Utilitrac? EES officials hope e-map system is on the horizon

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   A big step in restoring electricity during a power outage means knowing where the power is off.
   Officials with the Elizabethton Electric System (EES) believe a major step forward into updating the system's analysis capabilities is acquiring an electronic mapping system to replace paper grid maps.
   "We are to the point that I feel it is time for us to get into the 21st century with a computerized mapping system," EES General Manager Phil Isaacs said. "It would make us a lot more efficient."
   The mapping program called "Utilitrac" is an electronic mapping system capable of placing the EES service area on a computer map.
   Using global positions system (GPS) technology, the Utilitrac system could track outages, flipped breakers and substations performance on a computer. Acquiring the system would involve a one-time cost of $50,000 for the software and technology, said Isaacs. The system could overlay the city's water and sewer infrastructure as well as natural gas and underground utility lines into the mapping system.
   Joe Campbell, manager of the system's engineering department, and fellow engineer Gary Richards spend a great deal of time on the logistics of the EES service area. Whether downed power lines or numerous daily "one-call" inquiries about underground power lines, both agreed that the free flow of data the Utilitrac provided could be stored and updated more efficiently than flipping pages.
   "Everything you do continuously is put on the map," said Campbell. "You are less likely to have an error if things are well-defined."
   The software opened the door for system engineers to develop outage reports electronically. That feature would ease the duration of power outages to customers while giving the system a comprehensive overview of its system.
   The EES presently tracks outages and service calls via a grid map of the entire service area. The grid overlay corresponds to several maps comprised of 415 pages -- mostly with frayed edges -- used by the service and maintenance division of the EES.
   While system engineers using CAD systems on large projects, the new installation of lines and meters in addition to system upgrades must be documented on the grid maps by hand. A daunting task considering the service area extends approximately 780 miles and serves over 25,000 customers, according to February status reports.
   Mapping the system required a one-time, pole-by-pole count of the entire system, a process projected to take three to five years to complete, EES officials said. The count included identifying each transformer, breaker, substation and aerial and underground power lines on the system. The survey would also account for pole attachments such as telephone and cable telecommunications companies that pay the system a "pole attachment" fee.
   "We have to go out and collect data, but we do it one time and that's it," said Campbell. Once that data was gathered and plugged into the system, engineers and power linemen could identify the site of problems quicker.
   "It gives us more accurate reporting," said Isaacs. He also said he hoped to use part-time help during the summer months to gather data for the mapping system if the EES Power Board gave him the go-ahead to purchase the Utilitrac software and initiate the program.
   When electricity goes out, it may take hours to locate the source of the problem. Telephone calls from disgruntled customers can narrow the area where the problem might be located, but still doesn't give linemen a pinpoint place to look.
   "Everything new has to be hand-drawn," said Campbell. "With this, you will have information here at the office and see it on the front end to know if a line is broken or a substation is out."
   The electronic mapping system has been placed on the system's capital budget for the last three years, Isaacs said. The EES has completed 20 percent of their $502,000 capital budget for 2002 although Isaacs said that figure did not represent ongoing projects also submitted to the capital budget. The Utilitrac system would require a $50,000 capital buy for the system plus an $800 monthly fee to CSA for software and technical support.
   The system had constructed two new substations in recent years and had lightened the capital project load over the past two years, Isaacs said.
   The Bristol Tennessee Electric System and Erwin Utilities had installed or were in the process of installing the Utilitrac software to monitor their service areas, Isaacs said.
   CSA, a public power not-for-profit organization, currently manages the system's billing and customer database. Isaacs said the system planned to locate computer servers in-house at some point in the future with CSA remaining as a software and technical support.
   "We won't be so dependent on the CSA mainframe computer," said Isaacs, "and payments we make to CSA would be cut in half because we will be able to operate our software internally."
   While the system had a price tag and monthly service fee, Isaacs pointed out that the system continued to operate with fewer employees than it had when he became general manager in 1996.
   When longtime EES employees retired, they took their knowledge of the system's geography with them, Isaacs said. "We are trying to do more work with fewer employees," he said. "They set up the system and they have a lot of knowledge, but as we have developed, the system has become more complex."