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Article # 0043

Facilities Data Acquisition and Management Considerations on Electric Distribution Systems

Kevin Perry, PE

Background and Overview

Electric distribution was once a fairly simple matter of serving power to customers within a finite geographical area under the authority of a single entity.  Today multiple electric distribution companies may simultaneously serve the same geographic areas and intermix with numerous other utility and communication suppliers in what is becoming a very finite facilities space and difficult to acquire.  The unique risks, asset management, record keeping, and cooperation challenges have far surpassed the ability of manual methods of meeting these challenges, thus utilities have been forced to move to digital mediums to keep pace.

One of the greatest advances in meeting a utilities needs is the implementation of Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  This, "smart map", technology offers cutting edge tools which impact almost every area of operation from yearly taxation on installed plant to the efficient direction of service personnel on a minute to minute basis.  While on the surface these systems can appear to be costly they have proven their value by revealing the high cost of manual and duplicated information gathering by multiple departments.  The failure to retain, in a useable format, the data, which is only beginning to be  recognized as a bookable asset, has cost untold millions in operating costs as retiring employees have left the company with the only copy of the information in their heads.

While GIS offers great promise company employees quickly become frustrated when faced with the reality that the usefulness of these systems is directly proportional to the quality of the data contained in the database.  This has created a market for vendors capable of delivering spatially accurate field inventories accompanied by information about the physical environment with respect to other utilities, structures, vegetation, and terrain.  This paper will seek to cover broad considerations necessary to accomplish successful data gathering with emphasis on the early stages of specification design.

Questions to Ask

What do we gather and just how accurate does it need to be?  As long as companies employ both those utilizing the data and those responsible for the fiscal health of the organization this question will be an ongoing battle.  Information gathering is labor intensive or put more simply, expensive.  Managers who desire to get the largest return on their investment would be wise to seek outside advice on this question when trying to determine whose argument to believe.

Those employees utilizing the data must be required to present well researched proposals stating the needs, pros and cons, realistic cost estimates, and returns on the varying levels of quantity and accuracy available in the market today.  Equipment that can deliver centimeter accuracy on the physical location of an asset is available and the list of what can be collected is endless.  Savings should not only offset the cost but eventually show a positive impact on the bottom line.  Be wary of proposals that lean too heavily on intangibles such as improved customer service.

The systems being proposed have definitely had enough time in the field for real cost benefit information to be available for those willing to do the homework.  This homework must take into account the phenomenon of, "we chose it therefore we better tell a positive story."  Make sure the person that is responsible for running and maintaining the system is one of those interviewed.  Their version can be quite different than the manager's version at the recent trade gathering.

What do we do first, pick the repository system or collect the data?  The capabilities of the currently available systems must definitely be taken into account but many companies have made the mistake of not looking forward far enough.  Before actual request for proposal discussions begin taking advantage of vendors' willingness to brag about what is coming.  Remember, the repository system will last five, maybe ten years if you are fortunate but the data will be the foundation for the next fifty years.  Ask end users what questions they would like the system to be able to answer and consider collecting data that may not be useful to the currently available systems but would be necessary for future calculations.

System vendors will generally try to convince prospects that they must pick the system first and collection vendors will argue it's not necessary.  Unfortunately, both of them are right.  You may not need to acquire the system prior to collection but it's paramount that you know the systems' formats and how easily data can be moved between different systems.  This is important not only for your in-house needs but plays heavily into data sharing considerations with those entities with whom you would like to cooperate.  Many horror stories still echo from companies that realized too late they had chosen a highly proprietary data storage format which caused data conversion and sharing to become cost prohibitive.

Bottom line is the more educated your in-house staff or trusted consultant the more flexibility you will have in this chicken and egg exercise.  GIS professionals with multiple format experience will be capable of making data design and format decisions without a specific vendor selected.  If this is your company's first experience with digital data gathering then a trusted vendor may be the best way to stay clear of the pitfalls.

What is the vision for long term deployment?  Who do you envision using this system?  If you are a small company (say 100 employees or less) you will probably not be set up to have a large support staff to assist each department and therefore end user's may have to be fairly proficient in the use of the GIS.  Large companies who can afford GIS support staff to assist other departments in data management and manipulation may be able to operate with minimal training and proficiency at the end user level.  Most of the systems today have user interfaces friendly enough to allow almost anyone capable of opening and closing an application on their computer desktop to perform the navigate, pan, zoom, and query level of a GIS.

Initially companies were concerned that their employees would be slow to accept GIS technology but experience has proven that even employees who did not normally use a computer at work had done enough surfing at home to quickly master their daily needs from the GIS.  Operations personnel given the opportunity to leverage mobile based digital information quickly become dependent on the computers and maintenance and support become a resource challenge.  Companies should plan for at least one support position for every fifty end users.

Don't underestimate the appetite that will develop for smaller wireless access to the system or the positive impact it can have on operations.  Discuss, early in the process, which employees may need special, real time access to the system and figure in costs for wireless data plans and support services from third party communication vendors.  Personnel performing on-site customer service and responding to non-planned requests should be considered even before supervisors due to the cost savings possible.

Final Thoughts

A classical mistake in this digital age is the assumption that because something is possible then it must be desirable.  We too often let the vendors decide what we need.  Data should never be warehoused unless there is a need for its mining.  Begin the task by asking the front line employees what their pains are.  Follow this by determining what they, and you, would like to be different.  Finally go to the market and see if others have solved the same problem with your desired result.  If you decide you must be the first to tackle the challenge resist the urge to "figure out" the solution to your problem before you ask those most knowledgeable what would be the best way to achieve the results you desire.  It is easy to go beyond giving the experts the inputs and desired outputs and when we do they generally try to comply, whether it is in our best interest or not.


Kevin Perry is a registered professional engineer in the states of Georgia and Alabama.  He obtained a Bachelors of Electrical Engineering from Auburn University and worked for over ten years in engineering departments with electrical distributors before moving into utility GIS software development and implementations with a leading vendor.  He now does free lance engineering work with distributors and vendors from his home in Madison, AL.

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