For The Empire District Electric Company, responding to power outages used to be akin to playing a game of cards. When customers called in, personnel created an outage ticket on paper for each individual call. In emergency situations, it wasn't unusual for the organization to generate 300 to 400 pieces of paper.
"We would have sheets of paper with names on them, and we would lay them on the table and group them according to different towns," explains Rick Wallace, manager of mapping and outage management systems (OMS). "We'd separate them to the best of our knowledge, according to circuits they were on, and try to group together the ones that were on the same circuit. Then we'd call a truck with six to eight addresses, and it would be up to the lineman to find those addresses and the device that served them." The process was time-consuming, prone to error and involved a lot of guesswork.
Empire District, which serves parts of Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma, needed a system-wide electric model of its facilities and the ability to send outages and daily work orders to its field workers wirelessly. Every meter and transformer has a GPS location, explains Wallace, and crews need to be able to collect GPS coordinate points. Today, using Intergraph software for mapping and OMS, hundreds of individual calls can be rolled into one outage ticket and transmitted to the field via satellite. Linemen use Panasonic's Toughbook 18 to see the outage displayed on a map, along with the relevant customer information.
"Linemen no longer have to try and remember where the person lives or where the fuse is," says Wallace. "This streamlines our work considerably and cuts down the time between the outage call and the linemen's arrival on the job."
Utility companies such as The Empire District are exploring new ways of using technology to manage their critical infrastructures and provide field crews with updated information--a task made all the more challenging by the rapid growth of new developments.
Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD) serves a community that is growing by 6,000 to 7,000 people a month. "There's a lot of new construction," says Kevin Fisher, director of operations. "It's difficult to keep up with it and to know where all the infrastructure is." Line locators are often required to go into areas to locate and identify lines before streets are in or even named. Using laptops with VeraNet software and built-in GPS receivers, LVVWD crews track their locations on a map in conjunction with pipe locations and transmit data to and from the field via Verizon's EV-DO network.
"Crews need a lot of drawings, and they need them quickly," says Fisher. Using CAD software, inspectors produce redline drawings that allow crews to instantly see what's being built so they can address any problems, such as a construction worker accidentally digging into one of their lines. "In the old days, if they had a main leak, they'd call it in on the radio and someone would run to the vault to get a set of drawings, copy them and run out to the field," says Fisher. "You can't treat it like you're on a country road anymore."
And as more and more country roads give way to four-lane highways, utility companies are finding that one form of communication is no longer sufficient to cover every geographical location. "When techs are in the field, they're probably using cellular technology to get into back-office systems," says Rick Elliot, national sales manager for the utilities team at Panasonic Computer Solutions Company. "But when they drive the trucks into the yard, they might use Wi-Fi to push out image updates or extract data from the laptop." In some instances units connect via a wireless hub in the trucks. And when field workers are in remote areas where cellular coverage is unavailable, they may need satellite or Wi-Fi to access back-office systems. Once utilities have determined the services available in their area, says Elliot, they are in a better position to decide what communications options they need in their devices.
So have customized wireless solutions made traditional radio systems obsolete? While some utilities are replacing their radio systems completely, others aren't quite ready for the switch. "Although there is tremendous coverage with mobile devices," notes Mark Chellis, director of mobile computing for Symbol, "there can still be a need for proprietary radio systems in remote areas."
Both Empire District and LVVWD continue to use radios, but as Fisher points out, the use of laptops with wireless capabilities has greatly reduced the amount of voice traffic.
Ed Davalos, national director for the utilities public sector at Sprint, points to two market forces that are causing utilities to assess their radio systems. "In the past, all systems were analog based, and manufacturers no longer support analog," he explains. "This, in addition to narrowbanding, is forcing utilities to think about their radio systems and whether or not they want to upgrade to digital." Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, chose not to upgrade its system. Instead, the agency replaced its existing analog radio system with Nextel iDen devices for both voice and data capabilities.
Playing It Safe
In addition to streamlining operations and improving efficiencies, utility companies are implementing mobile technologies to create a safer work environment--especially during emergency situations.
"Natural disasters are nothing new to utilities," notes Davalos. "What is new is the magnitude of disasters today." In the aftermath of hurricanes such as Katrina, utility crews are facing potential dangers above and beyond those typically associated with restoring services.
"In New Orleans, you had total chaos," says Davalos. "If you sent a power worker there in a truck that had gas, his life was in danger. Utilities need better interoperable communications, not only within the company but with state, local and federal agents. They have to do a better job of using technology to know where their workers are and to manage their resources in the field."
LVVWD responds to a large number of leaks as a result of flooding, and technology helps expedite emergency services. GPS units also help to ensure the safety of their workers. "If an employee needs assistance and is unable to relay all the information needed on the radio, we can locate the individual's truck and dispatch assistance," says Fisher.
During inclement weather, utility crews also rely heavily on ruggedized devices. The Empire District Electric Company uses Panasonic's Toughbook 18, a rugged notebook with a water-resistant keyboard and full magnesium alloy case. Symbol offers a range of rugged mobile computers that utility workers can attach to their belts. "If they're on a pole, for example, they can scan a barcode on a transformer and determine when that transformer was installed, what model it is and whether they have one on their service truck or back in the yard," says Chellis.
Equipping crews with the right tools is essential, but technology comes at a price and budgets are tight. Utilities are already facing the rising costs of the very services they provide. For some, it's a catch-22: To manage operating costs utilities need to be more efficient; and to be more efficient they need to invest in mobile solutions.
For LVVWD, the answer is clear: The district's 2006/2007 fiscal budget includes $1 million for upgrades to its mobile workforce management system. The project includes implementations in meter services, inspection, conservation, customer service, distribution, production and maintenance.
For companies that can't afford to upgrade their mobile workforce systems, utilities like LVVWD and Empire District are showing them they can't afford not to. //
Kassandra Kania is a freelance technology writer in Charlotte, N.C.