August 2022, Vol. 249, No. 8

Tech Notes

Strengthening Computing Solutions in Hazardous Environments

Special to P&GJ 

In all segments of refining and distribution, oil and gas facilities and pipeline stations regularly store and dispense large quantities of flammable and combustible liquids.  

Given the potential for gas, vapor or dust to collect in these areas, the electronic equipment installed for automation and control must be designed specifically to prevent unintentional ignition of these elements because of electrical arcing or other thermal means. 

Although much attention is given to the automation system components used to control the process itself, these systems also require computing equipment such as thin clients, panel PCs, remote touch displays, KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) solutions, and fixed and mobile operator workstations. 

Given the risks, this equipment must also meet the requirements for use in areas classified as hazardous and be rugged enough to withstand the harsh chemical and high-humidity environment generated during the refining and manufacturing process. 

“In the oil and gas industry, the manufacturing, processing, storing and distribution of flammable materials release gases or vapors in the atmosphere, which can result in an explosion or hazard,” said Paul Shu of Arista. 

To create a safe and secure working environment, the computing systems at the worksite, by regulation, must be designed to pass the explosion-proof certification and withstand the corrosive environment.  

Rugged Solutions  

In simple terms, a hazardous-classified location is any area, building, commercial or industrial premises likely to be exposed to fire or explosion due to the presence of flammable gases, vapors, flammable liquids, combustible dust and other similar materials in exceedingly high amounts.  

Hazardous locations can be classified into various categories according to the nature of flammable vapors or liquids. In North America, a class/division system is primarily used, and regulations related to the design and manufacturing of industrial equipment are formulated by the National Electric Code (NEC), Canadian Electric Code (CEC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).  

Outside of North America, a similar “zone” system is used to define and categorize hazardous areas and potential risk sources. 

To meet the requirements of midstream and downstream oil and gas, and petrochemical industrial environments, there are several methods to make equipment flame- and explosion-proof. 

For computing systems, equipment manufacturers that serve the market can design and manufacture thin clients, industrial panel PCs, and touch-panel PCs that are UL-certified, non-incendive (equipment with electrical/electronic circuitry that cannot, under normal operating conditions, cause ignition of a specified flammable gas, vapor, dust, etc., due to arcing or thermal means) and that meet the requirements for the various classes/divisions/zones within a plant or station. 

Arista, for example, offers a range of panel-mount and fully sealed touch-panel PCs for the oil, gas and petrochemical industry. The fully enclosed version is constructed of stainless steel and has no external vents. This design protects the components from gases, dust, dirt, moisture, chemicals, oil and other external contaminants in an explosive environment.  

According to Shu, the touch-panel PCs in various sizes are routinely deployed as human machine interface (HMI) workstations in automated tank farm and loading rack operations. In North America, tank farms serve as the primary distribution point for petroleum products that ultimately arrive at gas stations.   

These petroleum products typically arrive at the tank farm by pipeline or rail car and are then delivered to the tanks operated by various companies and agencies. Large quantities of products, primarily flammable and combustible liquids, are stored at these locations and are then distributed to service stations and other facilities by tanker truck. 

For this type of application, the panel-mount PCs are fanless, ruggedized systems certified for use in Class 1, Division 2, Class 2, Division 2, and Class 3, Divisions 1 and 2 hazardous areas. The systems are installed with a Windows operating system, and the high-resolution touch screens can be manipulated by operators wearing heavy-duty industrial gloves.  

The company also offers fanless thin client versions as well, which are increasingly popular in the oil, gas and petrochemical industry as a cost-effective way to develop a virtual desktop for more centralized management.  

With remote accessibility, it is easier to manage, store and use the data, and IT administrators can conveniently access any device connected to the server and make changes. Moreover, thin clients are easiest to configure, manage and deploy. 

To maintain a completely safe industrial working environment, midstream and downstream oil and gas producers, as well as petrochemical product manufacturers, must install computing systems and peripherals that meet the industry regulations and security standards for hazardous locations across the globe.  

By working with leading providers of computing platforms with experience in the industry, facility managers can obtain the UL-certified, non-incendive, corrosion-resistant thin clients, industrial panel PCs, touch-panel PCs and other critical equipment that will stand up to harsh industrial environments. 

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