Gathering Remote Data at a Water Treatment Plant

A water treatment plant reduced wiring costs for field instrumentation while improving operational readiness and reliability by using a strategy for distributed I/O.


Operational reliability is critical to the effectiveness of any water treatment facility. If automation systems and the processes they control are not dependable, the plant faces the risk of non-compliance with local, state or federal water quality guidelines.

At the Marcellus water treatment plant in upstate NY, The Onondaga County Water Authority (OCWA) undertook an ambitious project to update its processes and technology to meet new and proposed state health department and EPA regulations. This effort involved expansion of the facility from four to six filter beds, as well as the modernization of various mechanical systems and chemical processes. The plant also upgraded its overall control and instrumentation system in order to enhance automation performance, improve reliability, provide for simple and cost-effective expansion, and reduce operating and maintenance costs.

The Onondaga County Water Authority (OCWA) supplies water from Otisco Lake and Lake Ontario to more than 345,000 retail and wholesale customers via 91,000 metered connections throughout suburban Onondaga County and parts of Madison, Oneida, and Oswego counties.

A treatment plant owned and operated by OCWA, which treats water from Otisco Lake, supplies approximately half of the utility’s water. Located in Marcellus, the facility has undergone infrastructure improvements designed to enhance its overall performance. OCWA recently rehabilitated four existing filter units and added two new filters to improve the plant’s water quality, increase its reliability, and comply with state and federal regulations governing municipal drinking water plants.

Process description

OCWA has two intake pipes located in Otisco Lake. The water entering these pipes is immediately chlorinated to provide disinfection and discourage growth of zebra mussels. The water then travels, by gravity, approximately five miles to OCWA’s water treatment plant in Marcellus. (See Fig. 1.)

OCWA’s water treatment plant in the town of Marcellus, NY, has undergone infrastructure improvements designed to enhance its overall performance.Water first enters the rapid mix tank where a coagulant (polyaluminum chloride) and a taste and odor control chemical (powdered activated carbon) are added. After 30 seconds of mixing, the water enters the contact basins where calm conditions allow the coagulant to make small particles adhere together to form larger particles. Some of these particles settle and are cleaned out later. The contact time in the basins also allows the powdered activated carbon (used during times of high algae growth in the lake) to absorb organic taste and odor causing chemicals.

After approximately one hour of contact time, the water enters one of the six filters. Particles are removed as the water passes through beds of granular activated carbon and sand. The filters are washed periodically and the water used to do this is collected in lagoons and allowed to settle. It is then recycled back to the start of the treatment plant to be treated again.

After filtration, the water is once more disinfected with chlorine and fluoride is added. The water is stored in large tanks located at the treatment plant to provide adequate contact time for the chlorine to work. Once water leaves the tanks, orthophosphate is added to provide a coating for pipes in the distribution system to prevent leaching of lead and copper from the pipes.

Operational challenges

As part of the control system modernization, OCWA decided to upgrade its legacy Bristol-Babcock 3335 remote terminal units (RTUs) with Emerson’s ControlWave programmable automation controllers (PACs). Plant management sought to improve the performance of control room operators by transitioning from manual analog control to a fully automated SCADA system utilizing Ethernet and Modbus network communications. (See Fig. 3.)

The original analog control system at Otisco Lake Water Treatment PlantIn addition, OCWA wanted to reduce wiring and instrument maintenance costs at its water treatment facility. This would require eliminating multiple long cable runs between sensors, actuators, and controls, plus a solution for collecting multiple sensor/control pairs near their point of installation. Such an approach would do away with hundreds of previously installed twisted pairs, cable trays, complex wiring diagrams, and associated maintenance.

New technology

In October 2008, the Marcellus facility began the task of replacing outdated analog control equipment with the latest technology, and moving all process automation functions to an online SCADA system. The project called for replacing existing RTUs to provide a scalable platform suitable for a variety of small applications, as well as control strategies spanning the entire plant while gaining the ability to leverage modern digital signal transmission. (See Fig. 4.)

functions are now controlled through a PC/PLC-based control system.Key to the control system upgrade was implementation of distributed and remote I/O — specifically a solution employing isolated I/O modules to eliminate signal loop interference on the Ethernet control network. This would stop ground loops and signal aberrations at any location from affecting other measurements in the facility. Digital communications, in place of analog signals, also eliminates sensor and control signal degradation (and associated calibrations) and cross communication (noise) commonly associated with analog-only communications.

Various automation equipment suppliers now offer modular I/O systems that can be used as a relatively low-cost method of bringing field devices from the plant floor into a SCADA or control system using Ethernet. These systems can communicate with each other and other computers over standard Ethernet using off-the-shelf hubs, switches, and routers, and can be viewed from a wireless laptop, web browser, spreadsheet, or third-party HMI. (See Fig. 5.)

As part of the improvements, automated valves were installed and connected to the instrumentation network.After considering alternative vendor offerings, OCWA’s project team decided upon the NET Concentrator System (NCS) from Moore Industries. This smart I/O system takes advantage of cable-concentrating technology, which eliminates point-to-point cable, conduit, and wire trays by sending process monitoring and control signals between the field and control room on a single digital communication link. The system provides true signal isolation, with isolated modules for both analog and digital I/O. All discrete and analog signals are digitized, packetized, and carried via Ethernet using standard cables, LAN switches, and routine Ethernet hardware. (See Fig. 6.)

Moore Industries’ NET Concentrator System (NCS) provides a solution for distributed and remote I/O.The distributed and remote I/O system functions as a universal signal gateway that interfaces with OPC-compatible DCSs or PLCs, and works over 10/100Base-T Ethernet (Modbus/TCP) and Modbus RTU networks. The system includes a communications module plus multiple I/O modules. Each I/O module supports multiple analog or discrete channels that interface to remote sensors, switches, actuators and displays. Each analog input channel incorporates its own 20-bit A/D input. This guarantees that no resolution from the existing analog transmitters will be lost when the signal is transmitted via Ethernet to the host system.

At the Marcellus water treatment plant, the distributed and remote I/O communication module digitally communicates signals to a network concentrator in a peer-to-host network. The use of digital communication with error correction and high-speed Ethernet LAN cable assures signal integrity and minimizes signal degradation that could otherwise exist with traditional home-run analog signals.

Control architecture

For OCWA’s engineering and operations personnel, the peer-to-host distributed I/O system provides a reliable method of transferring monitoring and control signals to and from the PLC-based control system. In this configuration, five remote I/O stations are situated along the Ethernet network in different areas of the plant. Each station contains 10 to 15 I/O modules. For monitoring applications, the system collects signals from analog transmitters or discrete devices. It concentrates the signals and, when polled by the network master, sends them over the Ethernet network directly to the main PLC control panel. For control, process commands from the host are transmitted over the network and converted to analog or discrete form to control valves, pumps, motors, and other types of proportional and on/off control elements.

Once field device data is delivered to the computer-based host, SCADA software provides a user interface supporting data acquisition, alarm management, data logging and reporting, historical data collection and trending, and supervisory control functions. (See Fig. 7.)

In a peer-to-host system, multiple field concentrators network to handle signal inputs and outputs.A field concentrator makes it easy to connect both existing and new process control signals and sensors to the control strategy. Such an approach expands control schemes by concentrating I/O remotely—and significantly reduces wiring costs. The use of analog input modules with a built-in 24 V power supply per input eliminates the need to run wiring from the modules to another terminal or auxiliary 24 V power supply, thus helping to make remote control panels smaller.

With the distributed and remote I/O system, operators can now view I/O within the plant directly from a local HMI or wireless laptop. This allows the operator to monitor and make adjustments to the facility operations from anywhere in the plant. The I/O signals remain fully accessible, even in the event of a main control system failure. In addition, technician trips into the field are less frequent to troubleshoot flowmeters, pressure transmitters, valves and other devices.

Project results

The new PLC, SCADA, and distributed and remote I/O systems at the Marcellus plant have extended process automation and enabled operators to manage potential problems safely and swiftly. They have also helped to reduce hard-wiring costs and maintenance requirements. Most importantly, the new equipment has proven to be very reliable, which was one of OCWA’s criteria for technology investments.

Thanks to improved data acquisition and control capabilities, OCWA’s personnel are better equipped to handle issues that arise at the plant. Managers, operators, and technicians can view the water treatment processes from any one of the onsite HMIs or computers. What’s more, they can monitor and control the company’s water distribution operations without ever leaving the Marcellus site.

The ability to monitor filter beds and other processes closely with real-time field data has reduced operator reaction time and ultimately improved plant efficiency. It has also increased security and allowed for more accurate reporting of water quality.

From an engineering and maintenance perspective, the recent technology upgrades provided additional troubleshooting tools in a convenient package, which is independent from the control system. All I/O is visible though the plant’s Ethernet network—even in the event of a complete PLC shutdown.

OCWA can now maintain a consistent, high quality water treatment operation without unexpected downtime and costly repairs. And plant operators have gained the necessary means for real-time monitoring of plant processes to ensure the quality of water meets all applicable requirements.

Jim McConahay, P.E.,  is senior field applications engineer for Moore Industries. Geoffrey G. Miller, P.E., is executive engineer, Onondaga County Water Authority.

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