The Salt River Project (SRP) ensures that its assets are in top-performing condition by regularly inspecting its electric distribution and transmission infrastructure. The Arizona utility's field crews routinely conduct wood pole, steel pole, infrared, lighting and overhead patrol inspections.

SRP currently uses a paper-based workflow for capturing these inspection results, which presents several challenges. Preventative maintenance (PM) inspectors redundantly capture inspection results — once on the paper inspection maps and then again when they transfer that information into the electronic database.

Inspection coordinators also spend a significant amount of time preparing the inspection maps. They first combine separate map layers and then shift overlapping objects and annotation on the maps to make them legible once printed. They then create work orders for a predefined geographic area, prepare the associated maps showing SRP's infrastructure within that area and print these maps. PM inspectors receive the printed maps, note inspection results with pen and colored markers, and take photos of the equipment.

When they return back to the office from the field, they transfer the inspection results into the Smallworld GIS data-base. They also upload the digital photos manually, which is time-consuming. Also, the photos are often not related to the associated inspection result data or SRP's GIS. After the PM inspectors have completed these tasks, the inspection coordinators create follow-up work orders for individual assets that have failed the inspection and require follow-up repair or replacement.

To overcome these challenges, SRP has embarked on a project to move these inspection processes to a paperless workflow. This eliminates the need to prepare and print paper maps, and prevents the duplicate entry of inspection results. The scope of the project is currently limited to SRP's infrared and overhead patrol inspections, but the utility plans to reuse the new framework and processes for the remaining inspection types in the near future.

Deploying Technology

To make the process of gathering and retrieving data and images more efficient, SRP invested in technology and streamlined its work procedures. The company has deployed CF30 and CF31 Panasonic rugged laptop computers to the field. These laptops are mounted in the PM inspectors' and troublemen's work trucks using Gamber-Johnson mounts.

The company also developed a custom application for the field computers using Microsoft Silverlight and the ESRI ArcGIS Server API for Silverlight.

The software development team is using an “agile” process for designing the new solution. The agile process is based on iterative, biweekly meetings between the development team and key users to review what was completed over the previous two weeks and to prioritize work for the next two-week cycle.

The processes capture user feedback after each cycle so that developers can make adjustments as needed. The “agile” processes are an alternative to the rigid “waterfall” approach. The utility believes that the agile processes have helped to design a high-quality solution that meets user expectations and fosters teamwork between the development team and key users.

The custom application has several functionalities. First of all, it is map-based, allowing PM inspectors to use the laptops to receive assigned work areas and to capture inspection results. It will also automate the creation and management of follow-up repair work orders and simplify processes that upload, store and retrieve the associated digital photos.

The application's user interface leverages the touchscreen capabilities of the laptop. PM inspectors can record results by touching big buttons that appear on three screens. They can then capture the asset type (pole, transformer, etc.), problem type, and recommended action (repair, replace, etc.).

The application is integrated with the on-board GPS equipment, so that the map “follows” the PM inspector to simplify the capture of inspection results. As the technicians drive by facilities, the embedded GPS system saves their track like a virtual breadcrumb trail. SRP's dispatchers can then pull up the data by section to build a work order for the technicians. The inspector simply clicks on the map and the current device to open the inspection results screen for that asset.

The connected architecture also allows the inspectors to access other corporate SRP data through the map-based application, including high-quality aerial photography, entry codes for gated communities and topography.

SRP deployed the computers to about 45 inspectors, troubleshooters and superintendents. By the first quarter of this year, SRP expects the system to be fully functional. The utility is scheduling its final development activities for early 2012, with a production deployment targeted for May 2012.

Wireless Connectivity

While out in the field, SRP's field workforce can access the corporate network wirelessly through Verizon. About 95% of SRP's service territory has adequate wireless connectivity. In those areas that do not have wireless infrastructure, PM inspectors can revert to paper-based recording of inspection results.

All the ruggedized laptops are connected wirelessly through Verizon's wireless infrastructure to SRP's corporate network. The inspectors enter the results into an ESRI ArcGIS Server Web application and store them in an Oracle database. This platform provides geospatial support for the electric utility asset management life cycle from planning and design through replacement and refurbishing.

Any time a field technician performs a service connection and completes the work order, it updates the geospatial network by interfacing with the work and asset management system. Ensuring that this data is both up-to-date and accurate is paramount during the outage-restoration process, when dispatchers need to work with crews to restore power quickly.

In addition, the field technicians can use modeling tools to support relocations, upgrades and installs. Through the new circuit model, they can create virtual radial, ring and meshed networks. They also can model and create templates for switch cabinets, distribution panels, fuse boards and link boxes.

Predictive Maintenance

As new assets are built through SRP's service territory, the technicians can ensure that they are built to the standards and specifications. All of the PM inspectors and troublemen have the same program and computers, which act like remote wireless units through a real-time connection.

All of the line trucks are equipped with the computers, and all the construction, maintenance and operations teams have the same computer and operations platform. The crews use the computers for inspections and overhead safety patrols. They can then document and capture data, and report it from the work station in their vehicles. At the end of the day, the system will send a redesigned diagram of the system to the office. Then the next day, the office will send work orders out to the field.

Through mobile technology, SRP technicians are able to perform predictive maintenance rather than reactive maintenance. For example, the field workforce can carefully record the condition of all the assets. If a steel pole has rust spots, then the technician can make a note of it electronically for future maintenance or replacement.

If the utility has certain issues, then it will send technicians on a special patrol. The company will then create a work order for the technicians to patrol the line and document all of the assets.

When looking over the assets, the technicians may find broken crossarms, broken or cracked insulators, and leaking oil-filled transformers. Through thermal cameras, they also may determine that they need to replace the three-phase risers and capacitor banks because of their temperature.

Underground, they may discover rusted equipment and swollen elbows for underground cable. Through a visual inspection, they can determine if an internal connection is coming loose, if there is a bad grounding or if some guy anchors are down.

Boosting Productivity

To ensure quick and accurate recording of inspection results, SRP customized its application with drop-down screens for different users. The data that the users see depends on their specialty. For example, by logging in as either “overhead patrol” or “underground patrol,” the user will view a select drop-down screen. This limits the search and find, and speeds up the process.

SRP also has boosted the efficiency of its field crews by automatically linking images to specific work orders. When they do a hot spot or visual find, the inspectors take digital and thermography photos, and upload the images to the database.

By clicking on the work order for a specific location, a technician can bring up the digital photos or thermography images. The map will also show highlight the area where there is a particular issue.

Before they had this system, a technician had to retrieve a particular picture number and then try to find the actual image. In some cases, the photos got lost and it took up to two weeks to find them.

In addition, the linemen often didn't know what the issue was, so they would have to call the inspector. Now they know exactly what they are looking for, and they can zone in on a particular phase, elbow or hot spot. By viewing an asset, the user can see who inspected it and who it is assigned to for a data trail.

Now all of the photos are linked electronically and stored in a database. As long as the technicians have the work order, they have all the photos on file, and the images are backed up on the corporate system.

Future Goals

The utility is looking at all of its paper-based applications and processes, and plans to one day eliminate them. In the next two years, SRP plans to make all of its data capture and recording electronic.

By taking on this project, SRP tried to reduce IT support costs, eliminate map prep, expedite the response to change requests and increase the lifespan of the application. Through real-time data capture, the utility strived to expedite repairs and improve system reliability. The digital photo integration also helped to simplify photo access. Finally, the enhanced reporting has improved planning and scheduling.

In the future, the company plans to focus on wood pole, lighting and vegetation management. In addition, it hopes to make the application available on portable devices such as tablet PCs and phones.

The future workflow will enable the utility to eliminate paper maps and map preparation activities. In addition, it will give a single-point, real-time data capture, integrate digital photos and automatically create a work order.

By streamlining the work flow, SRP's linemen, troublemen and inspectors no longer have papers cluttering up their work trucks. In addition, they now know exactly what projects are assigned to them, and they access to images and documentation to help them get the job done.


Floyd Hardin (floyd.hardin@srpnet.com) is the manager of line asset management for the Salt River Project in Phoenix, Arizona. SRP is an electric and water utility located in central Arizona, servicing more than 950,000 electric customers in the metropolitan Phoenix area. He has been with the company for 27 years. His team is responsible for the pole management inspections, including visual thermography of SRP's distribution line assets. In addition, he oversees rights-of-way for all voltage property issues, utility crossings and developments.

Mark Ledbetter (mark.ledbetter@srpnet.com) manages the GIS and CAD services division at Salt River Project. He was previously employed as a GIS analyst at SRP from 1985 through 1993, and as a GIS manager and applications director at the city of Scottsdale, Arizona, from 1993 through 2005. He has been in his current position at SRP since 2005.

Companies mentioned:

ESRI www.esri.com

Gamber-Johnson www.gamber-johnson.com

GE Digital Energy www.gedigitalenergy.com

Microsoft www.microsoft.com

Oracle www.oracle.com

Panasonic www.panasonic.com

Salt River Project www.srpnet.com

Verizon www.verizon.com