Surveillance Technology Creates Opportunities in Oil & Gas Market

How explosion-proof cameras can help integrators provide value in this emerging vertical

Explosion-proof cameras can help integrators provide value in the emerging oil & gas vertical.
Explosion-proof cameras can help integrators provide value in the emerging oil & gas vertical.
Photo: Getty Images

The oil and gas market can require very specialized cameras in and around potentially hazardous areas. Many integrators may be familiar with explosion-proof cameras, but for those who are not, it is important to dispel a popular misconception from the onset: Explosion-proof cameras are designed to prevent an explosion, not to survive one.

These cameras are not tested or built to survive serious impacts; instead, the idea is to contain any spark, explosion or fire within the housing. If something goes wrong, there are seals, gaskets, metal parts and other types of barriers in place, so that if a camera should fail, any flame path to the outside is interrupted.

Explosion-proof cameras typically go into highly regulated areas that have been determined to potentially contain explosive gases, mists or dust. These cameras tend to be located deep inside of a manufacturing plant, grain elevator, well site or offshore platform very near to potentially flammable gases, flammable or combustible vapors, combustible dusts or fibers. These hazardous areas are determined by certified engineers to comply with industry regulations and safety codes across a range of disciplines. Thus, installing an explosion-proof camera is considerably different from mounting and cabling a standard camera in a safe area.

Technical Requirements

For the installation of explosion-proof cameras and accompanying infrastructure, the main objective – whether through the camera housing or the connecting cables – is to ensure nothing escapes the housing that could trigger an event.

For electrical equipment in North America, there are stringent industry requirements and regulations based around the National Electrical Code (NEC) and in particular, specific language in NEC articles 500 through 506 and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) publication 70. These regulations explain things like where electronics can safely be located, which informs the type of housing that must be used. Broken down by class and division, hazardous areas are described as:

  • Class 1 – combustible gases and mist
  • Class 2 – combustible dust
  • Class 3 – combustible particulates

Divisions inform how often a particular hazardous substance can be expected around a camera:

  • Division 1 – the hazard is present at all times
  • Division 2 – a hazard can be there, but is not normally there

In addition to the explosion-proof camera housing itself, specialized metal “gland” connectors are necessary to mate the camera housing to explosion-proof conduits – often a flexible umbilical conduit that connects to a junction box. The junction box, if it has anything in it other than a passthrough, needs to be certified as explosion-proof as well.

A 110-volt supply for a motorized pan-tilt housing has very different safety requirements than a low voltage PoE+ (Power over Ethernet) camera. For example, 110-volt connections require a circuit breaker to be installed for quick power disconnect in addition to extra junction boxes, etc. This increases costs substantially since each component has to be an explosion proof version, according to the code.

These installation and infrastructure costs multiply exponentially when meeting the additional requirements of pulling site permits, including potential permits for an explosion proof aerial lift to access the camera site. Frequently, a minimum two-person team for installation is required as well. With these additional requirements, it is estimated that it can cost as much as $6,000 to simply replace a camera in an average plant, and that does not include the actual cost of the camera.

Advances in Explosion-Proof Technology

One of the biggest advances in explosion-proof camera technology is the advent of low voltage IP-based cameras for these housings. There are new opportunities afforded by fixed PoE+ cameras that can drastically reduce costs compared to traditional high power 110V AC installations that require additional infrastructure and staff to install them. PoE+ cameras also represent advancements over traditional 24-volt systems that require power supplies and the appropriate explosion-proof boxes to contain them.

While some explosion-proof cameras can be run on PoE, if there are heaters, lens wipers or large zoom lenses in pan and tilt configurations, then we quickly arrive back to the situation of needing higher power and the costly supporting infrastructure as well.

As the industry moves forward, there is a strong desire to install more PoE+ PTZ dome cameras whenever possible – enabling integrators to run a single ethernet cable to the camera and have sufficient distance from the danger zones so that any supporting equipment, such as a PoE+ switches or injectors, can be installed normally.

The weight of a traditional explosion-proof camera can also represent a significant cost. Lower power fixed IP cameras in aluminum explosion-proof housings weigh as little as 38 lbs., instead of a large PTZ camera weighing 100 lbs., or more. Higher megapixel IP-based cameras weigh less, and with proper lensing, can achieve exceptional results.

Since explosion-proof cameras and accompanying hardware and installation can be so expensive, there is an understandable trend to minimize their use and instead install standard IP cameras with zoom lenses just outside of the hazardous zones whenever possible.

Process Applications vs. Security Applications

When dealing with refineries and similar plants, many explosion-proof cameras are not used strictly for security; instead, they tend to be process cameras. While securing the perimeter and entrances of a facility are important, chances are that these cameras do not need to be explosion-proof. Once we get into the actual manufacturing portion of the plant, cameras are used to monitor a process.

Inside the pipe racks, the flare fields and the fracking units, plant operators use these cameras to verify safety and efficiency. These video feeds will most likely be part of the operational command center and are frequently brought up inside of dedicated process control system. This is where explosion-proof cameras add tremendous value, enabling operators to have an instantaneous look and see what is happening in real-time.

Automation and the Oil & Gas Market

There are nearly two million well sites in North America, and traditionally, someone needs to physically drive around to look at these well sites. It is expensive to put someone in a truck, stock the truck with parts and supplies, and send them to drive around every day checking meters and gages and whether there have been spills or vandalism at the sites.

For many companies, the future goal is to automate these sites as much as possible. Beyond security, they want to do virtual site inspections by remotely automating and viewing well sites and valve sites along pipelines. Again, there is a need to monitor processes as much, if not more than security; however, if the cameras can do both, it is a big win.

Companies want to pull data and analytics from these locations and send it back to a central dashboard in real-time rather than someone coming back from the field with paper logs that need to be analyzed. Catching anomalies quickly – especially for lower-producing sites with little margin for error that are costly to maintain – is critical to keeping the site open and profitable.

The ability to manage hundreds, if not thousands, of well sites from a single location and get actionable data and real-time alerts is appealing for organizations looking to trim costs and better visualize their assets; and thus, it poses an opportunity to integrators looking to expand into the oil & gas vertical.  

Gaining a Foothold in the Market

The oil & gas market represents a growth industry for security professionals willing to invest time and cultivate expertise in the unique skillsets required. As the industry expands, there is tremendous pressure to cut costs and increase efficiencies. To accomplish this, there is a strong desire to remotely monitor locations and to update existing legacy video equipment.

Organizations want more connectivity and more data collected. Selling security cameras into such a market frequently requires unique knowledge of industry regulations and may require specific permits, certifications and insurance for installers and electricians.

Although there is nothing that precludes resellers and integrators from selling into the market per se, customers will expect installers and their contractors to be properly certified and insured. Manufacturers will have undergone UL (Underwriters Laboratories) or FM (Factory Mutual) testing to demonstrate that their cameras and housings pass explosion-proof testing for Class 1 and Division 2.

The burden falls on the integrator to ensure that these sophisticated housings and supporting equipment are installed properly. Having the correct insurance is also necessary to win a project since locations such as refineries or well sites require adherence to specific codes and regulations.

The advantage to working in the oil & gas market is that it is still specialized and not for everyone. Beyond specialized housings and installation procedures, it comes down to the quality of the camera inside the housing and what that camera can do. Whether it is advanced analytics, integration through APIs to other systems, compatibility with multiple VMS vendors or running specialized third-party applications on the edge, there is an appetite for gathering more than just raw video data.

For the right company, there’s a great opportunity to update legacy systems and help change customer perceptions about what a modern security system can do to help these customers evolve their business operations.

Michael Shipley is Business Development Manager for the Oil & Gas market at Hanwha Techwin America. Request more info about the company at www.securityinfowatch.com/10215711.  

More in Video Surveillance