Big data from Cathodic Protection and Pipeline Integrity remote monitoring empowers operations to enhance system performance, protect pipeline engineers, and reduce OpEx requirements.

Oil and gas pipelines form a vast underground network that criss-crosses the continent to support the transportation of energy resources from extraction sites to refineries to consumers. But getting these products from the well to the consumer means that pipelines must cross great distances, often through remote terrain that can be dangerous to access and challenging to monitor.

Pipeline operators are responsible for monitoring the condition of their assets and the performance of the cathodic protection (CP) systems that help prevent corrosion. This means that CP performance data must be collected from every mile of the network—whether in an urban, rural or remote location. With such extensive assets stretching across expansive areas, efficiency, experience and safety are paramount to ensure successful monitoring of pipeline assets. The resources and programs that operators maintain in order to ensure the safety of their crews in the field, as well as provide the tools they need perform the required tasks, are a significant percentage of their OpEx budget. As a result, operators are constantly looking for new methods and technologies that allow them to optimize their processes and effectively eliminate risk.

Hazards come with the territory

Corrosion technicians bear the brunt of this task, regularly visiting CP rectifiers and test stations to perform inspections, maintenance and to gather measurement data. Some components, such as CP rectifiers and test stations, may be subject to regulatory requirements that call for readings to be taken as often as every two months. To ensure compliance, technicians undertake significant travel to inspect CP systems along pipeline networks that may span thousands of kilometres. Depending on where the pipeline assets are located and what type of access is available, technicians may travel extensively by truck, ATV/XTV, helicopter and on foot to reach them.

Whether working alone or with a colleague, corrosion technicians can face many risks as they travel and while at a site performing their tasks including:

  • Vehicle accidents: Traffic, fatigue, bad weather and rough terrain are just a few of the factors that contribute to increased risks of injury to employees when traveling to a site. Once there, technicians may be working alongside roadways, increasing the possibility of injury from passing vehicles. Protecting workers in these instances may require traffic control, which can increase project costs.
  • Falls and Man-down Scenarios: Technicians can spend a significant amount of time on their feet, exposing them to trip and fall hazards in rural and urban landscapes. Working with electrical equipment always presents the possibility of shock that can result in unconsciousness and in extreme cases even death. Portable lone worker monitoring programs can help mitigate the risk but have challenges in extremely remote locations and generally have high costs
  • Nearby equipment and major infrastructure: Since pipelines inevitably traverse developed areas, corrosion technicians will find themselves working around other equipment and infrastructure, such as electric power lines and major AC corridors that expose workers to very serious hazards.
  • Working in remote locations: Not only are remote locations often difficult to access and suffer from poor communication but technicians may also face severe weather, difficult terrain, property access challenges, and more. Serious dangers also exist from wildlife such as poisonous snakes, black recluse spiders, cougars and bears which are constantly present in these locations – specialized equipment and training are part of these high-risk operations
  • Hydrogen sulfide gas: This heavier-than-air gas can be accidentally released during routine work and collects in low lying areas. It is flammable and highly toxic with effects that range from eye irritation to unconsciousness and death. Effective portable gas detection and lone worker monitoring programs are an ongoing challenge, as well as the high cost associated with their maintenance.
  • COVID-19: As essential workers, technicians that are traveling will require access restaurants, hotels, filling stations and other services that increase their risk of exposure to the COVID virus.

These risks are well known to oil and gas companies and they invest significantly to provide corrosion technicians with the training, equipment and policies needed to help keep them safe wherever they may be working. Though industry statistics show a general decline in job-related injuries, the risks are still present, and workers must remain vigilant to ensure their safety in the field.

Weighing the risk against the data

Another important consideration is that risks associated with manual collection of CP measurement data could be considered too high when weighed against the amount of data that is actually collected. For example, CP rectifiers may require one instantaneous measurement every two months, an effort that produces only six data points per year for each unit.

While those six data points do reflect the level of protection at the time the measurement was taken, they cannot show if, and when, a rectifier experiences failure. Nor would they provide visibility into the duration and frequency of short-lived variations in the CP level that could be caused by intermittent power outages, interference from overhead power lines, destructive lightning strikes and other factors.

Phone with CorTalk mobile phone application accessing data in a rectifier with RMU3 for reading CP system

CorTalk RMU3 Remote Monitor with optional Bluetooth communication, connected to smart device and MOBILTEX Configuration App.

Any significant changes of state are very important to operators, and not only at rectifiers. This could also apply to other components that are integrated with the CP system and require monitoring, such as at test station locations along pipelines, critical bonds and on storage tanks. The variations in CP performance levels from a wide range of external factors such as AC and DC interference, soil resistivity and pH level changes, geohazard events, and damage from human interactions or lightning strikes can have a profound impact on the asset, leaving it unprotected for long periods of time or even accelerating corrosion and causing premature failures.

Without an abundant supply of CP performance data, technicians are quite limited in their ability to identify potential threats to the pipeline assets and respond appropriately. Unfortunately, this means that clues that might indicate abnormal or dangerous pipe wall thinning might go unnoticed for an extended period of time and increase the potential for failures.

One option to cope with these situations is to assign more corrosion technicians to perform CP measurements. This approach would increase the amount of data collected, but also means greater risk to workers because of increased travel and exposure to hazards, as well as significantly higher operating costs for the company. While having a goal to obtain increased levels of data through manual collection would definitely enhance the efficiency of the asset integrity program in many ways, it would also reduce the time and attention that technicians can allocate to data analysis and overall system optimization, as well as inherently creating an increased exposure to risks.

IIoT technology can significantly reduce exposure to risks, lower OpEx, and improve performance

Next-generation remote CP monitoring technology can now be efficiently and cost-effectively deployed across an entire pipeline network to automate data collection quickly and easily for hundreds or even thousands of rectifiers as well as at test station locations. This technology enables oil and gas pipeline operators to affordably add new IIoT capabilities that can measure system performance as frequently as every few hours—dramatically increasing the amount of data collected without exposing workers to the risks of extensive travel and the hazards found in busy urban areas or remote locations.

Split image of INT1 device being used in CP test stationRemote monitoring units (RMUs) are designed to be permanently installed and can be configured to transmit data via cellular networks with some solutions providing multiple satellite backhauls as well, enabling them to send measurements even from the farthest reaches of a pipeline network. Once activated, bimonthly trips to obtain CP measurements can be reduced or eliminated entirely. Instead, scheduled travel for technicians may be far less frequent and only include such tasks as performing regulatory close interval surveys, or to carry out maintenance and repair on pipeline assets. Remote monitoring can also alleviate the need for manual level of protection surveys if outfitted on all test stations on a line as these are typically performed at test stations, not rectifiers.

Some RMUs further increase their value with built-in, GPS-synchronized remote interruption capability, which means technicians will no longer need to install temporary interruption devices for annual surveys.

Test stations are also benefitting from the continuing evolution of RMU technology. Long-life batteries along with new satellite and cellular communications are providing the means to equip virtually any test station with remote monitoring and interruption capabilities. Prudent operators should carefully assess these devices and select those that are manufactured with robust components that can withstand extreme weather, temperatures and lighting.

Data drives efficiency

The data gathered by remote CP monitoring opens many new opportunities for oil and gas companies to understand and operate pipeline assets. With this technology, the data that is available to assess the system and make management decisions increases exponentially — escalating from only half a dozen data points per year per rectifier to hundreds or even thousands of data points for each system over the same time period.

As remote monitoring devices collect the CP data, it can be transmitted in near real time and stored in a cloud-based data platform. These platforms can provide powerful data management capabilities such as automatic analysis of the data to ensure it is within set operating parameters. If the measurements are sub-optimal, or were not received at all, the system can immediately notify a technician of the problem.

With reduced requirements for manual data collection, corrosion technicians can focus more on proactive maintenance and optimization of the pipeline network. The new industry norm has evolved towards leveraging a cloud-based data platform from virtually any location to examine measurements, reports and trending graphs of CP data, as well as data aggregation with other non-CP data sets towards making better decisions. For example, comparison of survey data against additional real-time operating parameters captured from a wide range of localized sensors, which are leveraging this existing IIoT technology, is becoming common practice.

These tools, along with a richer data set can enable technicians to identify existing and potential issues at rectifiers, bonds or coupons, recognize short-lived events that may impact system performance such as bonding issues or AC corrosion, closely monitor areas of concern, prioritize repairs, and more.

In general, the robust data generated by remote CP monitoring can help technicians react more quickly to existing CP problems and ensure the highest level of protection for pipeline assets.

Reliability underpins safety and automation

The benefits that remote CP monitoring provides for worker safety and automated data collection are tied very closely to the reliability of the devices. When selecting remote CP monitoring equipment, whether for rectifiers or test stations, pipeline operators should carefully consider the safeguards built into the device, the testing that was done to validate performance claims, manufacturer data that shows validated mean time between failures (MTBF), and anecdotal operating experience from colleagues and industry peers.

Some pipeline operators report experiencing an unacceptable number of failures with the remote CP monitoring devices that they installed. Understandably these experiences are frustrating because each time a device fails, a corrosion technician must be reassigned to travel to the site, repair the device, and possibly even take a manual measurement.

Consider the following parameters when selecting remote CP monitoring devices to improve reliability: a broad operating temperature range; lightning, surge and overvoltage protection; a weatherproof enclosure; autonomous power performance; and proprietary battery designs vs devices that use commercially available options that simplify maintenance and lower costs.

Another important consideration is a device’s ability to adapt to new communication platforms. North America is currently experiencing the sunset of 2G and 3G cellular platforms as well as the Inmarsat IsatM2M satellite network. Devices that cannot be easily retrofitted to accept advancements in available communication protocols will not function and will need to be replaced.

Future-proof remote CP devices that are designed for durability and long operational life offer a fast-simple way to upgrade devices to new communication protocols either by changing an internal communication board or an external antenna block. Either one should only take a few minutes and can be done for a fraction of the cost of replacing the device with a new one.

Conclusion

Manual inspection of pipeline assets continues to be a significant part of corrosion specialists’ jobs, a responsibility that exposes them to several hazards from extensive travel and site conditions and will continue to be significant burden on OpEx budgets without embracing technologies that are available. Remote CP monitoring provides an efficient and affordable way to enhance worker safety by automating data collection and reducing the frequency and necessity of travel to manually collect data.

Automated CP data collection is also an opportunity to significantly increase the frequency of data collection and to combine it with other non-CP-data to create a wholistic view of the pipeline system in a way that was not possible until now. These rich data sets can potentially reveal new trends, risks and insights that can better inform pipeline operational decisions and optimization.

For more than 20 years, MOBILTEX has led the evolution of remote CP monitoring devices for automated data collection at rectifiers and test stations. Each MOBILTEX device is built to withstand the toughest environmental conditions and deliver long life resulting from intelligent engineering, low power, durable components and easily upgradable communication hardware.

MOBILTEX devices, such as the CorTalk RMU3, provide highly reliable monitoring and GPS-synchronized interruption of rectifiers. Similar capabilities are also possible for CP test stations with the MOBILTEX CorTalk RMU1+INT1, a compact, powerful tool with long-life autonomous power for remote monitoring of CP single or double coupons and structure bond applications that also provides permanent interruption functionality.

Measurement data from all MOBILTEX RMU devices is transmitted to the CorView Cloud Platform, a highly secure data storage, communication and reporting tool.

Contact a MOBILTEX representative to learn more about how our solutions can increase safety while optimizing the performance of your cathodic protection systems.


Originally posted by Marc Bracken on LinkedIn

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