Protect Your Control Systems from Natural Disasters

Nov. 14, 2022
To ensure you can be up and running as quickly as possible following a storm or other natural disaster, it’s critical to have a crisis management strategy in place to proactively protect your automation systems.

According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, climate models indicate the intensity of hurricanes is on the rise. The hurricanes in our near future will have more intense rainfall and bring an increased risk of coastal flooding. Protecting facilities against severe weather events recalls storm-hardening measures like flood walls, storm panels, and impact-resistant windows.

But what about controls and vital electrical equipment?

Just as there are steps you can take to fortify your facilities’ exterior structure, there are ways to protect your automation systems during and after a natural disaster. At Interstates, we learned a great deal about this when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017. A grain milling client of Interstates in San Juan sustained serious damage from the storm. A team from Interstates traveled to the mill a few days after to help the client get the control system back online and assess the damage to the facility and operations.

Following is a series of lessons we learned about minimizing downtime during a storm and coming back online without permanent or costly setbacks.

Proactive protection

There are several ways you can proactively protect your automation systems. First and foremost is to have a crisis management strategy in place so you won’t be scrambling when disaster strikes.  Critical components of such a strategy include: 

  • Backups. You need a solid backup plan that includes automated backups and disaster recovery steps. Have network access storage drives in place early (or, ideally, all the time) to take backups, compress them, and move them off site.
  • Power. Make sure your equipment has access to reliable backup power to keep your network running and be prepared to run on “an island” if you lose network connectivity. If power is unstable, your hardware will die. UPS equipment should have fresh batteries, and high-risk areas in your plant need to be able to hook up to temporary generator power. If power is likely to be out for days, you need generators that are built to run 24/7 without failing.
  • Communications. Whether it’s having a backup satellite or other communications system ready to activate, this is extremely important when your cell towers are down and the internet doesn’t function. You will lose all ability to take orders and interact with customers if you can’t re-establish these connections.
  • Water. You need a way to store and purify water on site. You need this for human consumption and if your product requires water. Whether it’s reverse osmosis or a UV-type system, you’ll need to research what purification method best meets your needs and plant requirements.
  • Assets. Make sure all control cabinets are rated for the weather they might experience and equipment is mounted high. Around 24-26 hours before the weather is supposed to hit, you should shut down the plant, move vital equipment to higher ground, and secure doors and openings. If you have servers racked low or on the first floor of your building, don’t ignore this vital step.

Based on these lessons learned from Hurrican Maria, when Hurricane Ian hit the southern coast with winds up to 150 mph and storm surges up to seven feet, we were able to use our experience to help other facilities prevent severe damage. In particular, having a permanent backup generator and automated server backups helped minimize downtime and continue or quickly resume production.

If you’re worried about how increasingly severe storms might impact your controls and networks, find a systems integrator who understands proactive disaster planning. Taking the time and money to set up a crisis management plan now will pay off when the wind and rain pick up.

 Bryan Monroe is lead control systems analyst at Interstates, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Interstates, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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