To maintain the quality of vaccines, pharmaceuticals, blood and tissue samples, research materials, and other medical inventory stored in refrigerators and freezers, personnel must frequently monitor and record the temperature inside each cold storage unit. Installing a remote monitoring system with temperature sensors can save time, money, and anxiety. Systems that use cloud-based technology display the real-time status of all monitored conditions, on a mobile device, and send alerts when temperatures move outside the safe range (see Figure 1).
Below are answers to questions to ask before installing a cloud-based monitoring system:
1. What is required to use a remote monitoring system?
Most remote monitoring systems require an internet or WiFi connection and access to an electrical outlet. Programming is done through a website, so it’s easiest to use a computer for the initial setup. If you don’t have an internet connection at your location, you’ll want to choose a cellular system. Make sure there’s sufficient signal strength at your site, and check the signal quality in the area before purchasing a cellular device.
2. How do we determine what kind of monitoring system and sensors we need?
A reputable manufacturer will have a well-trained support team that can assess your needs even without a site visit to determine which products are best for your application. The monitoring system representative will determine the type of system that would best serve your operation, the number of base units you’ll need, and the types of sensors required. The number of sensors a base unit can monitor varies. Make sure to evaluate your needs and select one that can accommodate your present situation and future growth. The representative should also be able to provide tips on the placement of the sensors you’re purchasing.
If you feel you need the rep to check out your refrigerators, freezers, and work space, many companies can set up a video conference or Face Time chat to substitute for being on site. Note that there should not be a cost for a demo, consultation, or assistance throughout the sales process. Be sure to ask if there are any fees or licenses to keep using the monitoring equipment after you purchase it.
3. Are sensors included with a monitoring system?
In most cases, sensors are sold separately. The sensors you select depend on the conditions you want to monitor, how many you can connect to your base unit, and your specific application. For example, cloud-based monitoring systems and sensors are a great help to facilities that must comply with CDC cold storage requirements, such as those participating in the Vaccines for Children Program. That is because they include CDC-compliant features such as temperature displays adhered to the outside of the refrigerator to clearly show the current interior temperature, NIST-calibrated temperature probes buffered in a bottle filled with either glycol or glass beads, and data-logging capability.
Temperature sensors pre-installed in a bottle filled with glycol or glass beads are ideal for medical cold storage units (see Figure 2). These bottles keep the sensors at the same temperature as the liquids inside the refrigerator or freezer. They also prevent false high-temperature alarms when a door is opened or the freezer goes into a defrost cycle.
4. Do monitoring systems only work with the manufacturer’s sensors?
Not necessarily. For example, certain monitoring units can connect with most 4–20 mA sensors and transmitters regardless of the brand. When selecting sensors, you might have a choice between ones that are designed by the manufacturer to work specifically with the monitoring system or universal components made by a third party. If the components are not made by the system manufacturer, you’ll want to find out if they have been tested with the monitor you are choosing and if you need to work with another vendor to purchase the parts.
5. Is the monitoring system easy to set up, or do we need to hire an electrician?
Many monitoring systems are quick and easy to install, and users can often set them up without hiring an outside expert. Look for one that has only a few simple physical installation steps, for example, 1) mount the device to the wall or somewhere secure, 2) plug it into an electrical outlet and an internet connection, and 3) connect the sensors.
The sensors are connected to the base unit’s terminal strip with wire, which is included with many sensors. The range of many wired sensors can be extended up to 2000 feet away from the base unit by adding wire that can be easily purchased at any home store. It’s a good idea to hire an electrician if you need to run wires through walls or ceilings.
Usually, once you plug in the device and connect the sensors, you create an account on the manufacturer’s designated website and begin using the device. There should be no fee to create an account and use the site.
If the manufacturer does not offer installation services, ask if they can recommend a local representative in your area who can set up your system. If not, make sure they provide free technical support via the phone or e-mail to walk you through the installation and answer any questions you might have about programming and daily usage.
6. Is there a monthly fee to access all of the functionality of a monitoring device?
Many web- or cloud-based systems provide free functionality, with some limitations. You might have to purchase a premium subscription to unlock features such as text messaging, phone call alerts, and unlimited data-logging access.
7. Should we get a system that is wired or wireless? Will we need to have a phone line, cable, internet, or something else?
Wireless can mean two different things as it relates to monitoring: how the system communicates its data to the outside world and how the sensors communicate with the system. The most popular systems require an internet or WiFi connection, but if that’s not an option, cellular- and phone-based systems are available.
A hard-wired monitoring system connects the sensors to the base device with wires. A wireless system uses built-in radio transmitters to communicate with the base unit. Some monitoring systems can accommodate a combination of hard-wired and wireless sensors.
8. Can one system monitor several sensor inputs around the clock?
Once the monitoring system is installed and programmed, it will constantly read the information from the sensors 24/7. Cloud-based systems have data-logging capabilities and store limitless amounts of information that you can view from any internet-connected device via a website or app.
If the system detects any sensor readings outside the preset range, it will immediately send an alert to the people on your contact list. If you don’t want all your personnel to receive notifications at the same time, some devices can be programmed to send alerts in a tiered fashion or on a schedule. Multiple communications methods like phone, e-mail, and text provide extra assurance that you’ll get the alert. It’s a good idea to check the number of people the system can reach and if the system automatically cycles through the contact list until someone responds. Some systems allow for flexible scheduling so that off-duty personnel don’t receive alerts.
9. How does the monitoring system supplier or manufacturer respond to emergencies? When an alarm is triggered, do they call our staff, police, fire department, and emergency medical professionals?
In most cases, the environmental monitoring system supplier is not a call center. They manufacture devices that constantly monitor conditions like temperature, power failures, and intrusion. You can program the system to notify the appropriate personnel when sensor readings fall out of the preset range or when the power goes out. It is up to your staff to take action at that point. These systems are not intended for life safety applications.
10. Do monitoring systems have a back-up power system that will ensure the alarming function still works if the power goes out or if someone disconnects the power?
The safest choice is a cloud-based system that comes with a built-in battery backup that will last for hours in the event of a power failure. Cloud-based units constantly communicate a signal to the cloud to validate its online status. If the communication link is interrupted—for example, by a power outage or an employee accidentally switching off the unit—the system generates an alert indicating that the internet connection is lost or that there is a cellular communications problem. Users are notified about the disruption through phone, text, or e-mail. All data collected during this time will be stored in the device and will be uploaded to the cloud when the internet connection is restored.
If you opt for a cloud-based monitoring system, make sure the infrastructure used to create the cloud platform is monitored 24/7 by the manufacturer’s team. Ask if they have multiple backups across the country to ensure the system is never down.
11. What are the costs associated with repairs to the system?
Purchase your system from a reputable manufacturer that provides a warranty and offers full repair services in the event the product stops working as it should. Also, research to make sure their tech support team is knowledgeable and willing to walk you through any questions you have about your monitoring system. Often, support specialists can diagnose and correct unit setup and programming issues over the phone.
It helps to record your observations regarding the problem so that the tech team can look for trends and circumstances concerning the issue and better diagnose the problem. Ideally, the manufacturer can provide loaner units if the problem requires mailing the device to their facility for repair.
Written by Oluwakemi Adi,