Millions of crucial installations around the world are protected by back-up batteries, because the cost of a power failure can be enormous. In industrial manufacturing, for example, it can cost millions to stop and restart production. A situation many companies have faced during the COVID-19 crisis. So how can companies be sure these batteries will work when they are needed?
The answer to ensure that all is in order has been to operate a general inspection each year and a capacity test every five years for Saft nickel battery solutions compared to a general inspection every 3 months and a capacity check every year for lead acid batteries. However, this can be inconvenient and expensive for batteries used in remote locations, such as oil platforms at sea, or when there are a lot of batteries to check, as on a railway line that uses batteries to back up trackside signaling.
Now, smart battery technology makes it possible to monitor back-up batteries remotely, greatly reducing the frequency of manual checks and enabling predictive maintenance that can extend battery life.
Nickel batteries are typically used to supply back-up power because they are very reliable and don't often fail. Usually, if one is not working, it will be because something else has gone wrong: perhaps the battery room is overheating, increasing the water consumption from the battery, or maybe a charger has failed so the battery has no charge when it is needed.
A quarterly inspection provides some reassurance, but anything can happen between visits. If a problem arises the day after an inspection, then it might be three months before it is identified. Worse, the problem might come to light because the battery does not respond when it is needed.
That's why real-time monitoring is trully transformative: it allows the switch from traditional time-based maintenance to condition-based maintenance. Indeed, battery owners can monitor the condition of their back-up power source remotely and will know immediately if something goes wrong. Better still, in the case of Saft's Intelli-Connect system, an algorithm drawing on 100 years of experience in managing nickel batteries can predict problems and send a warning, perform only maintenance when it is needed, which the concept of condition-based maintenance.
Intelli-Connect has unique features like advanced State of Charge and State of Health proprietary algorithms and uses sensors to measure the real-time temperature of an unlimited number of nickel batteries, as well as their current, voltage and electrolyte levels – all vital indicators of the condition of the battery. That means operators can plan their maintenance schedules more efficiently.
The system, which was in development for three years, was not a simple one to put together. “None of the individual components are complicated,” says Olivier Amiel, Saft's marketing director. “However the challenge was to create a seamless platform using many different types of technology.”
Hardware and software development were necessary to ensure that the monitoring system could collect the necessary data from the battery. That data is sent by the battery owner by whichever method is most effective, so the system has the flexibility to send data over a LAN connection, a 2G or 3G modem or a satellite modem. The data is then stored in a highly secure Microsoft Azure cloud server, and graphical user interface turns the data into usable insights.
The security element is vital for today's businesses, because industrial operators are increasingly alert to the risk of sabotage by malicious hackers. Not only is it highly unlikely that anyone could access Intelli-Connect data, but the system is ‘passive’ so it can monitor the battery status but not control it. In addition, the solution has been certified and heavily tested according to the most stringent cyber security standards.
There are also financial benefits for battery owners in the shift from time-based to condition-based maintenance. The system can identify when operating conditions are putting unnecessary demands on the system, even when the battery is operating normally. If the charging voltage is consuming too much electrolyte, for example, it reduces the lifespan of the battery; fixing it could add years to the battery's life.
In this way, battery owners can make savings to their operating costs through a 75 percent reduction in site visits, manually checking their batteries just once a year. They can also make capital expenditure savings, because real-time monitoring tells them exactly when a battery has reached the end of its life, so there are no unnecessary replacements.
The greatest benefit, however, is peace of mind. Back-up batteries offer reassurance that systems and processes will be protected in an emergency, and real-time monitoring removes all doubt that they will do their job.