Remote Tank Level Monitoring & Groceries

remote monitoring cost is like a bag of groceriesIf you’ve ever thought about remote tank level monitoring, but haven’t taken the plunge because you’re worried about cost, this article is for you. Today, we discuss how much remote tank level monitoring costs.

But before we do, let’s first discuss the cost of a bag of groceries.

Yes, groceries. While they’re inevitably cheaper than remote tank monitoring, and have no economic or market relationship to the cost of tank monitoring, it’s an important exercise. The cost of a bag of groceries DEPENDS on what’s in the bag.

And so it is with any system purchase. The cost of one will be totally different than the cost of another. Your trip to the grocery store is probably different than my trip. And if you work in an industry that requires additional certifications or special installation requirements, it’s kind of like living in Hawaii or Alaska – it’s going to cost more no matter what you do or who you buy from.

Now we don’t sell groceries. In fact, we don’t sell anything that’s designed for use in the home. The remote tank level monitoring we sell is for industrial tanks in the oil field, in wastewater treatment plants, on bulk chemical tanks (you get the idea).

We also don’t sell SCADA systems, PLCs, or any of that infrastructure equipment. We sell sensors and a few simple displays and controllers. So when we give you an idea of how much something costs – we’re looking at monitoring applications, not full site automation systems.

With all the caveats out of the way, and our Economics 101 grocery bag analogy delivered, let’s talk about how much remote tank level monitoring actually costs. The following two examples are based on customer applications:

Tank Level Monitoring System #1

At this site we have three 10 ft. tall by 5 ft. diameter vented diesel tanks. They are all next to each other, just outside of a factory that has Internet and power available. The owner is requiring an online interface to view current tank levels, a historical chart for tracking purposes, and alarms to indicate a low level for each tank so the owner can order more fuel.

Deploying a system capable of meeting all the owner’s needs would be easy. First, let’s focus on the sensor. Ultrasonic level sensors work well for diesel fuel. They are easy to install and inexpensive to ship. We would need three of these – one for each tank.

Next, the sensor signal offers an opportunity to save some money. Using Modbus RTU communication protocol means we can wire a daisy chain, or a multi-drop network. This reduces the amount of cable and equipment needed. We would, however, run the cable through conduit to reduce the risk of cable damage.

Finally, we would install a small panel box, or enclosure, just outside of the building. Here we would house the communications module, wiring terminals, 24 VDC power transformer, and Ethernet router or switch to connect to the factory’s LAN.

This simple system takes advantage of existing power and communications. It’s wired, which is relatively inexpensive due to the proximity to the factory. Running wires also ensures more uptime and less troubleshooting.

Upfront Equipment Budget: $2,500.00
Cost Per Tank: $833.34
Ongoing Web Monitoring Fees: $25.00/mo*

Tank Level Monitoring System #2

At this site, we have 3 identical diesel tanks. But instead of being right next to each other, they are spread out over a square mile in a remote area. Furthermore, there are no power or Internet connections at these tanks.

This application isn’t quite as simple.

Let’s first discuss communications, as there isn’t a landline connection nearby. An Internet connection can be obtained by using either cellular or satellite modems. We would use cellular, as it’s typically available and will save some money. But rather than having a cellular connection for the individual sensors at each tank, we would use a radio mesh network. The radios transmit readings back to a central gateway.

This approach has a few advantages:

  • It’s less expensive in the long run
  • Only one modem, instead of three
  • It allows for placing a cellular modem wherever the signal is best
  • It provides one location for secondary equipment, such as a power management controller, when needed.

At each tank, we would install a battery powered radio node. These are capable of turning themselves on, powering up a connected sensor, transmitting the reading, and finally turning itself off again. This kind of power management is critical when using batteries.

We would also use a different sensor – one with a low current draw and virtually no warm-up time to maximize battery life. The best option in this scenario would be a submersible pressure transducer, giving us a 3-5 year battery life (depending on how often a measurement would be required).

In a location with the strongest cellular signal, we would install an enclosure on a post. It would house a gateway module, wiring terminals, battery, and cellular modem. We would also install a solar panel for the battery and a radio antenna for the mesh network on the post.

This monitoring system is a bit more complex. It requires battery power and a mix of radio and cellular communications. It also requires careful power management to maximize battery life. Installation is more difficult as the location is remote and the wireless communication equipment may require troubleshooting. However, when installed properly, this method will result in years of reliable service.

The net result of moving from a pad next to a factory to a spread out tank farm in the plains is an increase of about $3,500.00. That’s over twice the cost. Not a bad thing if the data is worth it, but distance always adds cost.

Upfront Equipment Budget: $6,000.00
Cost Per Tank: $2,000.00
Ongoing Monitoring & Data Fees: $45.00/mo*

Groceries Matter

When you’re trying to price your bag of groceries, it really matters what’s inside. So it is with remote tank level monitoring. The hardware matters, and will depend on the location of your tanks and available infrastructure. Network connections matter, and can be hindered in remote areas by the topography and proximity to cell towers.

Do your due diligence and call a few vendors to get an idea of what you’ll need. Yes, we’re recommending you call around. If you call us first, we’ll help point you in the right direction.

*Ongoing monitoring and data fees vary by both the monitoring services used and the market rate for data plans.

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top photo credit: D.C.Atty via flickr cc

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