Telemetry - Not just for Bulk Gas anymore

As featured in Gasworld: Sept 2020

Over the past few decades, remote monitoring technology has made major technical strides and continued to enable gas distribution to become more efficient. Fortunately for gas distributors and customers, expensive, bulky, wired, telemetry systems are no longer required.. Confusing and time consuming configuration during on-site setup is also a relic of the past. The smartphone revolution gave us wireless communication hardware at negligible cost and new wireless protocols that are more reliable while using 99% less power than predecessors. These advancements, coupled with cloud connectivity and mobile apps, have completely changed the economics and feasibility of remote monitoring at scale. While telemetry has historically been completely focused on bulk installations, liquid cylinders, high pressure cylinders and other consumables like welding wire are now opportunities to lower distribution costs and generate more revenue with the same asset base.

The bulky history of telemetry

Compared with cylinder assets, bulk tanks are orders of magnitude more expensive and more complex to install, with various mounting, zoning, and positioning requirements that often require hours, if not days of effort to deploy. The additional half day required to install and rigidly configure a legacy telemetry system has been acceptable due to the high relative cost of the bulk tank and its installation. Even with these historically required costs, the ROI is undeniably positive for bulk tanks. However, while bulk tanks make up a substantial portion of a distributor’s gas volume, they only account for roughly 1% of the truck stops a distributor makes. What about the other 99% of truck stops a distributor makes? The same remote visibility ROI calculation applies to cryo liquid cylinders, high pressure cylinders and other consumables measured by weight. Why would a distributor stop a truck at a customer location if gas inventory levels were known to be above “stop worthy” levels? Thinking a few steps ahead, if a distributor had access to real-time inventory levels at customer locations, that data could be utilized to plan production, plan truck routes and add value for the end user by automating the ordering process and alerting everyone involved when critical levels were reached. This all sounds great, but what about the costs? Not just the hardware and monthly dollar costs, but the maintenance costs? How many times will a person have to go onsite and modify the system? 2G and 3G cellular connectivity, while not gone yet, will be shut down and has caused a lot of stress and misinformation in the market. Will the same thing happen with 4G and will it cause as much pain?

Moving to a connected gas world

Historically, it never made sense to deploy telemetry at scale across most packaged cylinder gases. The costs, installation complexity, and reliability of telemetry solutions made very little sense for non-bulk gas customers. The technical limitations have forced distributors to often over-service their customers in the form of check stops, or run customers out if they can’t catch their inventory levels quickly enough. Fortunately, for gas users and distributors, modern remote monitoring systems have significantly decreased in complexity and cost.

  • Simple wireless setup: Modern wireless telemetry has enabled distributors to install sensors within minutes, rather than spending hours looking for the appropriate location to mount various boxes. Mobile-app tools provide complete control to setup, modify and troubleshoot - cutting down installation and modification times from hours to minutes.
  • Affordability: Sensors no longer cost hundreds to thousands of dollars with high ongoing fees. Modern service fees start at less than $10/month, with hardware costs starting in the tens to low hundreds of dollars.
  • Fidelity and software assistance: Sensors are no longer limited to only a few readings a day and simple alerts. Modern telemetry solutions provide hundreds of readings each day, enabling real time visibility and software assisted detection of anomalous behavior
  • Purpose built products: Hardware, firmware and software designed to work in conjunction to solve specific problems for gas distributors. The result is plug and play hardware that just works in any combination, with no buttons to press and no configuration. No more generic plastic boxes that require configuration.
  • Cellular connectivity independence: Cellular connectivity across 2G/3G/4G and 100’s of cellular networks within a single device is standard. Sensor and cellular modem are separate hardware components, so sensor battery life is not affected by cellular service quality. All sensors work with all cellular gateways, forever. If a better connectivity solution emerges in the future, you only have to replace the gateway, not the sensor.
  • More sensor types: Differential and high pressure solutions were typically the most common telemetry sensors in the market, but current providers have weight based sensors to enable monitoring all types of liquified and cryogenic gases as well.