GIS for Surveying

Truckee Donner Public Utility District

Small Utility Uses Its GIS in a Big Way

GIS technology has been a strong management tool for large utility companies. Until recently, many small utilities have stayed away from incorporating a GIS because they believed that at the small business level, GIS is not cost-effective. However, Ian Fitzgerald, GIS coordinator for Truckee Donner Public Utility District (PUD) says that cost is not really a factor in deciding whether or not to employ a GIS. The small utility was able to work with Esri and Miner & Miner, wherein it acquired the ArcGIS™ and ArcFM™ software family, making the GIS accessible to more than 20 employees in the company at relatively little cost. With the declining cost of GIS software, off-the-shelf application and data model implementations, and application sharing, a utility of small or medium stature can get as much or more out of a GIS as a large utility without bearing high cost burdens.

The PUD is a small utility in Lake Tahoe that uses GIS in a big way. With 13,500 electric customers, 15,000 water customers, and a new developing business in broadband telecommunications, the company has been able to implement many of the tools provided by Esri and Miner & Miner, enhancing business practices that were often thought of as unattainable by small utilities. Currently, the PUD has implemented applications such as Feeder Manager, Conduit System Manager, and Plan & Profiles and will soon be implementing Advantica Stoner’s SynerGEE® and Miner & Miner's Designer® programs. Most of these products are available off the shelf with little configuration and little or no customization.

To keep costs down, Truckee Donner performs its own data conversion, software configuration, and data modeling. With the help of POWER Engineers, Inc., of Idaho, the PUD has developed custom applications for small fees and has used these applications to trade with other utilities, again enhancing what it already has for no additional cost.

GPS is used as a data entry foundation upon which the land base was developed. The PUD, sanitary district, town, county, state, department of transportation, and regional engineering firms now use the created basemap, allowing for easy integration of shared data among the different agencies. Also, by sharing as-built information, the PUD no longer has to maintain information not pertinent to the district's utilities; instead the data is maintained through the proper agency and shared through a data exchange agreement, cutting down on a lot of time and material that is often directed at land base maintenance currently seen at many larger utilities.

Truckee Donner is located in California's Sierras, not far from Lake Tahoe where only two seasons impact the utility company: the winter season and the construction season. These two seasons last approximately six months each. In the winter season, the average snowfall is 400 inches, but the community can receive as much as 900 inches annually, burying much of the district’s underground facilities. During this time, the GIS coupled with a GPS is needed to locate the facilities and provide navigation to them. Most facilities management in the winter season is restricted to maintenance activity.

Depending on weather patterns, the construction season usually starts about mid-May. During the winter, the ground is permafrost, so as soon as spring arrives, everyone begins digging at the same time. Business starts happening fast, and the utility company's GIS is actively coordinating efforts. It locates joint projects and trenching projects.

The company matches its maintenance and facilities development schedule with other construction agencies such as CalTrans, California's road maintenance agency. If CalTrans is widening a highway, the utility company uses its GPS/GIS to maintain its facilities or plan new projects at the same time. By knowing where and when construction will occur, the district can build out its network with reduced cost and labor. As a seasonal town, that must build out networks to serve both seasonal residents and vacant lots, this reduction of cost is critical.

ArcFM also has been effective in supporting the company’s joint construction projects with its conduit system management application. Recently the district, in a joint project, constructed a large conduit system through the town. The Miner & Miner Conduit System Manager has been helpful in describing what conduits exist and where they exist and tracing out what facilities are available for lease or sale. It also became useful for relocation and maintenance of buried conduit and pipe.

Prior to implementing the company's GIS, the majority of the knowledge about facility location existed in the field crews' "walking maps." These walking maps were planners and foremen who had constructed a majority of the system. Without traditional maps or designs either in paper or electronic format, newer field crews had insufficient reference tools. The need for GIS was obvious. The five-member board of the small government utility discovered that the costs of implementing a GIS were not as great as they had anticipated. Therefore, the board was happy to set up the GIS program and the GIS coordinator position.

As a reflection of the success of the GIS implementation, the PUD's electric planner, who has been with the company for more than 30 years, has taken firm hold of the GIS and is now one of its biggest proponents: "It cuts down on my windshield time, sure, but it has made my job and my dealings with contractors far easier, and I wouldn't know what to do if it was ever taken away." Another testament was during an outage in the dead of winter in which the electric superintendent, with only four hours of training, was able to come in at 2 a.m., turn on the GIS, locate the address of a phone call, and trace the network to locate the outage. "It must have saved me at least a half hour of driving the circuit. With the GIS, I was able to go right to the problem." this shows not only the benefits a small utility can obtain from a GIS, but also that the software used makes it even easier for training and application.

A small utility that has a GIS can have a great impact on its own community. Starting the GIS for this size venture takes just one or two quality people to get it going, claims Mr. Fitzgerald. "In a small company, the GIS coordinator can really make an impression on those using the GIS for a variety of situations." If the community is sharing their data, this further reduces costs. Mr. Fitzgerald says that GIS in a small community "needs a champion to start cooperative efforts, and often the utility company can serve as that champion."

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