by Michael Smith, R&M Energy Systems

Sensors and automation passively participate in our everyday lives to improve comfort, add safety and reliability, and increase the efficiency of needed products and services. As the use of sensors and automation has proliferated throughout various industry sectors, these products have become reliable, economical and easy to maintain and service. Experienced personnel and suppliers can create, adapt or integrate their products and services for almost any application. The challenge becomes how we collect, correlate and translate this data into actionable information.

The oil and gas industry is no stranger to the advanced uses of sensors, automation and data collection, especially in the discovery process, high volume producing wells, regulatory reporting and custody transfer. However, lower producing wells and older, more established producing regions have not been as willing to make these critical investments for the following reasons:

  • Economics does not justify the expense and support of these technologies
  • Entrenched policies and procedures are hard to adapt to new technologies
  • Bad prior experience when poor implementation caused more problems than it solved

These barriers to implementation need to be resolved by addressing the real costs of inaction and overcoming entrenchment and prior experience. The alternatives to doing nothing are not attractive and lead to greater regulatory involvement, higher insurance costs, lower productivity and lost production. Perhaps the greatest risks from reckless behavior are the loss of good will and a community's willingness to permit operations in an area. For instance, consider a sensor installed to prevent a leaking seal from polluting a well site. The real cost of a single cleanup operation would cover the cost of installing the sensor and automation systems deployed across a significant portion of the operating area. The cost of lost production and employee productivity are significant costs to include in the total equation. Operators too often believe that the impact is minimal and accept the risk. However, the risks are often much larger than realized; once an incident occurs, it will curb growth and new opportunities.

Overcoming Barriers

When approaching the described barriers, operators should start with a small project. Some good steps include:

  • Understand what problem or solution needs to be solved
  • Consider the current needs and what might be needed in the future
  • Resist the urge to over-engineer the requirements
  • Setup a timeline as to how long the pilot should last to receive a good assessment
  • Define what will be understood as a success

Suppliers are often willing to conduct no obligation trials where the system can be tested in a real world environment. The operator gets a chance to experience a system in operation and know the supplier's ability to deliver, support and service the equipment. Pick a project or site with a reasonable chance of success that the supplier and operator personnel can easily access. If successful, pick a challenging second pilot site that will let the supplier showcase his solution and help justify the system's deployment. This second site should also replicate conditions like weather, power condition, pumping fluid properties and pumping pressures characteristic of a large sample of wells in the field.

Even the best systems often require some adjustment and tuning to receive the full benefit of the implementation. However, if the supplier has to continue working on implementation problems or operations personnel have to repeatedly return to a site, the chances of success in full deployment are slim. Be willing to accept failure and start with another supplier or solution.

Location and Types of Sensors

For oil wells, there are several key locations for placing sensors, including:

  • Downhole at Pump Depth
  • Temperature
  • Pump intake pressure
  • Pump discharge pressure
  • Fluid level
  • Vibration
  • Pump rotation direction
  • The Well Head
  • Flow line pressure
  • Flow line flow
  • Casing pressure
  • Packing/seal pressure and temperature
  • Rod temperature and vibration
  • Rod load
  • Rod torque
  • Primary Mover
  • Motor temperature
  • Motor RPM
  • Rod RPM or Strokes Per Minute (SPM)
  • Rod Location
  • Variable Frequency (Speed) Drive
  • Cabinet temperature
  • Heat sink temperature
  • Incoming service power voltage
  • Internal DC Bus voltage
  • Motor current
  • Motor torque
  • Energy consumption

Each of these data points can be valuable in understanding the health, operational status and pump optimization levels of each site.

Bandwidth Limitations

Many of the described sensors are readily available without a large amount of investment; however, the challenge is to report the collected information back to a central location for reporting and monitoring. Building the central server and supporting the software are additional cost variables that can add significant cost to any deployment. If more sensors are deployed and measurements are taken frequently, they need to be transmitted via some method back to the central location. The challenge for operators is the cost of building out a data network and managing the network saturation of this information. In addition, it can be difficult to build a data network because of the physical location and area terrain. Equipment, contractors and licenses can all add significant expense to a monitoring and control network if the wrong solution is selected.