Nuisance alarms are more than just a pain in the ear. For process industries, they’re a leading cause of unplanned downtime. They also pose major safety risks.
That’s because operators must instantly decide how to respond. The failure to correctly address the most critical automation alarms can have catastrophic consequences, as evidenced by high-profile accidents that have heightened public attention on industrial operations worldwide.
One major North American energy-infrastructure company is investing in highly advanced alarm-management systems as part of its commitment to reduce incidents across its extensive natural gas network.
The company delivers “dry” natural gas to utility customers in several high-populated states. Its operations stretch the land and seas of North America, and include midstream gathering, processing plants and tens of thousands of miles of cross-country pipelines.
Overwhelmed by Alarms
At one of the company’s processing plants, water, impurities and nonmethane hydrocarbons are removed from the natural gas, making it safe for pipelines.
When the plant’s antiquated alarm system was installed, the “more-is-better” approach was the industry norm.
“One software application could have any number of alarms for no extra money,” explained a control specialist at the company. “At this plant, there were 1,500 alarms, many of which weren’t needed or were low priority. Plus, there was no clear documentation to help operators find the cause of alarm, often leading to guesswork.”
For instance, a pump alarm might mean gas flow was being obstructed – or maybe the sensor was just malfunctioning. Without accurate information about the true source of the problem, operators and maintenance staff had to spend precious time troubleshooting the situation.
The company wanted more real-time insight into the plant’s complex control systems to allow operators to quickly and precisely adjust critical variables, as well as improve preventive maintenance.
“Flow levels, pressure, temperature – too much of anything is not good,” the control specialist said. “Operators must be able to accurately manipulate the process to stop any abnormality. We can’t afford to rupture a pipe or crater a compressor.”
The lack of a single source for historical data prevented operators from seeing previous changes to the system that may have triggered an alarm or event.
The absence of a central repository also hampered enterprise-level access to information about the plant’s operational efficiency, and what gas-processing equipment or process changes could help increase production and safety.
Finally, clear and verifiable hindsight would be crucial in the case of a serious event.
“Any company that’s not gathering historical data in today’s high-scrutiny environment is putting themselves in a position where they can get hurt,” the control specialist said. “If an event happens, we need documentation to prove what triggered it and the sequence of events. We must be able to show we are running our plant properly, and protecting people and the environment.”