Information and accessibility are key to lean pipeline operation. As technology advances in general, so does the technology being incorporated into industry. The total natural gas production in the U.S. has reached over 36.5 trillion cubic feet of gas annually, representing a more than 63% increase since 2010.

Natural gas, oil and other refined products need to be transported around the country in an easy and affordable manner, and pipelines are the fastest, safest and most reliable conduit. This mode of transportation has several advantages, including automated loading and unloading, unidirectional flow of products, reduced operational costs and minimized environmental impacts.

With vast expansion of pipeline infrastructure, aging infrastructure and evolving regulations, utilities require better controls on their pipeline networks, providing information on such things as timely maintenance, equipment replacement and instant leak detection. Along with modern construction methods, integration of technology should be a part of the design of any pipeline project.

The controls portion of a project, especially for large projects, is a drop in the bucket of the broader project budget. However, it is one of the most important aspects of the project. It is what ties the station to the control room. It enables safety shutdowns without relying on human intervention and provides reports on billing, emissions and internal studies. But because the controls portion is such a small part of the project budget, comparatively little thought is typically put into how the station operates and how it communicates with the control center. Controls are often the final part of engineering design and the last part of the project to be completed in the field. This can result in several challenges in the commissioning phase. Issues can arise from poor programming practices, as well as confusing panel layouts and wiring — all leading to hours of laborious troubleshooting.

Proper design of a controls system leads to efficient commissioning, when time is of the essence, and to smooth operations. The ideal station is one that operates as intended, safely and without interruption. Station design will be more robust when controls are part of that holistic design from the outset of the project, if not sooner. Designing a well-thought-out panel can be time-consuming, but it is imperative to go through all the details. Wire labels should be easy to read and follow a consistent design, so the electrician can install the wires correctly the first time. The design should allow for easy troubleshooting and without guessing on where the wires should be installed in the panel and on the device. Using a consistent standardized design will allow electricians, techs and designers to have a head start on knowing where wires are located between sites. This reduces confusion and will speed up wiring and commissioning since all parties are already familiar with the design, even if it is a different site. This reduces overall costs by reducing time needed for construction and moves up the first day of operation. Drawings should be concise, to reduce the risk of errors caused by flipping through redundant pages. The programmable logic controller (PLC) and remote terminal units (RTUs) should be programmed in a manner that is easy for technicians and engineers to understand.

Safety is of utmost importance, and the programming should not allow unsafe conditions to occur. Standards should be followed so similar devices function in harmony. Visual displays from the human-machine interfaces (HMIs) need to have the most critical information easily accessible. Devices or processes that are outside of normal operating conditions should easily grab one's attention.

While all the aforementioned solutions require time and effort, thinking of them ahead of commissioning drastically reduces issues and streamlines operations. Successful implementation of thoughtful standards, best practices for automation and ready-to-go design can turn this often-underappreciated part of the project into an excellent tool for saving time and money over the long term.


Learn more about designing, procuring, constructing, overcoming geographical challenges and maintaining safety while executing pipeline projects.

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Derek Fike works in telecommunications at Burns & McDonnell. He has seven years of PLC and RTU programming experience in the oil and gas industry. He specializes in controls upgrades, new system integration, standards implementation, creation of PLC and HMI standards, and PLC panel design.