GPS Helps Rural Electric Co-Op Map a New Direction

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The ability of an electric utility to quickly identify outages and then–just as quickly–respond to and address them, is key to good service and high customer satisfaction. At the root of the identification part of that equation is a reliable mapping component which can help a crew get to the source of the problem without delay. For Caney Fork Electric Cooperative of McMinnville, TN, it was that very part of the operation that had, for years proven frustrating. Relying upon old, often outdated, hand-drawn maps depicting its electric system, the utility found itself providing a level of service that, while still highly reliable, was certainly in need of an upgrade. Today, at the mid-point of a massive GPS-based data collection effort, they are laying the groundwork for a comprehensive package that will link mapping with customer service, and eventually outage management and meter reading. At that point, the paper maps will be little more than a memory.

Playing Catch Up
In light of the fact that many utilities started migrating to GIS for recording and tracking assets in the 1980s, Caney Fork’s paper map approach might seem archaic to some. Yet, truth be told, there are still a vast number of gas, water and electric providers–particularly rural ones–for whom the GIS revolution has yet to occur. According to Scott Romzek, Caney Fork’s system engineer, their own changeover was prompted by a combination of exposure to forward-thinking neighboring utilities, and a willingness on behalf of utility management to keep pace with those organizations.

"For decades our entire mapping process centered around working with hand-drawn paper maps–and to a good extent still does," he says. "But many of the utility co-ops around us have upgraded to computerized mapping systems and we’ve all seen the advantages–most importantly, the ability to react quicker–that such an upgrade can offer. So my bosses asked me to look into it, to talk to people, to visit other co-ops and report back with my findings. I did all that, came back and reported to my boss and he said: `Okay, let’s start data collecting.’"

Partnering for Collection
Romzek knew the task ahead of them would be daunting, given that Caney Fork wanted to gather data points for their complete system inventory, including: poles, the equipment on the poles (excluding the wire), meters, etc.

"Essentially, we were looking to get a GPS point for anything we own, anything we own jointly, even anything that we are attached to such as telephone, cable TV, underground transformers, underground secondary boxes, and so on," he says. "We initially considered tackling the whole project ourselves but were also looking at outside sources who provided that service. In a stroke of luck, we ran into someone from Smithville Electric System, a small municipal utility located nearby who’d hired a company out of Michigan to do some data collecting for them. They were gracious enough to provide us the name of a contact there."

Discussions with that contact led to an agreement with the company that is now known as Mi-GPS, a Mt. Pleasant, MI provider of location-based technology and services. While a company’s ability to share the data collection workload was key in the decision, cost, says Romzek, also played a huge role.

"We had a budget for this project and a couple of the other vendors we were considering were well outside of those parameters," he says. "We were getting quotes that were more than $6.50 per GPS point, plus extra charges such as $.50 per transformer, $1.00 per primary unit, and so on–essentially averaging out to about $8.00 per GPS point. Mi-GPS was quite a bit lower, which definitely worked for us."

Gearing Up
Based upon conversations with Bob Busch, Mi-GPS’s owner and president, Caney Fork started looking into what GPS equipment would be needed to gather the points which would make up the utility’s GIS system.

"Bob had been using Topcon GRS-1 receivers for his work, so we looked at both Topcon and one other manufacturer’s units," says Romzek. "Given our Tennessee location, we were obviously concerned about the mountains and their effect on signal strength. The other manufacturer’s rep kept stressing was that we were going to need an external antenna because their satellites couldn’t deliver the signal strength we needed to cover our territory. However, the Topcon rep from Earl Dudley & Associates (Birmingham, AL), said that, because Topcon accesses two constellations of satellites, an external antenna wouldn’t be necessary–and he proved it in their demos. We knew that eliminating the need for an antenna would lower the costs and, at the same time, allow our people to work without having to lug an 8-foot antenna staff around."

Having weighed the evidence before them, Caney Fork placed an order with Earl Dudley for four GRS-1s, took delivery of the units in October of 2010, contracted with Mi-GPS to share the collection workload, and by January of the following year, were already at work gathering points.

More Than Just GIS
It’s important to reiterate that the long-term goal for the data Caney Fork is gathering is to integrate it into a comprehensive system capable of assisting the utility in their customer service, outage management and meter reading efforts.

"Right now, we are really limited in what we can do with the paper maps, so our immediate goal is to get all the points collected for our system, then pick a mapping software that will best meet our needs. We are currently using a temporary map viewer that Mi-GPS created and is providing while they are co-collecting data with us. But we’ve been looking at what’s out there and we like what we see. Of special interest to us is UtiliTrak from Central Service Association (CSA), which is not an ESRI-based system like many others, but instead is based on GE Smallworld technology. Although that’s something of an issue, it could actually be beneficial since CSA also hosts our customer service information. So, if we choose UtiliTrak, integrating those two components–a really big hurdle for a lot of the other co-op utilities–will actually be easier."

One of the major concerns in determining which mapping software to choose will be connectivity, a feature which Romzek says a lot of systems do not offer.

"That’s critical for identifying features on a line or in making changes. In those systems for example, if modifications were needed to reflect a change in phase, flow or feed, every point would have to be changed manually. With a Smallworld-based system, we could simply highlight an entire section and it would reflect the change; it knows every component on that line and adjusts it accordingly–that’s the built-in connectivity. It’s a pretty impressive function."

Streamlining the Process
With whatever mapping software they choose in place, Romzek says they will move right into looking for an outage management system capable of directly communicating with both the mapping system and their advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), a system that, by communicating with their customers’ electric meters, measures, collects and analyzes energy usage. Currently, upon receiving a phone call with an outage, a Caney Fork crew will drive to the address given–even though the device in question might be a good distance away from that device. Because services in some areas can be a half mile or more apart, the crew
has no choice but to look at the first location, drive to the next one, and so on, in order to determine if a whole section has been affected. "There are no maps in the trucks so the crew might then have to come back into the office, view some maps, strategize a plan of attack and get to working on it," says Romzek. "And so much of that work is presently based on memory which can lead to mistakes, particularly if things have changed since that crew was last out there. The ultimate goal of all the GPS work that’s going on now is to establish an outage management system that will communicate with our AMI as well as the new mapping system."

From there, he says, they hope to take it one step further and link to an answering system that would allow a customer to call in with an outage, have it displayed on the mapping system, show what sections are out and help determine a plan of action.

"We want crews to have something in their truck–something along the lines of an iPad or a Panasonic Toughbook–that will allow them to instantly see that a meter is out, trace that back to a device and location, get specifics on the equipment and begin working on correcting the problem. That will be good for everyone involved."

Talking Points
Because Caney Fork’s service area encompasses four Tennessee counties: DeKalb, White, Warren and Van Buren, serves better than 33,000 customers, and includes more than 3,775 miles of line, the data gathering facet of the project is fairly massive. Currently, the collection duties are split, with Mi-GPS tackling the bulk of the load and the balance being handled by Allen Northcut, Caney Forks’ intern-in-residence.

"I usually take one of the linemen with me and, armed with the Topcon GRS-1 and our existing maps for reference, we start out each morning," he says. "We establish a starting point (or continue where we left off the previous day) and move down the line, going pole to pole, house to house, meter to meter, finding out if the info on the maps is correct. If not, we update or correct it in the GRS-1 and continue along."

Northcut says that he has already found a number of discrepancies in the detail on the utility’s existing maps. Those have included services from primary poles to houses that were mis-drawn or shown going in the wrong location, lights depicted on the wrong side of a pole, and so on. "Obviously, it’s important to correct those errors so that when a crew gets out to the field they aren’t looking for something that’s not actually there. With the GPS, not only will the points be accurate, but we will ultimately be cutting down on the time needed to respond to an outage. And in an area that is so widely separated as we are here, minimizing drive time can be a huge savings in downtime."

Gathering points is fairly straighforward: Northcut walks up to the asset being logged, initiates the GRS-1 and gathers the coordinates. "At that point, I can also start entering the information we need into the unit: what size pole it is, what year/ model it is, what hardware (single, dual or three phase) is on top of that pole, the size of transformer, and so on," he says. "With that data in hand, we will simply download that as our main layer and the mapping software we choose will offer an actual road map such as that found in Google Maps as a backdrop. And, depending on what mapping system makes the cut, it could also have the capability to create a material list, a work order, a freeze frame of the jobsite, and more."

He adds that the GRS-1’s ease of use which was heavily touted by the people from Earl Dudley has proven more than just hype. "I’ve genuinely loved using the unit and, largely because of the ArcPad software driving it, I feel that anyone with the most basic knowledge of running a PC can easily learn it. In fact, whenever I am working with the linemen, I explain what I am doing and they are quick to grasp its function; they could easily run it themselves if needed."

Right on Schedule
More than halfway through a two-year plan, Caney Fork is looking at having the data collection portion of the job wrapped up and the mapping software in place by the end of 2012.

"Then, about a year after that, we hope to be in a position where all the kinks in the new software have been worked out and we can begin looking at equipping our crews with whatever hand-held devices we choose," says Romzek. "That part is subject to the budgetary process; we are, after all a cooperative, so issues like that have to be approved. But our board members are extremely open minded and very aware of our needs and have been forthcoming in meeting those needs. This is the first step towards helping everyone at the utility communicate, to be on the same level, to know the same things about our system. It is also a major step in helping us be a safer, more organized, more efficient utility, better equipped to meet our customers’ needs.

Larry Trojak is a communications writer for his own firm, Trojak Communications, in the town of Ham Lake, Minnesota. He is a frequent contributor to construction and survey magazines.

A 1.672Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE