Utilities have much to gain by updating the security at their substations. But there’s at least one benefit many haven’t considered: The same tools that protect a substation from physical attack can, in some cases, also help reduce its long-term maintenance costs.

Consider, for example, security cameras at an unmanned substation. These cameras are primarily installed to capture break-ins and thefts — events that occur infrequently. The rest of the time, they sit idle, waiting for something to happen.

What if there were a way to make additional use of this physical security investment during that down time?

Good news: There is. With careful planning, security cameras can be used not only to watch for intruders, but also to monitor equipment performance or add intelligence to the maintenance process, often at nominal cost.

A thermal imaging security camera, for example, can perform double duty by identifying hotspots on a transformer or bus. Similarly, a camera can be used for remote monitoring of a circuit breaker that must otherwise be inspected on-site regularly. Or it can confirm to a control room operator that a disconnect switch for a transmission line operated properly, eliminating the need for on-site inspection.

Other physical security tools can also serve dual roles. Take audio detection systems. The microphones in these systems are typically calibrated to distinguish between gunshots and circuit breaker malfunctions, so that a tripping breaker doesn’t set off a false security alarm.

What’s to keep a utility from using the same system to listen for both? Very little. The added costs for breaker monitoring are minimal, and the payoff is potentially substantial.

Likewise, today’s advanced security fences are as effective at preventing squirrels and other nuisance animals from entering and wreaking havoc on a substation as they are at stopping thieves from removing copper grounding leads and creating safety risks for unwitting workers.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. They also perfectly illustrate how the Burns & McDonnell substation security team thinks and works. We leave no stone unturned when helping a utility get the most bang for each security-focused buck.


Effective implementation of a substation security design solution must be based on experience and the realities of operating your power facilities. Our Station Defender program is customized and adaptable to your unique strategy and priorities.


Amanda Olson, PE, is a senior electrical engineer at Burns & McDonnell. She specializes in the design of electric power substations and substation security, working on substations ranging from 13.8-kV to 500-kV. Amanda is a member of IEEE and chair of the CIGRE USNC Next Generation Network.