Contributed Commentary by Minturn Osborne
January 29, 2024 | Sales reps for battery monitoring systems are tasked with two objectives:
- Convince the customer that they need battery monitoring, and
- Convince the customer they need their particular battery monitoring system.
There is a third and less compelling objective: dissuade the customer from designing and building their own in-house battery monitoring systems (BMS).
There are more than a few battery manufacturers and larger telecom, railroad, data center, and utility companies which have been convinced that it would be cheaper and more practical to build a system in house rather than buying a commercially available system with a proven track record, such as Phoenix Broadband, Alber, CellWatch, and BTech, to name a few. This has been discussed with my colleagues at length and our collective response to those suggesting this approach and those considering it, has been to say, “Iceberg, right ahead!”
Of course, it is entirely feasible. To companies who have engineering resources, a small project that caters to your specific requirements sounds attractive as the development time may seem reasonable and the cost appears acceptable. A good in-house engineering team can come up with a viable targeted solution for monitoring a specific chemistry or type of battery.
Furthermore, in the near term, limited in-house defined applications will always have a better ROI than multi-function/multi chemistry BMSs. In the long-haul, however, an in-house solution will not survive and end up costing significantly more than the initial investment.
Primary considerations include (but are not limited to) the following:
- What type of battery is being monitored? If there are lead acid batteries at a customer site along with the Ni-Cads in place, would the in-house battery monitor be able to handle multiple types with the same system?
- What parameters require monitoring? Companies that have considered a home-grown solution typically believe they only need a few features to meet their current preventive maintenance requirements. They do not account for shifting regulatory environments, changes in battery design, cyber security considerations, etc.
- How will the BMS be integrated into a company’s existing network monitoring software? Can the in-house battery monitor be connected to the existing monitoring software package and be upgraded as new versions and functions become available in that software? Companies who have pursued in-house battery monitoring solutions start out keeping their systems off the network and do not integrate them into higher level management systems. However, at some point, management is going to ask why there is a separate monitoring software just for critical power.
- Cyber-security is increasingly a critical component for network administrators. Battery monitor manufacturers have security teams constantly looking for vulnerabilities and provide software security updates which require software tools and man hours. Management will need to ask whether the in-house battery monitoring will be able to keep up with the development required to keep pace?
- Regulatory shifts are commonplace across all industries and as mean time to respond (MTTR) and available back up power requirements are being legislated on a state-by-state basis. Can the in-house battery monitoring adapt to meet those shifts?
Decision makers and budget holders have to keep in mind that their solution has to evolve constantly. There are shifts in industry standards which will require updates to hardware design, knowledge bases, etc. Developers come and go and with them goes the knowledge base. Once the team moves on it becomes more difficult to maintain the system, i.e. ongoing support for documentation, bugs, new features, etc.
Some of this can be overcome by having an outside manufacturing company build the product for you. However, after the ongoing costs of development, maintaining the systems, manufacturing, certifications, creating manuals, drawings, other documentation or videos begin to pile up, the initial savings are swamped by unexpected costs. Alternatively, those companies who already have systems created have certain aspects (like embedded sensors on Lithium-Ion batteries) which might be integrated with commercially available BMSs.
Simply put, dedicated battery monitoring companies have invested tens of thousands of engineering hours over 20+ years, dedicated to understanding: batteries, battery failure modes, networks, patents updates, manufacturing, maintaining and supporting products, compliance and certifications (UL, FCC, etc.), usability and future proofing, supporting multiple chemistries in one platform, and intelligent algorithms to interpret BMS outputs.
Companies are free replicate those efforts on a smaller scale for a particular application. They just need to make sure there are enough lifeboats.
Minturn Osborne is a recognized expert in Battery Monitoring Systems, having been in the industry for over twenty years managing accounts which include the largest corporations in the Telecommunications, Data Center, Utility and Railroad industries. He has presented papers at BattCon (www.battcon.com) on topics such as NERC compliance and expanding BMS architecture to become IIOT solutions. He can be reached at email@example.com.