Electric utilities, and especially their field operations personnel who are in the trenches on a daily basis, are well aware of the weak links in their systems. Routine maintenance, trouble calls and annual system checks remind them of which circuits are getting older and could use an upgrade or replacement. But, sometimes money, time or a lack of communication leaves those on the front line feeling like they have to sit around and wait for something to break before it gets the attention and upgrade it needs.

This is not the case with Bryan Texas Utilities (BTU), a municipal-owned utility serving both city and rural customers in east central Texas for almost 100 years. What's different about BTU is its proactive approach to providing quality service to its customers and the public.

New Planning Program

Approximately three years ago BTU's distribution division participated in a budgeting planning program in connection with the company's Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) program. A significant part of that process was creating procedures for identifying and documenting system improvement projects to be worked on each year. To gain a professional perspective, BTU hired an engineering consulting firm to complete a long-range system planning study and to recommend what system improvements BTU would need to make within the next five years based on projected load requirements.

The report set BTU on a new course for future system improvements. After reviewing the recommendations, BTU decided to expand on the study and use the CIP process to create a 10-year program of its own that would be a means for the company to identify problem areas and weak links within its system on a yearly basis.

Taking Charge

This take-charge attitude is characteristic of the central Texas utility company. At this year's Texas Lineman's Rodeo held in Sequin in July, BTU's team finished the competition with five first-place awards, two second-place awards and two third-place awards.

BTU's linemen and others who are responsible for the construction and maintenance of BTU's system saw the new planning process as a an opportunity to take a highly proactive approach to dealing with system improvements. It also would provide a means for the company to look at the entire system as a whole and come up with projects related to switching, coordination, voltage management, conductor upgrades and feeder circuit ties — all of which would add flexibility and reliability to the system.

System Reorganization

One of the first things BTU did within the new CIP process was to divide the operations and maintenance system into sections based on the different service territories for which the field personnel are currently responsible. BTU employs five overhead crews, three URD crews and six service crews.

Each serviceman was assigned to a specific area of the system in which they perform their daily work tasks. Respective field service persons were brought in to give feedback on problems they had been experiencing out in the field in each area. Many of them have been working in the same area for many years, so this makes them invaluable resources when it comes to questions about the location and condition of lines and field equipment in the area.

In order to better address its system's needs and requirements, BTU also decided to combine its material standards group and planning engineers for much of the CIP process. Because of this, the company was able to make several decisions on equipment changes more quickly and efficiently.

One of BTU's more notable equipment upgrades was to change its standard 750 CU EPR/URD cable to 1000 MCM aluminum XLP for all 600-A installations. This is proving to be substantially cheaper because of the influx of new subdivisions, business parks, hospitals and golf courses that require a 600-A “backbone” feeder. This change may prove to be even more beneficial in the future because the City of Bryan Subdivision Ordinance has recently mandated that all new subdivisions within the city limits contain only underground utilities.

Low-Voltage Attention

One incident that illustrates the value of the feedback from the field involved a section that was requiring frequent nuisance trips on fuses and lines that needed to be multiphased. These general trouble spots were brought to the attention of the committee by a serviceman who reported two areas that he'd been repeatedly called out to investigate low-voltage complaints. These areas happened to be at the end of long feeder circuits that had small conductor but not much load on them. Essentially, distance was the culprit causing the low voltage, not capacity or conductor size. Based on the serviceman's recommendations, the committee was able to research the idea and respond.

BTU explored several methods that might be used to raise the voltage in these areas. It looked into conductor upgrades, a system voltage upgrade and even placing shunt capacitors on the lines in these areas for voltage support. Ultimately, BTU decided on line voltage regulators as a cost-effective solution that would — when placed at the correct locations on the lines — provide a long-term fix for the specific voltage problems in those areas. The following week, two new voltage regulators were placed out in the field.

System Improvements

As a result of the CIP process, BTU has identified many areas of improvement that will greatly increase its reliability and the level of service the company provides to its customers. BTU has determined places where it needs to install fault indicators, oil circuit reclosers, capacitors and voltage regulators. The company has discovered areas where it needs to multiphase single-phase lines to balance feeder circuit loads as well as areas where it needs to upgrade the conductor on three-phase lines to feeder-sized capacity in order to accommodate future load growth and create new feeder circuit tie capabilities.

The field overhead and underground construction crews are also doing their parts in the system improvement program by performing complete maintenance overhauls on feeder circuits that have been identified by SAIDI numbers as its worst performers. In this process, the crews actually go to each pole and inspect it and all of the equipment on the pole for problems. They perform this line maintenance in conjunction with the protection and coordination upgrades that are also being redesigned for each circuit.

BTU has also decided to rework several of its aging underground feeder getaways on several feeder circuits. In some cases, this has allowed BTU to build a safer system by including visible disconnects outside of the substation.

Prioritizing

The buzz word of the committee is “prioritizing.” And to do that, it needs to know where the problems are. For example, the committee has created a list of areas that contain direct buried-underground cable listed according to need for attention. BTU also has devised a plan and schedule for each area for cable replacements (to cable in conduit) over the next 10 years. Areas of its system that BTU deems the most problematic receive top priority with regard to budgeted monies. Since the CIP is a pliable document that can be changed and reshaped to meet the system's needs as the company's priorities shift, BTU has the latitude to move projects up or back in time to meet those needs.

All of these improvements in the planning process greatly benefit BTU's field operations process. Field personnel are no longer just waiting for something to break so they can run and fix it. They are now actively participating in upgrading and improving the system, and they are working diligently alongside the CIP committee to help prevent problems before they occur.

BTU currently delivers power to approximately 42,000 customers over a service territory of approximately 800 square miles in east central Texas between Austin and Houston. Grid assets include 17 substations, 2000 miles of overhead distribution, 80 miles of URD and 108 miles of transmission lines.

At the Texas Lineman's Rodeo, BTU sent 45 teams and one apprentice. We won first and third place overall, first and second place in the municipal division, first-place overall apprentice and first place in the over-45 team division. Only three teams received a perfect score on each event — two of those were from BTU.

Chick Herrin has been distribution operations superintendent for Bryan Texas Utilities for the last 20 years. Prior to this position, he served in various capacities of transmission and distribution for an investor-owned utility as well as contractors. In addition to his duties at BTU, Herrin serves on the board of the Texas Lineman's Rodeo Association. chick@btutilities.com