The Skagit Public Utility District is about to make a huge leap from paper documents and sticky notes into the digital age.
With $1.4 million committed to new software and computer systems and an estimated $500,000 needed to complete the upgrades by 2015, the plan to improve the utility is not cheap.
However, General Manager Bob Powell said the move to an integrated system will save the utility money in the long run by making employees much more efficient, decreasing expensive system repairs and streamlining long-range planning.
A more immediate goal is to remove some of the guesswork in locating hard-to-find problems and allow the utility to respond to leaks more quickly and efficiently.
With software called Cityworks, crews can use iPads in the field to accurately locate water lines and log information on PUD assets that are now documented in one of several offices crammed with notes and paper maps or stored in a tenured employee’s institutional memory.
The utility’s 20-year-old financial system will be replaced by Cayenta, which will be able to track costs of work orders and projects as they happen. Along with a new customer service program, Northstar, the PUD will finally allow customers to pay bills online.
The new programs are designed to move the utility away from paper records and into fully integrated, Web-based financial, customer service and asset management systems that can be seen and updated anywhere.
“We’ve got offices and offices and bunkers and bunkers full of paper,” Asset Manager Jenni Minier said. “Trying to get from a paper-dependent workflow to a computerized work flow is kind of the whole aim of this project.”
Minier explained how the utility responds to the most common problem customers face — a leaky pipe.
Currently, a customer reporting a leak will speak to a customer service representative, who takes down the address, the problem and where the caller thinks the leak may be.
The information is relayed via telephone, sticky note or white board to a construction crew manager, said Engineering Manager George Sidhu. While water gushes out, possibly damaging property, the manager sifts through rooms of maps to locate the problem infrastructure and develop a response plan before sending crews out to fix it.
“(A crew supervisor) will go, and they’ll have to try and find a map. They’ll have to do some investigation as part of that. They don’t necessarily know where (a leak) is, …” Sidhu said.
Sidhu said older maps can be hard to find or nonexistent. Some computer-aided design (CAD) maps are digitized but don’t always jibe with the physical reality of the site — making it tough to locate certain assets in the dark, especially when they’re covered in dirt or snow.
Customer service and the reporting customer are often kept out of the loop as to the progress of the fix, Sidhu said.
“Typically, it’s all word of mouth whether that information gets back to who it needs to get back to. That’s the most challenging part — it’s the flow of communication,” Sidhu said.
It’s a new age
Charged with designing, building and maintaining a system to deliver an average of 9 million gallons of clean water to 65,000 people every day, PUD has broad, vital responsibilities.
The large, complex water system has more than 600 miles of pipe in a constant state of replacement, along with 35 pump stations and some 13,000 valves that require regular checkups to ensure they open and close properly.
Financial and maintenance data on the utility’s myriad assets — pumps, pipes, valves, hydrants, etc. — is currently kept by individual departments on assorted electronic files, scads of paper or in the memory of longtime employees.
The utility’s 20-year-old financial system is obsolete and cannot accommodate features today’s customers expect, such as online bill pay, Minier said. It is being replaced with the Cayenta system.
With the new software system, customer service, financial and asset management systems will be integrated, allowing PUD workers to see where infrastructure is on a shared, Geographic Information System-based (GIS) map and update the status of a repair from anywhere.
Minier said when a customer reports a leak, customer service personnel will enter the details into one system and notifications will go to all the necessary departments at the same time.
Crews nearest to the leak can be notified first, said Operations Manager Mike Fox. Using iPads connected to Cityworks software, the crews can see the kinds of assets involved and their exact locations — including the nearest shutoff valve.
“You can know exactly where you’re going and where the problem is before you leave the driveway. There’s no guesswork,” said Al Staniford, a construction maintenance worker who uses an iPad instead of paper maps to locate PUD assets.
Progress reports can be logged and customers can be notified every step of the way, from initial call to finished repair. Data on personnel time and water loss is updated with the financial system as the repair happens.
“We wanted standardized communication between all departments. If a call came in for engineering, (then) construction, operations and finance would all know the same information,” Minier said.
Commissioner Jim Cook said he was concerned about the overall costs of the updates. He said when $1 million was set aside for computer upgrades in the 2009 budget, he was under the impression all the software upgrades would be included in that cost.
Cook said the need for upgrades was apparent, however.
“I’m hoping it is a good investment, long-term,” he said.
Powell said when the $1 million was set aside, it was for a financial system update. Cityworks is classified as an asset management system.
Tools within Cityworks can also generate reports to show managers which sections of the system are failing most often, a boon to planning necessary pipe replacements with limited resources, Sidhu said.
Sidhu said the utility currently relies on spreadsheets and a yearly meeting of construction and engineering staff to determine where replacement pipe should be laid.
“We discuss our system, where we feel like we have deficiencies and where we feel like, ‘We have been to that one neighborhood to fix three leaks in the past two years, we should add that to our list,’ ” Sidhu said. “It’s somewhat subjective, whereas this system will make that a little more objective.”
Fox said different kinds of pipe have different projected lifespans. Through the system, he said the utility will be better prepared to tackle the right project at the right time.
“You can go around and replace pipe willy nilly, but you might be replacing pipe that’s still good for 40 years,” Fox said.
Minier said any replacement of infrastructure or new construction will be tied to the Cayenta financial system, allowing the finance department to get instant updates on changing inventory and project costs as they happen.
Maintenance and repair
The collection of stats and reports available on Cityworks, as well its ability to accept information directly from crews in the field, will help keep the utility ahead of the routine maintenance curve instead of reacting to expensive partial failures and leaks, Fox said.
With Cityworks, the entire utility water system can be seen on an interactive map, with selectable layers that can show different kinds of infrastructure pieces and exactly where they are located compared to streets, houses and other structures.
By selecting an individual length of pipe or a specific valve, pump or hydrant, utility workers can see its history of use and performance.
When the piece was installed, when grease was last applied to a specific pump, when a valve’s routine checkup is due and a record of leaks or failures can be seen either on a desktop computer in the office or by a crew in the field with an iPad.
“There’s so many things we have to do on a daily basis. We tend to respond to the urgent needs instead of focusing on the important ones,” Fox said.
Instead of rushing to change the grease on all the pumps in February, like crews do now, grease can be changed when the individual pump needs it based on its run hours. Data on run time compared to gallons pumped will alert employees to a slowing pump before it shuts down and fails to refill reservoirs, Fox said.
“We’ve kind of been on a replace-it-when-it-breaks program. Those reactive maintenance repairs can be very, very costly. If we can start doing maintenance inspections, repairs before it’s broken, we can decrease the cost of ownership of those assets in the long run by quite a bit,” Minier said.
Powell said the main focus of the computer system upgrades is to continually raise the water system’s reliability so customers rarely confront a dry tap.