“NASA-like” control rooms keep Canada’s pipelines safe around the clock

“Copy that, Houston.”

If you’ve ever watched a movie about space exploration, you know the control centre is instrumental to the safety of a mission.

Pipeline companies have their own “Houston.” Each pipeline in Canada is monitored from highly sophisticated control centres 24-7. Expertly trained control room technicians can understand and respond to what’s happening underground from hundreds of kilometres away.

Pipeline control rooms feature cutting edge Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems. SCADA control rooms are the nerve centres for pipeline operations. The SCADA system gathers critical information from the pipeline and alerts technicians if there’s a problem, ensuring oil and gas is moved from point A to point B safely and efficiently.

Advancements in SCADA-system technology have resulted in game changing improvements to the way pipeline companies monitor their pipelines.

 

Gathering information with sophisticated technology

 

SCADA systems collect information such as temperature, flow rate and pressure from sophisticated sensors located along the pipeline route and send that information back to the control room. If the system detects something abnormal, technicians are notified and can manage flow and shut down the pipeline from the control room if necessary.

Improved telecommunications tools send information to control rooms quickly and advances in sensor technology are making the information more accurate. For example, fiber optic cables can be installed with new pipelines, providing faster communication. Fiber is also being used as an alternative method for leak detection. It can warn the control room when third-party equipment drives on top of or is digging near a buried pipeline. This helps companies prevent damage from third parties before it occurs.

Video cameras were once used only for security monitoring. Now, they are fitted with hydrocarbon sensors for leak detection and monitoring temperatures. If the temperatures exceed normal values, the control room is alerted immediately.

 

Raising the alarm

 

An integral part of any SCADA system is its ability to notify the control room if there’s a problem. Alarms are used to inform controllers of pipeline events that may need attention. Alarms flash, generate audible noise and use colour to indicate the priority of response needed. Responses vary from acknowledgement (with no action), notifying maintenance, to invoking emergency procedures.

These sophisticated alarm systems are always improving. For example, advancements have led to more intelligent alarm handling, resulting in fewer, more meaningful alarms.

Alarms are handled by technicians who undergo rigorous training to ensure they can make timely and informed decisions if an incident occurs. Control room staff are empowered to shut down a pipeline if required.

 

Continuous improvement for pipeline control rooms

 

SCADA systems are consistently adapting to meet new challenges. Evolving pipeline integrity best practices are monitored and incorporated to ensure the safety of the public and the environment.

By continuously improving the way pipelines are monitored, companies can identify and respond to risks before they turn into incidents.

Canada’s pipelines are already some of the safest in the world. Members of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) work together in critical areas of safety such as control room management because they know a collective effort is necessary if they want to meet their goal of zero incidents.