As a WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider), the ability to remotely monitor everything at our remote sites is absolutely critical. Network uptime is always at the forefront of everyone’s mind in the industry, and we will do whatever it takes to ensure that all of our sites remain stable and online from network infrastructure through to power systems.
WISPs probably have the greatest diversity when it comes to telecommunications carriers. Being a WISP, our power systems range from small solar sites only drawing 10’s of Watts right up to larger sites drawing hundreds of Watts (this is a 24/7 power requirement), to grid power, generator backup, and even wind power. Furthermore, here in New Zealand, we’re known not only to have harsh environmental conditions (probably the worst UV radiation in the world, salt spray in many areas, strong winds and heavy rain – and also snow in the Southern areas), but we are also at the forefront of infrastructure engineering when it comes to telecommunications.
I’ve been in my line of work for several years now, and I’ve certainly seen a lot. It only takes a couple of Saturday night callouts before you realise the necessity of protecting your outdoor cabling and infrastructure – but what about inside the cabinet? We’ve been affected by all sorts of wildlife big and small – from cows chewing unprotected cables, right down to tiny ants making nests inside electronics and ultimately causing premature failure.
So how do we monitor that everything is online and stable? Well, this has been the question that’s been plaguing me since day one. I couldn’t count how many times I’ve posted on various forums and Facebook groups asking about remote monitoring for sites, and the answers always come back the same – some over complicated system with an Arduino or Raspberry Pi that doesn’t quite do what we want it to.
We’ve tried all sorts of solar charge controllers and have never quite had the results we’ve wanted in terms of remote monitoring. Believe it or not, the best way we could find to monitor Lithium battery levels at one of our critical solar sites was with an IP camera pointing at a battery computer screen!
This solution, along with various DC voltage monitors etc is what we’ve used to “get by”. But it’s been less than ideal. For instance, in bad weather conditions the system above relies on our staff periodically logging in to the camera to check the battery levels! To add to this, we’d never found a one-stop-shop solution – no single portal to monitor ALL of our sites from the office (or as we call it, a NOC – Network Operation Centre) or even smart phone.
We’ve recently secured a regional contract to build over 100 new transmitter sites to deliver internet services to rural communities in NZ. For our small country, that’s fairly substantial. But as they say, with great power comes great responsibility – no matter what, we HAD to find a solution to our power monitoring requirements.
Then finally, in walks Victron – our knight in shining armour (almost).
As part of our contract, we opened our doors to various suppliers to tender for contracts for different parts of our build – from civil work, to radio supply, and of course power delivery. A local company (conveniently located just up the road from our NOC) introduced me to the Victron product range. At first impression, I was hesitant. I’d been here before; some product that doesn’t quite do what I want it to. But regardless, I ordered in some products and got them on the bench for some R&D.
The heart of our requirements turned out to be the Venus GX. Similar to the Colour Control GX (but without the touch screen that would serve no purpose for us), the Venus GX is a little device that interfaces many Victron products to the internet to be displayed on the VRM portal. But what’s more, the GX product range (which has been substantially growing in the last 6 months or so) also has a great feature called DVCC (Distributed Voltage and Current Control) which allows all of the devices connected to the GX device to talk to each other! This in turn, allows sharing of battery BMS, temperature sensors, even telling a grid charger to dial back its current when a parallel solar charge controller is getting lots of sun. This blew me away!
But aside from the Venus GX, the other device that really takes the cake is the BMV-700. Somewhat very similar to the battery computer in the previous photo as shown by our IP camera, the BMV-700 offers one key feature I’ve been asking for – a digital interface to other devices. And that’s just it – when paired with the Venus GX (or any GX device), we can now remotely view our batteries’ SoC (State of Charge) in the VRM portal. And it can even email us when the SoC drops below a predefined percentage!
While we’re only at the early stages of our build, we’ve probably deployed about 10 GX devices to the field – and I’ve been very impressed with the results. Most of our sites also feature a BMV-700 too, however for some of the larger sites we’ve opted to use Pylontech Lithium batteries (which conveniently have official support with Victron) which have a built in BMS which pretty well does the same as a BMV-700.
To add to that, the BlueSolar charge controllers that we’re now deploying (and a small handful of mains chargers) also have a VE.Direct port which can plug into the Venus GX, allowing us to graph and view how many kWh our panels are producing in real time.
So far, I’ve harped on about the great and amazing things that Victron can do for us. But what about the bad things? Well, there is one thing that I wish Victron would catch on to (please Victron, are you reading this?), and that is rackmountable devices. That’s right, not everyone using Victron products is trying to tuck them into the back of an RV or motorhome.
I’d say that around 80% of our sites have (or will have) 19” rack mount enclosures – which is very standard for the telco industry. So far, I’ve had to suck it up and bolt down chargers and charge controllers onto rack shelves. This might not sound like such a big issue, but for one it takes time to mount (remember, we’re talking about close to 100 sites with rack enclosures), but also each large device takes up to about 4-5 RU (1 RU = 44mm), whereas I feel this could be consolidated into 1-2 RU. Space efficiency is important in our industry.
So, while I feel they’re great for the WISP/telco industry, many carriers may overlook Victron products because they look like “consumer-grade stuff” as they are not easily rack mountable. In my opinion, I feel that if some of the larger products such as solar charge controllers, inverter chargers, the higher power end of Orion DC-DC converters (also very handy products!) and the Venus GX devices were available in a 19” rackmount format, this would open up Victron products to a whole world of telco industries that otherwise may have overlooked their product range. Remember, WISPs are very “hands on” and will do whatever it takes to get the job done – whereas some of the larger telcos tend to stick to more of an “industry standard” approach.
So now, we finally have a simple but very comprehensive solution to remotely monitor all aspects of the power system at each one of our sites – and all from a very handy web portal (there is also an app for smart phones). I can be anywhere in the world, and in a matter of seconds can view the power status of all of our sites. You can even sort the list by order of battery SoC or battery voltage.
The Victron product range when coupled to a GX device has been an absolute game changer for us, and now I can spend more of my Saturday evenings enjoying my social life rather than thinking about the status of my network. Thank you Victron!
Infrastructure Engineer for StrataNet Limited.