Managing Water Outages with Modern Solutions
By: Larry Masters, GIS Manager; Matthew Williamson, Director of Engineering; and Doug Alderman, Water Superintendent - West Knox Utility District
West Knox Utility District (WKUD) began operating on October 18, 1954. The mission statement of the district is to "acquire, construct, improve, extend, operate, and maintain a water and wastewater system." The district's service area of 72 square miles is bordered on the east by the city of Knoxville, on the south by interstate highways 40 and 75, and on the north and west by Anderson and Loudon Counties. WKUD serves over 25,000 water and 20,000 wastewater customers in one of the fastest-growing regions in Tennessee.
West Knox Utility District manages many planned and unplanned outages each year. Managing these outages requires a lot of information to be available to various staff and customers. But paper maps, phone calls, and timely research were not sufficient. We needed a solution that would enable easy access to data and allow staff to work quickly, providing a higher level of service to our growing community.
The solution was to move away from paper maps and forms and implement a way to capture data in the field and access data from tablets, phones, and computers. Moving to a digital system would give field crews and office staff quick access to the information they need.
We started discussing how to make maps and information available to each team. How would we share information? Who needed information, and what kind of information did they need?
We knew that
Field crews wanted as much data as possible. They wanted to eliminate the need to call or visit the office or spend time researching.
- Office staff needed to know the status of work being done in the system, particularly when an outage had happened and service needed to be reinstated.
- Customers needed an easy way to know what work was happening in their service area. With the growing population, the increase in phone calls to customer service presented a challenge. It would be more efficient to post outage information online so that customers could find the information they wanted at any time, day or night.
- We wondered if GIS could be used to meet these challenges. Staff at the district had been using GIS since 2007. It was used on desktop computers. Supervisors would use ArcReader to print maps and then give them to staff. We knew that GIS had become more than a desktop solution and that by growing our GIS, we could implement solutions that would provide each of the teams with the information they needed.
A business case was developed for moving to Web GIS and using online solutions. At the same time, we were in the process of upgrading our billing system software. The new billing system required a server. This opened the door to bring ArcGIS in at the server level.
We knew that we would need help setting up the GIS server and implementing solutions, so we contacted Esri staff, and they told us about the Esri Enterprise Advantage Program (EEAP). The program provides strategic advice, planning assistance, and services. An Esri expert would be assigned to us and help us meet our goals. We were given references for customers in our area that used EEAP. After contacting them and discussing the pros and cons, it was decided to move forward and sign up for the program. With the support of EEAP, we were able to confidently install ArcGIS for Server and start implementing solutions.
The first team to use a new, GIS-based solution was our field crews. We implemented the Utility Isolation Trace application. This app enabled staff to run a trace that would identify all of our infrastructure that would be affected by an outage, as well as the affected customers. This gave our staff a better understanding of the resources that would be needed to manage each situation with the click of a few buttons.
Our staff were excited about the new technology. It was a big change, though. We set up a one-hour training session and made sure that everyone was comfortable coming to us with follow-up questions. Staff were engaged and learned fast. The technology was easy for them to use. They were given a guide with step-by-step instructions for the tasks they needed to do. And there have been very few follow-up questions!
Lucas Saylor, water service technician, says, "Having this technology available in the field gives [us] confidence that we are working the correct valves and ensures that we are all on the same page. All crews know what section has been isolated. It will help us deal with the general public when [customers] come to a job site asking about their water, so it helps with customer relations and productivity."
Field crews are using company-issued iPads but have asked about using the apps on their phones. The crews like the technology a lot and want to have the data on hand. They are already providing suggestions for changes and improvements.
The next step is to go live with our forward-facing dashboard application. This map is viewed via the web and can be used by customer service and our customers to view outages. Office and field staff are being trained to use the software, entering the correct information to ensure that this map is kept current and trustworthy.
Once the outage map goes live, we are expecting it to reduce the number of calls and complaints coming in to customer service because customers will be provided information about outages more quickly. It should also reduce or eliminate customer service calls being put on hold or going unanswered. Our goal is to increase our level of service, resulting in higher customer satisfaction.
"Since implementing a digital mapping system and placing mobile devices in the field, we have enjoyed a marked improvement in response time and overall efficiency for service interruptions," says WKUD general manager Drexel Heidel. "Our crews are able to respond much faster and determine how to isolate a main break, make the necessary repairs, and restore service much faster, providing overall better service for our customers. In addition, we enjoy all the benefits that a GIS system has to offer such as permanent records that are used to make capital improvement decisions."
Although we are still in the process of implementing our solutions, we are already seeing benefits:
- Water outage workflows have become more efficient. Field crews—even new staff—are able to shut off valves quickly. Response time to get water shut off has decreased. Water service is being repaired more quickly, getting customers back online.
- Data quality has improved. Valve and asset information is updated when fieldwork exposes problems with the data.
- ArcGIS applications make it easy to collect data. This is allowing us to record the knowledge of retiring staff and preserve it within our GIS.
- Overall operations have improved. Staff are happy. They are able to access current information.
The support from Esri staff was instrumental. They were available for phone calls and screen shares when we faced challenges in implementing the solutions. We are looking forward to growing our GIS and supporting WKUD with modern solutions.