B1SmartHome has installed SCSI’s Almond 3S alarm and automation solution at Yarra Station Vineyard in the Yarra Valley in Victoria. The system is instrumental in securing the site and providing remote automation capabilities and plant monitoring. This is a sweet installation that shows the power of the latest security and automation technology.
DRIVING up into the Yarra Valley with SCSI’s Chad Wright to take a look at an Almond security and automation solution installed by B1SmartHome at Yarra Station Vineyard, I’m not sure what sort of system I’ll find but in the back of my mind I’m thinking security application. As it happens, I’m completely wrong. What made this solution so enjoyable to cover was that automation is its heart. Almond 3s is integral to the daily operation of Yarra Station Vineyard. Later I reflect that this should have come as no surprise – our review of Almond 3s earlier in the year showed it to be a hardy solution with significant capabilities in networking, automation and integration, supporting a huge range of compatible third-party security sensors.
As we drive, Wright tells me that Viktor Krstew and Tony Dimitrijevic of integrator B1SmartHome made a considerable investment in Almond.
“Victor and Tony spent a long time getting to grips with the product – they wanted to make sure it was reliable, flexible and future proof,” Wright tells me. “Once they realised how capable the system was, they invested heavily in their own $A100,000+ show room facility in Melbourne office to show off its capabilities. As you’ll see today, they’re not only interested in the security capabilities of the system, the automation side is vital to their business as well.
“B1SmartHome’s commitment to the product, the effort they put into testing – has given us the opportunity to get feedback from a real-world application. It’s been excellent to have an integrator partner that is serious about field applications. We can do a lot of testing in-house but field testing a challenging application with a committed integrator and an end user who has a networking mindset has made the entire process extremely valuable.”
When we arrive and sit down with Tony, Viktor and Yarra Station Vineyard owner Con Kyriazis it’s obvious these guys have known each other a long time. But behind the bonhomie sharp points keep intruding. For Con it’s an intense operational imperative – the ability to control and monitor core systems remotely. Meanwhile, the B1SmartHome team specialises in security and home automation and the focus of the boys is all about drawing the most from a solution in service of a valued customer. At all times there’s a sense of B1SmartHome reaching out to encompass nebulous challenges – automating multiple pieces of standalone farm equipment across many locations to deliver centralised management via cloud.
According to Viktor, before this installation Con’s hunger for remote control informed by detailed remote monitoring was being handled by a patchwork of onsite and online systems.
“What Con was doing more recently at Yarra Station was team viewing into a PC onsite that allowed him to access some of the controls onsite from a remote workstation – this meant he could see which pumps had run,” Viktor explains. “But he wanted a system that gave him more control than that whilst automating a lot of systems. Con doesn’t live here and when offsite he doesn’t know what’s going on at the vineyard. In the past he hasn’t been able to see alarms or check the state of the irrigation system in real time.
“Before we put this system in, Con couldn’t sleep properly – he’d wake up at 2am every morning and team view into the local workstation to check on pump pressures. But he never stopped wanting more oversight, more control. When I first showed Con our new home automation solution the conversation immediately turned towards applying it to this application. I have an electrical engineering background, not a farming background, so it took me a while to get my head around the systems he has here and to come up with a way for Almond to manage the site.”
Viktor says there was an extended period of testing before the installation.
“We have been operating 20 years and we have a reputation for installing reliable solutions so for me to go with Almond, to begin installing it, that means the product is very good and has passed on all our tests,” he explains. “I never got anywhere near this stage with our previous product. This is a solution we will mostly put into domestic and small commercial applications and this challenging site has given us a huge amount of confidence in the product – the reliability, the wireless range, the communication over 200m over water. It can handle the cold, the heat and the dust of a challenging installation environment and has not missed a beat.”
Yarra Station is a working vineyard with a range of grape varietals it supplies to well-known labels. As any vineyard must, a considerable investment has been made in dam, bore and irrigation infrastructure. But Yarra Station is different. Owner, Con, has long juggled operation and management of the vineyard with other work commitments. And having an IT background, he’s always leaned towards automation and remote management. Despite this, attaining those functionalities has never been easy – much of the automation equipment used to drive the irrigation systems around the site Con made himself and when offsite, he’s always had to bridge the significant gap between rubber and road.
As Con explains, for him, installation of the Almond system is the culmination of many years working towards creating a solution that would allow remote monitoring and control.
“I started out with Yarra Station in 1995 and it’s always been a one-man show,” Con explains. “At the start it was part hobby and part business but over time I got more serious about it and became a farmer. We started out with 20 acres along the front and I quickly found there was a lot more hands on work and a lot less glamour to growing vines than most people realise. You need to be efficient in your farming methods but to be efficient you need to know exactly what’s going on. Yarra Station is 70 acres in size with 50 acres in under vines, so the complexity of the operation has increased over the years.
“Water is a particularly important element of the process – you need just the right amount and you can’t afford to waste it. When you’re living at the site year-round this is not a great problem and you can handle irrigation manually, but I was not here full time, did not want the cost or the management of staff, and having an IT background, I quickly started thinking about ways I could automate some of the processes and control them remotely.”
But Con’s thinking was ahead of its time and the technology and infrastructure that could do what he wanted to do simply wasn’t there.
“I designed and built an irrigation system to allow a degree of remote management – that system included about 20km of network cable – it’s old now but remains functional,” he explains. “We started out with one pump and now there are three. With this solution, I had a certain level of automation with the pumps based on scheduling, but I could not control them remotely – they were either on or off and if they were on when they shouldn’t have been on, I had no idea. If that happened, water would simply be lost. To water 50 acres of vines throughout the growing season requires a million litres of water – if the pump solenoids are stuck open you might blow a million litres of water in a couple of days – you just can’t afford it.”
According to Con, the alternative to automation or living on site, is having more workers but he says there’s not enough margin in the business to support staff.
“Running the business efficiently means minimising workers and preserving water – it’s a balancing act,” he explains. “In drought conditions we might need to run the de-sal plant virtually all the time and the plant uses a lot of power.”
As time went by, the plant got more complicated at Yarra Station and that made the business of monitoring and automating operations more challenging still. Also, Con wanted to ensure he would be able to pass on these best practice efficiency business principals to his son Peiter once he’s ready to retire.
“We had a drought in 2009 and I installed a de-sal unit to treat bore water, but this too could not be controlled remotely and never knew the state of the system at any given time,” Con says. “Being operationally blind meant I’d often have to get in the car and drive up and back to check what was going on – often in the middle of the night. This has been going on for decades, so when I saw the Almond home automation system at Tony’s place during a social visit, we started to talk about ways I could use it to change the way the systems here are controlled and monitored. As a result of that conversation, Tony set up a trial system at the de-salination plant on the property.”
The new system has also highlight problems Con had not noticed before.
“Something the new system discovered was that the bore pump was unable to maintain proper pressure – subsequent investigation showed it was blocked – as a result we’ve bought a new bore pump,” he explains. “With the old system I would never have known. The de-sal plant set to run off-peak – I’d establish whether it had run by checking the hour meter, but I would not know if it was running at peak efficiency and generating the expected levels of fresh water for irrigation.”
Almond allows management of the vineyard plant, not just monitoring.
“In another instance, I had a pressure gauge to change and have been avoiding doing it because I would have to drive down to the pump house, turn off the pumps, flush the lines, come back up here to change the gauge, go back to the pump house and start the pump then come back here to establish whether the new gauge was working properly – it was a fiddly and time consuming job,” Con explains.
“With the new system I turned off the pump remotely, changed the pressure gauge, turned the pump back on and did not have to move from my desk. Over all it has made life so much easier. It doesn’t matter where I am, I can see what’s going on with the site. If there’s a fault, I’ll know and can react. Say a pump solenoid gets stuck open – losing a solenoid is quite common as they are installed in the ground and experience coil shorts. That might happen when the solenoid is open or half open or closed and in the past I would not know. Now I get an alert and can remotely turn off the pump and address the issue in the morning knowing I’m not losing 1000 litres of water per minute overnight. That’s huge for me.”
When we move over to the equipment room workstation, I get a stronger sense of the size and layout of the vineyard.
“What’s great about the system now is that I can monitor soil moisture levels and then manage irrigation remotely according to that information – this means I can manage water and time more effectively,” Con says pointing to the screen. “You can see here in the GUI the blocks around the site. We have 1ha of new vines and these babies need to be irrigated more carefully than established vines. Even still, every block is irrigated every second day for 4 hours at a time.
“From an operational perspective, the key thing is to ensure we maintain the subsoil moisture because once you’ve lost that it’s very hard to get back. Something else that comes into play with management of the system is weather reports. If conditions are going to be hotter than expected, we can undertake additional irrigation.”
With automation covered by the initial installation, Viktor explains that adding security and some remote access control are next on the agenda – in fact this is going on during our meeting.
“We at stage 2 right now – that’s adding security – you can see the techs working on that part of the installation now,” he explains. “There have been some issues in the valley with break-ins so we’re putting in security sensors in the main equipment shed, as well as on the roller doors, and there’s remote control of the roller doors, which is also controlled by the Almond app. That’s the great thing with Almond – you can just add on to the system a little at a time.”
Walking the Site
Yarra Station is a working vineyard replete with heavy equipment along with plant sheds that spend a lot of time open to the elements. Like all farm sheds, the environment is industrial – there’s plenty of dust, organic matter, metal objects, vibration, heat in summer, frost in winter, insects, water seepage and anything else life on the land can throw at an electrical system.
To keep things operating in this environment you need a robust controller, quality cabling thoughtfully run with devices protected from anything the elements, the operation and hundreds of thousands of hyperactive spiders can throw at them. If you’re installing wireless links as the B1SmartHome boys are doing here, then you need to think about attaining and retaining line of sight and minimising the intrusion of metal shields or barriers.
As Tony explains, the security component of the system is comprehensive.
“What we are working on adding here in the main equipment shed is PIR sensors, reed switches for doors, door controllers for roller doors,” he explains. “Node zero is simply an Almond hub – that’s all that’s required – 4G comms is integrated into the hub. All the sensors are Zigbee so integrating these is very simple. You can see here a 3D printed mount for the hub which is a concept mount that SCSI and the manufacturer has made specially for this application – it shows their commitment to what we are doing.”
“From hub via the cloud to smart devices communications is 4G. Locally the hub communicates with links and sensors via wireless. In this application much of the plant is remote from this location and remote from the hub in the de-sal plant – the pump house and de-sal plant are connected via wireless at least 150-200 metres away. We’ve also wired some low-level plant switches to wireless links in order to integrate those inputs with Almond. This part is quite complex.”
We drive down to the de-sal plant. There are some substantial dams on the property – the distance between the de-sale plant and the pump house is considerable. In the de-sal plant there is another Almond hub and this communicates locally by wireless to switches via Zigbee wireless communicators – these are located on adjacent to controllers and are hardwired into them on the plant side – it reports low pressure on the de-sal plant and the Almond then reports the event to Con. We test the length of time it takes for a signal to reach Con’s phone when he opens the pump house door and it’s probably one third of a second – very low latency.
According to Viktor, the labelling of inputs and outputs in the app is a key aspect of management.
“The way we are using the automation – the complexity of the systems we are supporting – means it’s important to get the naming of inputs and outputs right with the Almond and that’s something we are working on with SCSI and the manufacturer to increase the customisation,” he explains. “I think they did not imagine the sorts of possibilities we are exploring when it comes to applications, but the level of development is excellent. Correct naming makes managing Almond much easier for Con.”
“The 3S is designed to provide security and automation for commercial and domestic premises but it doesn’t specifically know what it’s switching,” Viktor explains. “The key is that inputs and outputs are properly labelled so they can be managed in the app.”
Viktor explains that the B1SmartHome team thinks of the pumps as the head end and the solenoids as the field devices when conceptualising Yarra Station’s system.
“Almond can control all of them with actions happening as the result of solenoids being open or closed – there are rules that can be applied to the way the automation functions,” he says. “On the irrigation side, Almond monitors the status of every solenoid so if there’s a fault with one, Con will be able to close it remotely rather than turning off an entire pump. Operationally, he gets reports to the Almond app and doesn’t need to get up in the middle of the night to check on things – in fact he doesn’t need to worry about the status of the farm systems anymore – if there’s a change he will know about it in a few hundredths of a second.”
Next, we look at the installation of hardwired sensors connected to wireless links on the side of the pumphouse. The install is tidily handled in a box with a clear poly cover.
“We decided to install the wireless links on the outside of the pump house to ensure there was no Faraday effect that limited range in changing conditions,” Viktor says. “We tested the links mounted inside the shed and they worked but I just didn’t feel comfortable installing wireless in a metal shed.
“All the pump switch relays and alarm sensors here go back across the dam via wireless to the Almond hub in the de-sal centre – the alarms are the bottom row in the control box while the process control links are the top ones. This is a full-on industrial application and open and close doesn’t cut it any more – you need wiggle room and room to customise a little bit – that means moving beyond reed switches and motion sensors, too. It’s a more complicated application than it seems because there’s nuance in terms of the inputs from the plant – there’s on, off, automatic. You need to communicate this nuance to the end user and that’s not always the easiest thing to do.”
According to Viktor, Almond 3s has been ideal for Yarra Station Vineyard.
“We started out providing automation and monitoring for the irrigation system and we are currently installing security and further enhancing the interface,” Viktor explains. “This will give control and information, so when Con loses a piece of plant functionality, he is informed and can respond proactively from a remote location. The test system we installed to manage the irrigation system has been excellent – it has never failed. In fact, I think over time, this solution will pay for itself in terms of increased efficiency. It will save water in the event of solenoid failure, save time better spent doing other things and reduce stress.
“As an integrator, we’ve invested a lot in Almond and we’ve done a lot of work in the background, a lot of testing. That process has seen some disappointment – we went down the path with another product, but it became clear the company was not serious about supporting the system to meet our requirements. With Almond, we found the product overseas and then we found out that SCSI was the local distributor and across the board there’s been great support.”
“When we first spoke about this solution, I asked Con, ‘what if our system could alert you when you have issues and generate alarms and notifications you could view anywhere in the world’?” he explains. “I asked Con what he would do if he saw an alarm that a pump was still running when it should not be. He said he would physically drive to a shed and manually turn a rotary switch. I asked ‘what if you could press a button on a smart phone screen and switch pumps on and off in real time?’ He said that would change his life.”
Con leans forward in his chair.
“To be honest, it has changed my life,” he says slowly. “Even though Almond is still running on a trial basis in the de-sal plant and pump house, it already makes a huge difference. A change in pump pressure might switch off the de-sal plant and if we have no rain, that would mean we could run out of fresh water and I wouldn’t know about it. Just that possibility means regular checks are required. To now know exactly what’s going on with the de-sal plant in a huge advantage.
“This is a commercial operation that depends on water security. The Almond system is allowing me to manage water security remotely, as well as making the entire operation more efficient. Comparatively sized vineyards use 3-4 times more water than we do because they are not automated. The first system I built made the operation more efficient, but this new system takes that to another level. It is saving time and money and it’s reducing stress.”