Putting smart grid systems to use in multiple ways is the name of the game at this year’s DistribuTECH conference, whether we're talking about grid operations, data analytics, or smarter grid sensors. This is demonstrated by two announcements from the opening day of the annual smart grid showcase, from IUS Technologies and Tollgrade Communications, highlighting how multiple sensor functions can be pulled into a single system, using the right combination of technologies.

First let’s look at IUS Technologies, which has introduced transformer, theft detection and capacitor bank monitors into the U.S. market over the past year. On Tuesday, the company announced a new line of monitors that combine three measurements of distribution transformer health -- temperature, power, and total combustible gas (TCG) -- into a single unit. What’s different here is that IUS’ new sensors monitor all three in real time, according to Kevin Mays, head of North American technical sales.

The key to this ability lies in using carbon nanotubes to measure how much hydrogen, acetylene and other dangerous gases are building up in transformer insulation oils, he said. This dissolved gas analysis (DGA) is nothing new -- lots of companies use DGA to check for signs of transformer breakdown. But they do it by taking oil samples and taking them to a lab, or driving a mobile lab to each site, he said -- and that’s expensive to do, and can't always catch problems that may emerge between tests.

IUS’ carbon nanotube sensors, by contrast, plug into the ports where the oil is pulled out of transformers, and measure the presence of dangerous gases by assessing the way that the gas molecules react to the nanostructured materials. That data is bundled up with its temperature and power loading conditions and communicated to the utility via a variety of wireless communications, he said.

“There are systems that just measure load conditions and temperature, but they don’t do gas analysis,” Mays said. And while other systems can monitor dissolved gases at the transformer, they’re expensive, about $40,000 a pop, whereas IUS’ new sensors are aiming at a price that’s about one-tenth of that, he said.

That could open up this triple-play monitoring process to a whole class of distribution transformers that it would have been too costly to monitor in the past, he said. Specifically, IUS is targeting the roughly 5 percent to 10 percent of distribution transformers that serve “critical loads -- health organizations, communications platforms, emergency services, data centers for financial services,” he said. That’s where the added value of real-time gas analysis could add critical data to predicting when transformers are about to fail, and replacing them before they do.

“Transformer monitoring in terms of load and temperature is being done already,” and can provide some data to predict these sudden failures, Mays noted. “I can say our accuracy typically bests our competitors -- but that may not necessarily be enough to turn the switch in our direction. The ability with the TCG analysis is what really captures the eye of utilities we’re speaking to,” including one unnamed, but “significant,” utility that’s testing the devices in the field, he said.

Another example of grid sensor convergence comes from Tollgrade Communications. On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh-based company launched a new set of capabilities for its Lighthouse product line, aimed at using its line sensors for substation monitoring, new cellular communications capabilities for overseas markets, and a way to measure phase imbalances in real time.

On the substation front, Tollgrade is aiming at “unmonitored substations,” or those lacking dedicated SCADA network connections, Erik Christian, Tollgrade’s vice president of smart grid, said. Installing Tollgrade’s line sensors on the lines coming out of the substation, and allowing utilities to set the parameters they’re interested in for monitoring their status, is a cheaper alternative for many customers -- in particular, customers in emerging markets like Brazil, where Tollgrade has been piloting the technology.

“One of the cornerstones of the LightHouse solution is that the entire solution is software-defined, both the hardware and the firmware,” he noted. That allows for flexibility in how it’s put to use, including for a new feature announced on Tuesday -- “Auto-Phase ID” and GPS synchronization for its sensor network.

Managing the splitting up of three-phase grid power into single-phase portions of distribution grids is a tricky problem for utilities. Poor record-keeping on how the network was split up into single phases in the first place, combined with on-the-spot repairs to the network that may further muddle the picture, have left some sections of the grid fairly out of balance.

“Our customers have come to us and asked, 'Is there any way for your equipment in the field to verify and make our GIS system more accurate?'” he said. “I don’t think a lot of other vendors in this space have thought about this -- in fact, Tollgrade wasn’t thinking about this eighteen months ago.” Consider it another of the additional benefits that sensor vendors and grid analytics platform providers are looking to bring to the table as they compete for the title of most versatile smart grid tool.