FFPC goes high-tech for inspections

Duane Hicks

The Fort Frances Power Corp. continues to be a leader in deploying innovation in the utility sector.
It recently received kudos from its external auditor for excellence in exceeding the requirements of Appendix C “Minimum Inspection Requirements” of the Ontario Energy Board’s Distribution System Code as a result of deploying state-of-the art GPS and mobile technology for conducting field inspections.
Over the last 10 years, the local utility invested significant time and effort gathering detailed information about all of its electrical distribution system assets and then mapping them out–every pole, transformer, switch, and cable the FFPC owns–in its Geographic Information System (GIS).
Then last year, the FFPC undertook a strategic technology pilot project that would allow its line crews to access the GIS information on mobile devices to enable real-time, paper-less inspections to be conducted.
“We took our inspection process, which was state-of-the-art already, and custom programmed it into an iPad application [GeoFIT] with the help a software developer [GISbiz],” explained FFPC president and CEO Joerg Ruppenstein.
“Ten years ago, everything was done on paper and very little evidence was actually compiled to prove that field inspections were actually taking place,” he noted.
“You’d conduct an inspection on a blank paper log–with the only information being gathering being the observed deficiencies.
“Then we got better and developed a detailed inspection ‘hit list’–every pole was listed, every transformer was listed,” Ruppenstein added. “So that you’d document, ‘I was at this pole, at this date and time, and this was the assessment of the pole and transformer.’
“It was more of a spreadsheet-type format.
“Now we’ve taken it one level further, where it’s paper-less and in real time,” Ruppenstein said.
FFPC crews now take iPads into the field, inspect transformers, poles, lines, anchors and guy-wires, conductors, and other assets, and document their work on the tablets.
Their data updates are synced from the field to “GeoDASH,” a program on computers at the FFPC office.
An inspector can tap on an icon on the map of the town to call up the profile of a hydro pole he’s inspecting, find out all of the information on it (how old it is, when it was last inspected, etc.), and then input whether the pole’s condition is satisfactory.
And if not, what its deficiency is (i.e., woodpecker damage, etc.) and how urgently the deficiency needs to be addressed.
If an inspector was to indicate that work needed to be done immediately on a pole or transformer, that information would be relayed instantly to Superintendent Troy Calder, who then could issue a work order and deploy a FFPC crew to do the necessary repairs or replacement.
“It’s a very systematic approach where things don’t fall through the cracks,” Ruppenstein said.
He noted many larger utilities do sample testing, where they might check five percent of their poles and then interpolate the numbers across their service area.
But the FFPC checks each and every pole, and by building an “asset health index,” keeps tabs on exactly what needs to be replaced and how urgently it needs to be done.
This not only saves money and man hours, but helps keep the electrical system in excellent shape and makes equipment failure far less likely.
“This past week, with the wind storms that we’ve had, we didn’t have any power outages– which is phenomenal–while the surrounding area had outage-related problems,” said Ruppenstein, citing one example.
“A big reason for that is our inspection process is working extremely well,” he remarked. “It helps us to identify the weakest links in our system.
“Over the last seven or eight years, we’ve been focusing our capital and maintenance programs on fixing the weakest links.”
Ten years ago, when the FFPC would change a section of power lines, it would get the chainsaw out and get rid of a whole block of poles, Ruppenstein explained.
“Well, some of those poles might still be perfectly fine,” he noted.
“Our inspection process now is that, because we assess each and every pole and give them a ‘health score’ to reflect their condition, by choosing to replace the lowest-scoring poles, we are focusing in on the weakest links.
“So our system, as a whole, is a lot stronger and a lot more cost-efficient.
“We are very cost-conscientious and want to keep rates as low as possible by making smart decisions based on information,” Ruppenstein stressed.
“We’re very proud of the system that we’ve developed.”
FFPC technical customer service representative Jeremy Nussbaumer gave a presentation on the GIS-based inspection system at the Electricity Distribution Information Systems and Technology’s 2017 conference held Jan. 18-20–and the project impressed attendees.
“When I gave the presentation in Toronto, I had some big utilities come up to me and say, ‘How did you guys get the system in place? How did you get your GIS system so up to date?'” noted Nussbaumer.
The FFPC also can use the GeoFIT and GeoDASH systems for more than just inspections. For instance, if the FFPC has to respond to trouble calls, a crew member can call up the GIS map and readily see which transformer feeds what exact buildings.
If the FFPC knows it’s changing out a transformer tomorrow, the technology will allow the utility to call all of the customers that will be affected and let them know there will be a temporary outage. 
Down the road, the FFPC will have a live outage map on its website, which will indicate which areas are affected by an outage–along with estimated times for when power will be restored.
The GIS-based inspection system even is useful in tracking how close trees are to power lines and the rate at which vegetation encroaches over time.
“You can go back into the history and see that we’re clearing away branches from this section of line every year,” noted Nussbaumer.
“Maybe we need to get rid of this tree or cut this further back because we’re spending a lot of time in this area.”
“It helps you prioritize,” echoed Ruppenstein. “It’s taking your highest risk areas and addressing them first.
“And now we have a slick, easy way to document that.”
One more benefit is that all of the inspection work done through the course of a year is documented, so when it comes time to submit annual compliance reports, all of that information already is organized and instantly available in electronic format.
These electronic records also provide legal protection if there is an accident, and the FFPC had to prove inspections were done and the appropriate repairs were made on time.
Looking ahead, the FFPC is aiming to step up inspections another tier.
For example, it recently bought an infrared camera, which can be used to detect hot spots and see where heat is escaping from buildings.
Another form of inspection includes taking oil samples from transformers to tell how well they’re working.
The FFPC also is looking at getting a device to drill into poles to test their density, or possibly one that uses sound waves to measure it.