The power of panels that can talk

William Lindstrom
Global Product Manager
ABB Electrification Products Division

Try to imagine doing business today without your cell phone. You probably can’t. In the same way, panel builders using communication-enabled devices like breakers and automatic transfer switches can’t imagine a panel without them. 

The commercials for current-generation doorbells are entertaining and compelling. They feature images from homeowners’ video-enabled doorbells capturing people attempting to steal packages from the porch, only to be shooed away by the homeowner who’s seeing it all via their cellphone. 

The addition of communication capabilities to doorbells and other devices in and around the home is bringing some remarkable benefits. You can be alerted if your power goes out, there’s a water leak, and when someone enters or leaves your home. Beyond monitoring, you can remotely control devices, adjusting thermostats, unlocking doors, turning on lights, and more … all via communication capabilities. 

The kinds of benefits enjoyed in residential applications are also available in commercial and industrial applications. End users are increasingly seeing the benefits of including communication capabilities in their power safety and control components like motor controllers, automatic transfer switches, and circuit breakers. Communication capabilities are elevating the features and benefits panel builders can deliver to their customers. 

The power of panels that can talk: Increasingly-available communication capabilities

There are more and more connected devices being developed for the market. As more devices have the ability to be connected the cost of these components is driven down. Communication capabilities, whether built in or added on, are available in a growing number of lower-cost panel components. Today, you can buy miniature circuit breakers with built-in communications.

That makes it easier and less costly to connect their panels and other power safety and control assets to a network. Process and facility managers get more than a high-level snapshot of system status; they gain a detailed picture that enables more effective and timely control.  

The availability of digital sensor data from the component also simplifies panel design and production. Input and output contacts and the associated and often complex wiring can be replaced with a single Modbus TCP or IP connection.

The power of panels that can talk: Know what’s happening inside your panels

What kinds of information is available from communication-capable devices? At a base level are the simple operating parameters: Is the device on or off? What is the size or power factor of the load? Asset-health parameters like temperature are also available. Some components offer multiple sensors, providing not only the temperature inside the component, but also inside and outside of the panel. This provides useful information about the specific component as well as overall panel and surrounding environment. And all component data is available in real time. 

This data can be put to good use in triggering alarms and alerts. User-defined parameters make it possible for panel owners to receive texts or emails at the instant their preset threshold is crossed. Those alarms can be sounded at the panel, in a local control area, or for networked panels, anywhere in the world. 

Beyond status and alarms, these components can deliver a data stream that provides the process operators with the ability to conduct a variety of analyses. Process availability/reliability can be calculated, and energy usage can be measured, monitored, and optimized. It’s possible to identify and assess loads, identifying which ones can be eliminated to reduce energy usage or make changes to better balance loads.

Fear of hacking dissuades some panel users from connecting their systems to the cloud. In many applications, there’s no need to share the data beyond the local facility, making a cloud connection unnessesary and ensuring data security. In other applications, a communication link to the components can be tremendously useful. Key operations, maintenance, and engineering staff can view system data and receive alarms anytime and anywhere. 

People wary of a cloud connection can take comfort knowing that it’s a one-way connection. Users have monitoring-only capability. At the local network level, users have a two-way connection that enables control of the components. 

The power of panels that can talk: Growing acceptance of communication capabilities 

There are niche applications where communication capabilities are essential. For example, data centers and certain industrial facilities simply cannot afford power problems, so they were early and enthusiastic adopters of communication capabilities to instantly alert them to any potential problems. 

In the broader market, adoption of communication capabilities by power distribution end users is growing but not yet widespread. Those that have begun using the technology compare it to the use of cell phones. When you look back a decade, we got along just fine without cell phones. But now that we have them and understand their power and utility, we can’t image life without them. That’s how most panel owners/users feel about their communication-capable power systems. Now that they have them and see what they can do, they routinely recommend that customers include communication capability to support the ever increasing need for efficiency and uptime. 

As the availability of communication features has become available in lower-end components, even users with relatively basic needs are increasingly taking advantage of them. 

Knowledge is power 

Knowledge really is power. In the case of communication-capable components in power and control panels, you could say that knowledge about power is power. It gives users the power to better manage their assets, processes, and energy usage. The alarms and alerts give them the power to achieve higher levels of reliability and reduced downtime. 

As more panel builders become aware of the benefits to their customers of incorporating communications in their panels, the trend toward including these capabilities will continue to accelerate. 

Recommended reading: A unique competitive advantage
Related video: Understand and optimize power with ABB Ability™ Electrical Distribution Control System