The era of laptops, wireless connectivity and other high-tech devices has created a new challenge for training centers: getting field personnel to embrace and fully utilize the new timesaving equipment. Florida Power & Light (FPL; Juno Beach, Florida) instructors were faced with this challenge when the utility adopted a more advanced underground residential distribution (URD) cable fault-locating tool.

Stressful Work

A system outage is an unplanned event, often a result of stormy weather, and there is always a need to restore service as soon as possible. Overhead lines tend to have more power outages, primarily because of weather events or trees contacting the lines, but it is relatively easy to locate a fault on an overhead line and repair it. A single line worker can usually find a hanging wire or a vegetation problem without too much guesswork.

However, locating a fault on underground lines requires specialized equipment and crews — a separate crew with heavy equipment to dig up a line and to repair the fault. Many of FPL's service centers have at least three to five troubleshooters the utility calls “restoration specialists,” which get assigned to URD outage management. Larger areas may have as many as 15 restoration specialists, depending on the amount of underground cable and the age of the system.

When these first responders are dispatched on an outage call, their job is to identify the underground failure on the system. The cause is often water and moisture infiltration, aging cables or faulted equipment, all of which are difficult to pinpoint. Fault indicators have been installed in some transformers on the URD circuits, but the job for these highly trained technicians is still tedious and time consuming.

As FPL's underground operations specialist, I had worked with an industry task force throughout the 1990s in a collaborative effort to develop a fault-locating device based on radar technology to more reliably analyze and pinpoint the location of a fault on shielded cable such as URD-type concentric neutral cable.

One of the outcomes of this research and development effort was a fault locator called the Loop Sectionalizer, manufactured by VON Corp. (Birmingham, Alabama). The Loop Sectionalizer integrates a surge pulse (signal) generator with time-domain reflectometer, filters and distance measurement (point-of-fault) display to locate faults on URD cable.

When the Sectionalizer was first introduced in the high URD-concentration areas, management was pleased with the numbers, both in terms of lower response times and outage durations. But for broad deployment among FPL's many restoration specialists, the training department was faced with an interesting problem. The more advanced fault-locating tool was simple to operate, but required some interpretation of data and new procedures compared to the old “thumper” method of locating faults.

Resistance to Change

When the Sectionalizer was introduced, trouble crews attended the training classes, but were hesitant to use the new tool on the job, or they weren't fully using the new equipment's range of capabilities. As the first few units were deployed, crews, in the heat of the moment, were often reverting back to older, less reliable methods with which they were comfortable.

On a typical trouble call, the restoration specialist first must verify the blown fuse. Then the restoration specialist must decide: Is it just the fuse? Is there a fault on the underground line? Or is there a different kind of malfunction on the system? The restoration specialist's goal is to isolate the fault as quickly as possible and switch the system around to get the lights back on.

The training department discovered that the more advanced technology was creating a gap between the instructors' hypothetical scenarios and the real world in which the restoration specialists were using the new tool.

Part of the issue was the problem-solving challenges that restoration specialists are faced with on a trouble call. Every call is different and you learn something new every time you go out on a call.

Training Specialists

In one of the feedback sessions, a restoration specialist who had just taken the training course offered to show fellow students how he was using the unit in the field. When he showed the others how he was using the fault locator in the field, the students began asking questions and, in turn, using the Sectionalizers more deliberately. This was the beginning of the recruitment and rotation of training specialists to train fellow troubleshooters on how to use the Loop Sectionalizer.

FPL's instructors are experts in their trade, with years of field experience, but the training specialists talked the same talk and could share their experience with their peers. From these discoveries, a plan was developed to use restoration specialists from the field as training specialists, on a rotating basis, for the remainder of the deployment of the Sectionalizers at various service centers.

The Playground

A second breakthrough in bridging the technology gap came after FPL was able to use a trailer park south of Miami that had been abandoned after Hurricane Andrew hit in August 1992. Many of the structures and FPL's equipment in the Quail Roost Mobile Home Park were still in place. This training and demonstration facility has become known as the “Playground,” a place where restoration specialists and other field operations personnel go for hands-on training in any imaginable situation.

At the Playground, the technician can practice proper procedures for using the Sectionalizer. Much of FPL's URD is a loop system. In the real-life situation at the Playground, instructors can simulate any number of outage scenarios. The training specialists are there to create what-if scenarios and show fellow restoration specialists tricks of the trade.

Because of the near-real system equipment setting, restoration specialists can connect the Sectionalizer to the system at any point in the out-of-service half-loop. This can be a transformer, a riser, or in a switch cabinet, or a vault. The technician then sends a signal, called “shooting the loop,” through the system to determine the faulted section. By testing in both directions on the circuit, the entire half-loop is evaluated, isolating the location of the fault.

Embrace Change

The combination of rotating training specialist from the field and using the hands-on training facilities at the Playground has been highly effective in the deployment of more than 100 Loop Sectionalizers. Last year, a more portable, second-generation fault locator called the SAIDISAVER was developed with VON Corp. and is now being used at many FPL service centers.

One of the slides the training specialists use says, “Embrace change and what are the benefits for me and for the customers?” This sums up the goals for the training and deployment of FPL's new fault locators. Because of the peer-to-peer training and the hands-on Playground, FPL's restoration specialists are embracing the new technology more quickly and are more productive in isolating faults. And FPL's ultimate goal is achieved. The number of minutes of interrupted service to customers will continue to decrease significantly.

Al Arias is the underground operations specialist for FPL. He has served many roles in field operations over his 35 years with the company, based in Juno Beach, Florida.