Central Lincoln PUD Integrates Communications Network
By Teresa Hansen, Managing Editor
In today`s utility environment it is not unusual for electric utilities, as well as some gas and water utilities, to have internal communications networks that rival telecommunications companies` networks. These networks usually carry both data and voice signals, allowing utilities to operate in the most efficient manner possible. Keeping these networks up and running is extremely important. If a communications network fails, SCADA systems, energy management systems, customer information systems and various other systems can be affected, ultimately affecting customer service.
It is important for utilities to be able to identify problems internally and correct them before customers notice the problems. Utilities are learning that by monitoring and managing their internal communications systems, they can not only respond to problems more quickly, but can also spot potential problems before they surface. Central Lincoln People`s Utility District (PUD), Newport, Ore., is one utility that has been able to do just that by integrating its communications networks into one monitoring and management system.
Operating in Harsh Environments
Although Central Lincoln PUD is not a large utility–27,000 residences and 4,000 businesses along 120 miles of the central Oregon coast–maintaining and managing its communications network is not an easy task. Like most utilities, its communications network is a mix of technologies. The network backbone consists of fiber-optic and microwave systems carrying both analog and digital signals. Central Lincoln PUD`s communications services include microwave radios, multiplexers and environmental equipment.
Besides managing a myriad of equipment and technologies, Central Lincoln PUD often finds itself battling Mother Nature`s fury, making network management even more difficult. The weather along Oregon`s coast can be brutal. Hurricane force winds, torrential rains, ice storms and heavy snow are not uncommon in Central Lincoln PUD`s service territory. Knowing the status of its communications equipment and keeping that equipment intact during inclement weather is a challenge. Since all customer service calls outside of regular hours are routed directly to the utility`s main office in Newport, it is extremely important to keep the communications network operating reliably, especially in conditions that commonly cause power outages.
According to Ron Beck, Central Lincoln PUD`s network engineering specialist, it is because of the utility`s varied weather conditions that it was selected three years ago to beta test a digital microwave communications system developed by Harris Farinon and Lucent Technologies. At that time, the utility was in the process of building fiber-optic networks to all its substations to ensure it had a reliable link to them. Central Lincoln PUD felt the only way to ensure reliability, especially during bad weather, was to build, own and operate the communications network.
The utility had already installed a fairly extensive fiber-optic communications network and plans had been made to extend the network when Harris and Lucent offered the utility an alternative. Central Lincoln PUD agreed to try the digital microwave technology, which was compatible with the utility`s existing fiber-optic communications equipment.
“Along with the Harris Farinon digital microwave system, came the retooling of the way we had to work and think,” Beck said. “We had a small communications department made up of technicians with varied backgrounds. We had technicians who were experts on RF or analog microwave, but no one had digital microwave expertise, especially SONET digital microwave.” The lack of expertise in digital microwave technology made simplifying network management a high priority for the utility.
Integrating Network Operation
Along with the digital microwave system, Central Lincoln PUD purchased a network management system called HNM (Harris Network Management), to help them manage and monitor the new microwave network. Beck said the management system was initially seen as just another monitoring console that would set alongside the utility`s other monitoring devices. However, he said they soon discovered that it was possible to integrate some of the other monitoring systems into HNM. “Before long we were able to get rid of some of our monitoring systems and consoles, plus add some systems that we had not been able to monitor before,” Beck said.
In the past, some equipment in the utility`s network was not considered significant enough to warrant the expense of system management, but HNM allowed some of these less significant components to be added without making additional investments.
The ability to monitor and control most network functions from one console is viewed as one of the biggest advantages of the network management system. “The communications technicians can reset alarms and switches, and reconfigure the network from one console,” Beck said. Integrating network monitoring and management into one system has made it easier for the technicians to transition to the digital microwave network.
As Beck pointed out, before the implementation of the HNM, each communications network had its own management system and console. As new networks and equipment were added, new systems were added to the control room. The operators and technicians had to learn and understand the various technologies and the various monitoring systems that went with them. According to John Koenig, Harris Telecommunication Systems and Services` network management systems business area manager, this is not unusual in utilities. “Usually when people are building networks, they build in some kind of management feature. However, as these networks are expanded–switches, SONET rings and such are added–the management requirements change drastically and utilities are forced to have IT staff that understand several different types of technology, adding a financial burden.” Since most network management functions are now performed through HNM, Central Lincoln PUD`s technicians no longer need to memorize an array of codes and commands to monitor network conditions. They only have to understand one system`s configuration.
The system is a UNIX-based application that uses graphical user interface (GUI) technology. HNM looks very much like a Microsoft Windows application. The utility can set up the graphics to look any way it wants. The GUI feature makes it easy for operators and technicians to see and understand what is going on with the system, Koenig said. The system allows quick analyses and responses to network problems. It can be programmed to automatically respond to alert messages generated by network devices. In addition, reported problems can be entered into a trouble-tracking system, and problem history records can be stored.
Central Lincoln PUD`s system serves as a management tool for the communications network backbone and expands with the network. The utility currently houses the main HNM console at the headquarters located in Newport. It also has fixed X terminals seven miles from the headquarters in the communications shop. These workstations have the same functionality as the main console. In addition, Beck has a PC in his office that can be used for network monitoring, managing and reconfiguring. Beck said that the network management system even runs on laptops, so technicians can monitor and control the network outside the office.
Both Beck and Koenig consider the management system to be a tool for integrating different communications networks into one system. “HNM is a tool, not a total solution,” Beck said. “It allows us to extend our monitoring capabilities as communications equipment and systems come on-line.”
Beck said the utility is currently designing a more modern facilities management/SCADA system and HNM will function as a “submaster” to the new system. Beck is convinced that the network management system can be extended to include any communications devices or networks that the utility may add.
Central Lincoln PUD`s service territory covers 120 miles of scenic Oregon coast; however, the breathtaking scenery can be deceiving. The utility often deals with inclement weather conditions.
Central Lincoln PUD`s communications technicians can now monitor and control most network functions from one console.