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Handheld Database Application to Keep Turbines Running Smoothly at Chugach Electric

Chugach Electric uses handheld database applications to quickly reference turbine data
Chugach Electric uses handheld database applications to quickly reference turbine data.

By Frank Yacano, Director of Business Development, SYWARE, Inc.

Most of us take the electricity we use for granted. However, people in the energy business know that generating electricity is challenging process involving extremely expensive equipment.

The core of an electric plant is its turbines, which must be closely monitored and thoroughly maintained in order to safely provide reliable and efficient energy. Turbines are massive, complex assemblies operating under demanding conditions. In order to keep the units running optimally, technicians need access to considerable data that is specific to each turbine, including calibration specifications, drawings, part assemblies, alarm points, and so on. They also need to be able to access this information quickly, both for efficiency during routine maintenance activities and also to prevent costly and potentially dangerous failures.

Steven Epperheimer is an instrument & controls technician for Chugach Electric Association, the largest electricity provider in Alaska. Epperheimer and other Chugach Electric technicians are now using handheld database applications to quickly reference turbine data in the course of their daily activities. Using Windows CE-based HP Jornada 450 handheld computers and Visual CE®, a handheld database application development tool from SYWARE, Epperheimer and his colleagues have developed an application that provides full access to turbine data on a mobile platform

"My HP Jornada has been transformed from what one associate called a 'toy' to a valuable reference device," says Epperheimer. "Having this database application allows me to easily look up information when we have a turbine malfunction, or if management wants to know a specific parameter of a turbine or generator."

Handheld Databases Hand Helps Prevent Disaster
Electric plants are typically spread out over several acres - and it gets cold in Alaska. Having turbine information on-hand saves time and eliminates distractions associated with leaving the work area to dig up information. In addition, the ability to immediately enter any calibration changes or special notes on the handheld assures that no maintenance results or unusual findings are overlooked.

"The new approach certainly beats running back and forth to the instrument shop to look up information," he adds. Previously, all turbine data was maintained in the power station's instrument shop, some on a desktop PC in Microsoft Access, the rest in hard copy in instrument summary sheets. Epperheimer estimates that having the information readily available is saving each technician using the handheld application at least 30 minutes per day.

Sometimes emergencies occur where it is crucial for technicians to have turbine data at their fingertips. Epperheimer describes an episode during a recent startup of a hydro-turbine, when the lube oil temperature began to rise. Using the new Jornada database, he was able to locate the digital I/O point on the programmable controller and make the necessary control point changes without having to rush back to the shop to refer to engineering drawings.

"Dealing with that problem was fast, efficient, and demonstrated the time-savings of using a handheld database," he adds. "With all this data at my fingertips, I don't have to carry reams of paper or run back to the instrument shop to check the data sheets."

The application also has the flexibility to accommodate the range of parameters and values associated with different turbine types. It was originally developed for use at the Beluga power generation plant in Beluga, Alaska, with four GE gas turbines, two Alstrom Power gas turbines, and one steam turbine - each with its own characteristics and data set. Epperheimer has since been transferred to the Kenai/Anchorage area, where he is currently expanding the application with databases for turbines at the nearby Bernice Lake and Cooper Lake power plants. Ultimately, he expects units at all Chugach Electric facilities to be included.

How it Works
The Visual CE application on the Jornada comprises multiple turbine databases that are mapped to corresponding Microsoft Access databases running on a desktop PC in the instrument shop. The "tag number", a unique number stamped on each turbine sensor and other key components, is used to reference drawings, calibrations, parts lists, trip points, specifications, and technical notes. Lists of tag numbers and their related data are supplied by the turbine manufacturer, usually in Microsoft Excel or Access format. This information is used to build the Access database on the desktop, and then synchronized to the Visual CE application on the handheld.

Main menu of Chugach Electric handheld database application allows user to select power plant.

Figure 1 - Main menu of Chugach Electric handheld database application allows user to select power plant.

The main menu of the Visual CE application allows the user to select the Chugach Electric power plant. The next screen is used to select the turbine unit. After the turbine is selected, a form opens that allows access to the turbine's database. This form is specific to the type of turbine, since each manufacturer uses a different tagging system. The user then specifies the tag number of the desired part in order to view associated data. The user can also search for a tag number within Visual CE by defining a filter using the field 'Description' [contains] and then entering the service that the device performs.

In normal mode, all data is read only in order to protect it from being accidentally changed. An Edit button displays the form in edit mode, which has the same layout as normal mode, but with a few color changes to indicate that the user can now enter or modify data. Once the user adds/changes data as needed, they tap the Save button to return to the original read only form. Data collected in edit mode also can be readily synchronized to the desktop database.

Chugach Electric handheld database application showing tag number and associated data in edit mode

Figure 2 - Chugach Electric handheld database application showing tag number and associated data

Epperheimer notes that one of the key advantages of this approach is the ability to easily modify forms to fit his needs. For example, one of the gas turbine generators recently underwent a major upgrade. Upon completion, "loop checks" - a process for checking signals between different modules - had to be performed. Visual CE's drag & drop user interface allowed Epperheimer to quickly re-design the database and forms associated with this particular turbine in order to list the drawings page and device points where the signals were terminated.

Prior to starting the retrofit, he added a new field to the database indicating which sheet contained the loop drawing, out of approximately 100 sheets of engineering drawings. Having the sheet number easily available saved time compared to manually thumbing through the sheets to locate the drawing in question. Calibration specs for field instruments were also incorporated into the table, providing a faster reference for the calibration that was needed before the functional checkout of the upgraded unit.

Flexibility in Database and Forms Design
Epperheimer investigated several other handheld database programs, and found Visual CE to be the easiest to use. "I don't feel limited in setting up forms, or editing them if I visualize a better method of arranging fields. It didn't even take much effort or reading to get up to speed."

He also found that the ability to design multiple screen areas within a single form proved to be easier for technicians to use than having to scroll through multiple screens. Visual CE's command button controls allowed him to add a Move To button that users can tap to view the screen area containing the data of interest. Another useful feature was the Jump button to open other applications - in his case, the Edit Mode form that allows input while protecting against accidentally overwriting or deleting data.

Frank Yacano is Director of Business Development for SYWARE, Inc., a developer of database and wireless productivity tools for Windows CE and Pocket PC handhelds.

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