up to 10 or 12 units, it becomes pretty cost-prohibitive. The sweet spot is where a community needs just one or two units.

TPO: How can prospective users learn more about the Pump Station Appliance?

Hinchman: They can go to www.ge-ip.com/pumpstation. There they can read about the unit and view a demonstration that connects to an appliance that is actually running in a small community in Wisconsin. That will give them a feel for how it works.


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