A skilled woodcutter before becoming the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln was renowned for his preoccupation with productivity and efficiency. Lincoln has been quoted as saying, “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” He probably meant these words both literally and figuratively. Inefficient tools waste time, energy and money. Remember, too, that his image is on the U.S. penny because of the value he put on it: He once walked 4 miles (6.5 km) to return a penny to a customer.

The city of Weatherford's Municipal Utility System (WMUS) had its axe-sharpening moment last year as it began the process of improving substation inspection procedures. The Texas utility needed a tool to prompt the activities of inspection technicians and to record their findings. Several off-the-shelf software tools are marketed to assist utilities with the scheduling, prompting and logging of substation maintenance activities. However, a review of available products found nothing that was appropriately sized, featured and affordable for a smaller utility.

Key Features

Features identified as essential to the successful implementation of a substation maintenance tool included creating a time- and date-stamped record of each inspection transaction to maintain a permanent searchable log file. It was also necessary to be able to create nonroutine records for maintenance or repair activities. The user needed to be presented a user-configurable list of inspection task reminders and data collection fields for each equipment item at each substation, or other location.

The database needed to maintain equipment details so that important information could be made available instantly, yet without forcing users to wade through those details during routine tasks. The database also had to contain contact information related to specific equipment so vendor or contractor information could be readily found under adverse conditions.

The process had to provide a means to prompt users to perform specified maintenance or inspection tasks at intervals that may vary by task or equipment type. It also needed to create a follow-up needed (or tickler) notice that subsequent inspection or maintenance work is needed for some equipment item. Finally, it had to be completely user-configurable with regard to inspection task prompts and instructions, the makeup of task elements assigned to specific equipment items and sites, and it had to have the ability to suppress the display of task prompts and instruction where they are not relevant.

The desired substation maintenance tool was intended to be used by field personnel in the course of performing the inspection process, so simplicity of use was of paramount importance, despite the underlying complexity required to provide the mandated feature set. The driving impetus creating the need for the software tool was not only the self-evident opportunities to improve internal consistency, efficiency and reliability, but also in the increasing need to maintain detailed and auditable records for regulating agencies.

The Solution

After spending time attempting to create a workable in-house software application in conjunction with in-house IT staff, WMUS decided to try a partnership with MinMax Technologies. As well as extensive experience with both small- and large-scale database applications and portability enhancements, MinMax Technologies has more than 20 years of working with power-delivery organizations and environments, and had previously demonstrated the ability and willingness to be a solid partner for the city of Weatherford on other projects.

Although the original concept for the tool was as an application intended to run on existing desktop and laptop computers, the project team expanded on that concept to include the possibility of the solution running on an iPad or other mobile devices using cloud-based facilities. Experience with such highly portable devices and distance data handling promised an immediate improvement in field-user acceptance and convenience.

Getting SMART

To meet these requirements, a joint team was assembled that included WMUS and MinMax Technologies specialists. Subject-matter experts from other companies, in both the electrical and data management sides of the project, were consulted to substantiate the usability and applicability of the product. MinMax Technologies used its industry background with the Electric Power Research Institute, North American Electric Reliability Corp. and other agencies to establish a generalized inspection format and turned that into a prototype of the proposed software solution to be named Substation Maintenance And Repair Tracking (SMART).

Multiple team meetings were held in conjunction with the WMUS team, and the discussions that followed helped fine-tune the inspection tool into what promises to be a flexible, configurable software product. The cornerstone of the inspection process is technician inspectors who are trained to perform systematic, thorough examinations of substation assets and their interconnections to the bulk electric system and distribution facilities. These actions are not only regulatory requirements but contribute heavily to the reliable operation and long life of substation assets.

The ability to proactively find, track and correct abnormalities before such minor problems develop into major events or failures profoundly impacts the economy of operation. Note, however, that even after training and motivating the most highly trained and skillful technicians, the utility must gather, store and disseminate the resultant inspection data carefully.

Critically important is the universal visibility of follow-up reminders generated by the inspection process, so problems discovered do not fall between the proverbial planks. Nothing, it seems, looks worse to customers and regulatory agencies than a utility learning of a problem that may affect reliability and failing to deal with it because the slip of paper representing the institutional memory of the problem fell behind a truck seat or a voice mail was inadvertently erased.

SMART was developed using Microsoft SharePoint, which provides a collaborative, Web-based development platform ideally suited for this application. The application guides the substation technician through an orderly sequence of scrutiny, provides previous inspection data on the asset being inspected and wirelessly records the results using Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G communication. SharePoint's database is integrated with Microsoft Office. The result is that Excel worksheets and Word documents can easily be prepared incorporating inspection data results.

SMART has been preconfigured with the most common inspection tasks and with usual responses to each inspection item. Inspection categories can be eliminated and questions that do not apply removed so the technician only sees the questions that apply. This methodology is established on a per-substation and per-equipment item basis for true customization. All labels and questions can be configured by the user, thus avoiding any confusion and conforming to individual utility conventions. Data, such as ambient temperature, is automatically tracked through Web services and recorded automatically. Each inspection transaction is date- and time-stamped together with the technician's login data.

Comment fields are provided for all equipment categories so out-of-the-norm conditions can be recorded. Drop-down boxes are used extensively not only to help technicians answer questions quickly, but also to keep answers in a consistent format. A technician can record the result of an inspection item as text — for example, “good,” “bad” or “out of service” — as provided by a drop-down box, or the technician could instead record the result in a numerical field to enter currents, voltages and loads, for example.

The program also includes an enhanced instruction subsystem. A button on each equipment screen allows the user access to unlimited free-format instructions too lengthy to be included in the routine task questions. This is not to imply that maintenance engineers may be somewhat less than concise, but occasionally, it is useful to be able to expand or clarify task procedures. Interestingly, because all SMART processing occurs in the cloud, maintenance supervisors can update these instructions — or any other information, for that matter — at their desk and have the new instructions be available instantly to technicians working at a remote substation.

Communication between the SharePoint server and the application is mission critical. For this reason, as well as keeping the utility's network secure, a major Web-hosting partner stores, backs up and provides redundant Web connectivity to the substation inspection application.

Looking Ahead

The SMART tool has successfully completed preliminary field testing. By the time this article is printed, it is expected the SMART tool will perform the requisite functional requirements outlined for the product. A closely spaced series of releases over the first year of use is anticipated as features are refined and perfected.

SMART also represents a flexible and scalable platform that can support countless new features, enhancements and expanded functionalities. As an inevitable consequence, both WMUS and MinMax Technologies engineers have gone starry-eyed dreaming up improvements. It is anticipated near-term future releases of SMART will include the following features:

  • A full-featured work order tracking system

  • A robust asset management component

  • A management dashboard that provides a single view of operational and inspection-related information.

Possible upgrades such as automatic GPS coordinate logging and instant messaging features have been discussed. The ability to record photographs taken by the mobile device's native camera is an obvious possibility.

MinMax Technologies also is working with infrared (IR) camera providers to enable IR images to be stored in the inspection database in real time. As envisioned, the IR camera would transmit the images directly into the appropriate table in the database. To support users of SMART, MinMax Technologies plans to facilitate a SMART users group to discuss usage of the software, interchange inspection plans and, eventually, feature a shareable library of equipment user manuals and other useful information.

Early Adopters

Participation in the development of a major piece of software like SMART is not usual for smaller utilities. Nonetheless, participating in and becoming early adopters of such wares results in the ability to influence the usability and architecture of the tools, an obvious opportunity for WMUS and other early adopters. This cutting-edge tool, designed to schedule, prompt and log substation inspection tasks, would gain the 16th president's approval for its economy and efficiency.

Doug Evans (devans@weatherfordtx.gov) is an electrical engineer for the Weatherford Municipal Utility System and also a professional engineer in the state of Colorado.

Dustin Deel (ddeel@weatherfordtx.gov) is the assistant director of information technology for the city of Weatherford, Texas. He has eight years of municipal government experience and has been in technology for nearly 10 years. He has an MBA from the University of Texas at Arlington.

Companies mentioned:

Electric Power Research Institute www.epri.com

MinMax Technologies www.minmaxtech.com

North American Electric Reliability Corp. www.nerc.com

Weatherford, Texas www.weatherfordtx.gov