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The Importance of I/O Cards When Performing a DCS Retrofit


The following tip is from the ISA book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. This is Tip #24, and was written by Hunter.


This is a tip I simply cannot stress enough. If a team does not understand the intricate electrical details of the old control system and the new, really REALLY bad things can happen.

Concept: Performing a control system retrofit without completely understanding the electrical characteristics of the old and replacement system I/O cards is a fast-track path to disaster. Very subtle differences can create start up nightmares.  


Details: This tip is really an extension of Tip #22 (“Details matter”). When an engineering team is faced with the task of replacing an existing distributed control system (DCS) with a new one, the first step should be an exhaustive study of the I/O card designs in the existing system and in the proposed replacement. Any differences should be investigated in detail. Here is a partial list of the items that should be checked:

Analog Cards

  • Are the points grounded or isolated from ground? (Grounded analog input cards can create ground loops and if the point is tied to ground, wiring analog signals in series with other systems may not be possible.)
  • Do the analog cards source voltage or not? (Some systems allow selection of two wire or four wire connections on a point by point basis. Does the replacement system have similar options?)
  • Are the points on a given card all the same type? (One older system allowed the user to set each channel on a card to be two-wire analog inputs, four-wire analog inputs, analog outputs, pulse inputs, and even 24V digital inputs and outputs.) Does that new system have this ability?
  • What is the impedance of the analog input card? (Older systems may have had low impedance – 50 ohms or less.) New systems tend to have 250 ohms to allow HART communications. If field indicators are present, the additional impedance can pose voltage drop problems.
  • How are the shields landed and grounded. (Different cards handle the shields differently.)
  • Does the analog cards measure the current leaving the system or returning to it? (If the old system measured the current going to the field, then transmitters will continue to function even if their return wiring is shorted to ground. Such a ground would keep the signal from reaching the DCS if it measures the return current.)

Digital Cards

Obviously, the voltage ratings must match. Using 120VAC cards for 24VDC signals will not be a good choice.

  • What is the current rating of the outputs? Are the points fused? (Be sure to check the individual channel rating, as well as the rating of groups of channels on a card. Some cards have a high per-channel rating but have a comparatively low rating for the collective current of all the points.)
  • Does the digital input card source or sink voltage? Some cards provide voltage that loops through the field contact and returns to each channel. Others provide voltage on a channel-by-channel basis and look for the field to ground it out. Still others provide no voltage and expect it to be provided externally. Some cards can take voltage from isolated sources; others require all channels (or channel groups) to use a common voltage. The new system must be compatible.
  • Does the digital output card source or sink voltage? A relay card can generally switch externally powered 24V and 120V signals on a channel by channel basis. Other digital output cards provide voltage on each channel that may be fed from external sources or fed from the card. Still other cards ground out each channel providing a current path for externally fed power. As with the digital input cards, the cards come in many different flavors that may or may not be compatible.
  • Beware of leakage currents. Some digital input cards will turn on when an input receives even a tiny fraction of current (<1mA). If the field device leaks current (as many proximity switches do) or if the signal is fed from another system digital output card that leaks 1 or 2 mA of current, the digital input will turn on and never turn off.

Intrinsically Safe Systems

If the automation retrofit project involves existing intrinsically safe barriers, then the opportunity for error is huge. A book could be written on the subject, but as a start, here is a quick list to consider:

  • Voltage drop – Intrinsically safe system voltage drops are high in general, but if the new system has a higher impedance then the existing barriers will probably not work.
  • Grounding – Some barriers are grounded internally. If the system measures returned analog signals, they may not reach the system if the barrier is grounded.
  • Supply voltage – Some barriers use an elevated supply voltage to provide more voltage to the field. Is this compatible with the new system?

If the project plan calls for a reuse of the existing barriers then the team would be wise to obtain a sample of each barrier and test it with the new control system I/O cards. Many barriers may not function when wired to the new system.  


Watch-Outs: Many vendors provide interface hardware or special connectors that supposedly allow the user to “instantly” connect the existing I/O into the new system. Evaluate these offerings carefully. In many cases, the opportunities for hardware incompatibility mentioned above still exist and need to be evaluated. (Differences in grounding, voltage drops, impedances, and so on can still wreak havoc.)

Exceptions: None.

Insight: Start with detailed schematics of the old system and the new. Investigate current limitations, leakage currents, impedances, and particularly grounding.

Rule of Thumb: The electrical analysis of the systems should NOT be assigned to a junior engineer. If just one detail is missed, whole banks of I/O may fail to function on start-up.



About the Author
Gregory K. McMillan, CAP, is a retired Senior Fellow from Solutia/Monsanto where he worked in engineering technology on process control improvement. Greg was also an affiliate professor for Washington University in Saint Louis. Greg is an ISA Fellow and received the ISA Kermit Fischer Environmental Award for pH control in 1991, the Control magazine Engineer of the Year award for the process industry in 1994, was inducted into the Control magazine Process Automation Hall of Fame in 2001, was honored by InTech magazine in 2003 as one of the most influential innovators in automation, and received the ISA Life Achievement Award in 2010. Greg is the author of numerous books on process control, including Advances in Reactor Measurement and Control and Essentials of Modern Measurements and Final Elements in the Process Industry. Greg has been the monthly "Control Talk" columnist for Control magazine since 2002. Presently, Greg is a part time modeling and control consultant in Technology for Process Simulation for Emerson Automation Solutions specializing in the use of the virtual plant for exploring new opportunities. He spends most of his time writing, teaching and leading the ISA Mentor Program he founded in 2011.


Connect with Greg



About the Author
Hunter Vegas, P.E., has worked as an instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he entered the systems integration industry and is currently working for Wunderlich-Malec as an engineering project manager in Kernersville, N.C. Hunter has executed thousands of instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms. Hunter earned a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University.


Connect with Hunter


Greg McMillan
Greg McMillan
Greg McMillan has more than 50 years of experience in industrial process automation, with an emphasis on the synergy of dynamic modeling and process control. He retired as a Senior Fellow from Solutia and a senior principal software engineer from Emerson Process Systems and Solutions. He was also an adjunct professor in the Washington University Saint Louis Chemical Engineering department from 2001 to 2004. Greg is the author of numerous ISA books and columns on process control, and he has been the monthly Control Talk columnist for Control magazine since 2002. He is the leader of the monthly ISA “Ask the Automation Pros” Q&A posts that began as a series of Mentor Program Q&A posts in 2014. He started and guided the ISA Standards and Practices committee on ISA-TR5.9-2023, PID Algorithms and Performance Technical Report, and he wrote “Annex A - Valve Response and Control Loop Performance, Sources, Consequences, Fixes, and Specifications” in ISA-TR75.25.02-2000 (R2023), Control Valve Response Measurement from Step Inputs. Greg’s achievements include the ISA Kermit Fischer Environmental Award for pH control in 1991, appointment to ISA Fellow in 1991, the Control magazine Engineer of the Year Award for the Process Industry in 1994, induction into the Control magazine Process Automation Hall of Fame in 2001, selection as one of InTech magazine’s 50 Most Influential Innovators in 2003, several ISA Raymond D. Molloy awards for bestselling books of the year, the ISA Life Achievement Award in 2010, the ISA Mentoring Excellence award in 2020, and the ISA Standards Achievement Award in 2023. He has a BS in engineering physics from Kansas University and an MS in control theory from Missouri University of Science and Technology, both with emphasis on industrial processes.


Advances in Reactor Measurement and Control
Good Tuning: A Pocket Guide, Fourth Edition
New Directions in Bioprocess Modeling and Control: Maximizing Process Analytical Technology Benefits, Second Edition
Essentials of Modern Measurements and Final Elements in the Process Industry: A Guide to Design, Configuration, Installation, and Maintenance
101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career
Advanced pH Measurement and Control: Digital Twin Synergy and Advances in Technology, Fourth Edition
The Funnier Side of Retirement for Engineers and People of the Technical Persuasion
The Life and Times of an Automation Professional - An Illustrated Guide
Advanced Temperature Measurement and Control, Second Edition
Models Unleashed: Virtual Plant and Model Predictive Control Applications

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