Part of my job at SageNet is to target the oil industry for wide-area network connectivity. I have done a LOT of WAN design, installation, and troubleshooting over the years. But until recently I had never heard of the need for explosion-proof routers.
Like most businesses, technology has changed the oil industry dramatically. And the pace of change continues to accelerate. Part of that change has been driven by the need to lower exploration and production costs. When oil was $80 per barrel, an oil company could make money when their cost to find and produce oil was around $50 per barrel. But when oil regularly sells for $50 per barrel, companies cannot survive when their costs are so high. Countries like Saudia Arabia, where it costs around $8 per barrel to find and produce oil, get buy just fine at $50 per barrel price. But US-based companies have to find ways to lower their costs to compete.
One way to do that is via automation. Monitoring and maintaining oil wells used to require a “pumper” to drive a circuit, check gauges and tank levels, adjust valves, lubricate equipment, and basically babysit oil wells. This is very labor-intensive and prone to error.
The technology of SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) has changed not only factory floors and industrial processes, but it is also quickly changing the world of oil production. SCADA allows a company to monitor and control devices such as valves, pumps, and motors electronically using smart devices. Valve actuators can be connected to tiny embedded computer controllers that report the valve position as well as control valve operation. These smart actuators can measure tolerances so closely, that they can predict when a valve seat is going bad, allowing for proactive maintenance.
These SCADA devices are quickly being deployed at wells across the US. Devices such as temperature sensors, noxious gas detectors, video cameras, flow meters, fluid level detectors, as well as smart valves, are being installed as fast as trained technicians can be found to install them.
Of course, all these devices have to be connected to a control center. This can be at a companies headquarters, or increasingly, in “the cloud”. Data gathered from these sensors can amount to terabytes of data per day. Companies are using advanced computer analytics to analyze the data to make business decisions that help improve well productivity and profitability.
Unlike a factory floor or urban environment, connectivity to these oil wells can often be challenging. Many are in remote areas with poor connectivity infrastructure. SageNet has traditionally connected many of these sites via our satellite services, but satellite is expensive. Increasingly we are seeing well sites connected via the growing cellular network, especially in places like Oklahoma where infrastructure has matured enough so that most sites have decent connectivity options.
Cellular Modems and Routers
As I was designing a cellular network for several well sites in central Oklahoma, I was told that all routers or cellular modems had to be “explosion-proof”. When I first heard the term, I thought the reason is so that the equipment could survive an oil well explosion.
No, dummy. Nobody is worried about a $1,000 router or modem when a multi-million dollar well explodes.
“Explosion-proof” means they don’t want the modem or router to CAUSE an explosion and ruin millions of dollars of work at a well site, not to mention the danger to the workers involved.
Of course! I never thought of it that way. Electronic devices generate heat, and though rare, can even generate a spark. Electronic devices near an oil well must be sealed so that if they do spark, that spark is contained inside a sealed unit and won’t cause the entire oil well to explode into a ball of fire. Good plan!
During my research, I found out that there are several classifications for industrial equipment. Our solution had to include a Class 1 Div2 explosion-proof device. This classification means that explosive gasses are only present occasionally at the site – less than 10 hours per year on average. Luckily, several of our SageNet engineers were quite familiar with this requirement and had worked with several products that were rated as Class 1 Div2 devices.
In this particular solution, we also needed a low-power device, since many of these well sites will only have solar power available. The solar power system had to run a variety of equipment, so the lower the power requirement, the better the solution was for the customer.
Sierra Wireless RV50x cellular modem
In the end, we settled on a Sierra Wireless RV50x cellular modem. This low-power C1D2 device only uses .8 watts of power at idle, and offers IPSEC encryption, connection to a cellular APN or public network, and management via Sierra Wireless’ Airlink Management System, making management of these modems quite simple.