How to upgrade a communications network in a most dangerous place

27 March 2019

In 2013, South Africa’s only inland crude oil refinery decided it was time for a major overhaul of its ageing communications system. However, the plant soon realised it would not be as straightforward as it sounds – here’s why. 

Natref in Sandton, South Africa describes itself as a technologically advanced refinery. A joint venture between Sasol Oil and Total South Africa, its raison d’être is to refine heavy crude oil.

With such a big and important function to carry out every day in what can only be described as lethal conditions, bosses at the plant were only too aware that a cutting edge communications system was of paramount importance. Natref began investigating the upgrade of the communications system with a view to adopting new technology. However, it soon became evident that with the upgrade of the plant itself, the environment was no longer conducive to IS radio because of the hazardous materials being manufactured in the plant.

The initial RFI went out in 2013 but was later retracted because there was no clear indication or guidance as to which technology platform would be most suitable to the plant. Then in late 2015, the tender was issued for a Mission Critical Communications Network that could supply ATEX/IS equipment (technology permitted for use in highly flammable places).

However, from the start it was clear that the tender was flawed with regards to its specifications as a lot of safety boxes needed ticking.

Meanwhile, the Natref plant upgrade began in 2014, which lead to serious challenges with regards to the usage of MPT and DMR Tier III.

The Natref plant is densely constructed, so its telecoms equipment supplier Verstay recommended an extension of the existing Sasol TETRA network in addition to upgrading the system from MPT to ATEX TETRA.

This spurred the likes of Motorola, Airbus and Sepura into action and they all offered TETRA solutions in competition with Hytera. Motorola’s pitch was highly cost effective and so stood out, but the equipment was in the process of being withdrawn from the market.

In addition, the client also had to contend with under two watt output instead of five watt output on the MPT 1327 radios. With diligent training this obstacle was overcome, but another remained – how to interface MPT 1327 with TETRA.

What could have been a tricky situation turned out to be the opposite. Luckily, a local company called Expert System Solutions, which has implemented a Hytera TETRA network for Sasol in the past, submitted a solution compatible with the current Sasol TETRA network. ESS had form, so It made sense for obvious reasons.

The POC between MPT and TETRA was proven and that cleared the way for a total ATEX solution. Once the network order was issued, so was the terminal tender. 

Verstay, the former incumbent, also submitted a tender. Part of its pitch was the fact it had carried out prior direct end user conferences and endless supporting visits to Sasol and Natref.

However, Hytera complied to all the specifications that were listed.

Furthermore, what actually clinched the deal for Hytera was the fact that all of the equipment, as well as the software, was developed and manufactured in-house.

A total of two base stations were added to the existing Sasol network and 600 ATEX terminals and spare batteries were deployed. The rest is history.

The plant now benefits from a safe and secure communications environment and cross communication into the existing Sasol network.  

The first plant in South Africa to embrace a fully-fledged Hytera ATEX network, it  can now pave the way for fellow petrochemical plants in the region and further afield to upgrade from non-ATEX standard equipment to a full ATEX radio set up when required.

Most importantly, for Hytera anyway, is that the feedback from the client has been nothing short of complimentary.

It says the new communications network at the plant came about after many years of investigating various possible networks and platforms that would fit easily in to such a risky environment. 

It adds that the pure functionality of the radio network and the end user terminals lives up to the expectations required, as promised.

What’s more, additional equipment for both the network, as well as terminals have been procured since the handing over and commissioning of the entire system, says Hytera.