KAMO Electric Cooperative was formed in 1941, just eight years after the Tennessee Valley Authority Act enabled transmission lines to be built to farms and small villages across rural America, and the Rural Electrification Administration was born. Over time, the number of substations and assets required to turn the lights on has grown, but keeping track of all the assets has been a very time-consuming challenge, until now.
Across northeast Oklahoma and southwest Missouri, more than 313,000 customers depend on reliable electricity delivered across more than 2700 miles (4345 km) of transmission lines. At the center of that distribution is KAMO Power, which is owned by and provides power resources for 17 member distribution cooperatives. As KAMO’s service territory has grown, so have the mounds of paperwork.
For most industries, manual documentation and reporting are a thing of the past, like Rolodexes, typewriters and rotary phones. But for many electric cooperatives today, the manual way is still the case. About five years ago, KAMO decided it was time to shift the paper trails and ongoing historical investigations to digital asset management and the enlistment of other technologies that would improve growing operations.
Manual Paper-Based Process
Among KAMO’s approximately 300 substations, there are some 60-year-old switches and other equipment for which no documentation exists. The make and model of these assets are often revealed only through folklore. For the asset details that are identifiable, unending hours of manpower are spent writing data on paper, sending it to headquarters, entering it into an Excel spreadsheet, and printing, copying and returning it to service centers to be filed away in a roomful of dust-collecting cabinets.
With 23 substation technicians manually reporting maintenance data for everything inside the fence, errors and missing data have been found. Substation inspections are simple and conducted by highly qualified personnel who check various boxes — physical condition, vegetation and temperatures — noting any problems that might exist. However, the challenge with that process has always been the paper report being filed away when occasional problems were not addressed.
In Search of a Solution
At KAMO, an estimated 200 employees work daily to maintain high standards of operation and service levels. When the utility decided to shift from manual to digital asset management, it assembled a multidisciplinary team to identify and prioritize needs to find the right solution.
At that time, only a few companies offering asset management software existed — all large, expensive, legacy options with overwhelming data requirements and intimidating user interfaces. In 2013, KAMO took notice when an Oklahoma distribution cooperative, People’s Electric Cooperative, began using new software called Substation Maintenance and Asset Reliability Tracking (SMART) by MinMax Technologies.
As the vendor-evaluation process continued, the larger companies could not meet KAMO’s needs without adding complexity to the user interface and taking too much time and additional money. However, with SMART, every request KAMO made was met and integrated into the product with collaboration, ease and timeliness. That agile flexibility to customize a product-based solution was the metaphorical stone in the slingshot that knocked the giants out of the running.
KAMO chose SMART because MinMax was willing to listen and learn from field experience to enhance the capability of the software. One such KAMO-driven enhancement in substation maintenance planning enables field teams to go to substations with real-time data; in the past, schedules had to be entered manually and disparate data paper trails drove employee workload. With the enhanced SMART product, all data can be brought into one repository and inform operations and substation managers on how to plan for the right amount of staff and time.
The KAMO team’s approach to implementing SMART is helping the utility to move forward with little to no resistance from its users. To gain early buy-in, and because the field personnel did not have an electronic inspection form yet, KAMO began with the field group that focuses on battery testing at the substations and developed a mobile data entry form that could be populated on their new iPads while using the KAMO communications system. Much of this group is from a younger generation and accustomed to everyday technology use. Regardless, one thing that remained clear was the software needed to be extremely field friendly, work fast and be reliable, or they would not adopt it.
There are silos of information from one substation to the next, and every time a new maintenance or inspection record is entered into the spreadsheet, there are possibilities of error on data entry. The biggest mind-set to change in field crews is the transition from filling out paper forms they have used for the last 20 years to filling out an electronic form. SMART streamlines KAMO’s field information, validates against the established norms, creates a historical database and makes it possible to see data faster, perform predictive maintenance and make decisions more efficiently. Employees say they are happy to have the ability to look up information instantly in the field, something they have never had access to before.
For example, with all equipment, SMART makes it possible to go to one data source and look up a transformer, breaker or bushing versus going to many different places. Across its substations, KAMO maintains 250 sets of batteries and air conditioners. And its service centers have rooms full of file cabinets containing manuals for substation equipment such as transformers, load-tap changers, circuit breakers, circuit switchers, relays, switches and more.
KAMO also is integrating specialized test set data by extracting it and importing it into a centralized database from MinMax. Some of this equipment is used for North America Reliability Corporation (NERC) compliancy, and the recorded data will be stored and easily available for any NERC compliance reports.
Early Positive Results
While the KAMO team knows it will take a while to sort through, they fully expect SMART to eliminate errors as data is entered and stored in one location. Another crucial factor of SMART that appealed to KAMO is the data is stored in-house on the cooperative’s secure servers, something other vendors are not doing because they only offer off-site hosting and data storage.
Going digital with asset management and other operations functions is helping KAMO to improve its workflow management by creating work orders and to-do lists, and assigning tasks versus making phone calls to the call center or leaving sticky notes behind — basically the way the world used to operate before automation started making life easier.
With their iPads, field teams can use FaceTime to communicate with other personnel about issues they are experiencing, and they can visualize and respond on the spot. They can take pictures of abnormal equipment conditions or make video clips of the repair work and attach them to the equipment for later use.
As the battery testing group moves through inspections, the intuitiveness of the query fields and intelligent typing is shaving off time and enabling the group to inspect two to three more substations per day. This entire process also is helping KAMO to develop naming conventions so it can standardize how it maintains and manages assets more systematically.
Having the equipment history is proving to be a vital benefit of SMART as field teams may come across equipment they want to retire versus repair, which automatically sends alerts when it is time to purchase new pieces. They also can see equipment failures more quickly as well as view history on repairs and other maintenance work performed.
In the event that an outage takes out substation equipment, the field team is alerted immediately. They can then look up equipment specifics and make necessary replacements quickly.
A Look Toward the Future
After the battery testing crew completes the SMART implementation, the KAMO team prioritizes the next steps and creates a wish list for what it would like to see the tool help the utility to achieve. As more data becomes available and is analyzed, the team can more accurately assess the next best steps and focus areas. For one thing, the data gathering alone will provide insights into trends like never before.
In fact, the utility is already seeing improvements in how tasks are addressed. For example, a battery tester might be in a substation to test batteries but also notice a broken hinge on a cabinet door in the substation. The tester can create a task to have the hinge repaired, and then a substation manager can assign the task to the appropriate personnel and identify a priority level.
As new substations come on board, SMART is expected to save time, manpower and money as all assets will be entered into the system, immediately helping overall operations. While these expected improvements will enable KAMO to continue its long-standing reputation of reliability, the utility’s employees will benefit too. The automation will help to alleviate some of the worry that comes with issues like deteriorating bushings that can create power outages, or discharged batteries, which affect the relay to make all the substations operational. Administrative staff can have more peace of mind because they will know the information in the system is accurate and complete.
Employees outside of asset management are starting to ask what SMART could do for them, such as improving the way they stay compliant with safety standards. For example, the KAMO field force is required to wear safety gear and fire-retardant clothing. Every time they go out, they can show and enter in real time that they are in compliance. Because everything is auditable, they must keep all this information on file.
Down the road, KAMO is considering taking inventory of all poles, lines and possibly even contracts. And if the utility wants to get really adventurous, it might explore a voice-to-text option when populating reports out in the field.
For the KAMO team, the investment of streamlining operations and the bumps and hiccups that come with any new technology integration are worth the wait. For now, reaping the benefits of more efficiency and strengthened reliability is lightening the load in more ways than the team thought possible.
Alena Bradbury has worked for KAMO Power for almost 30 years and has been tracking assets before it was ever referred to by today’s electrical industry standards as “asset management.” With extensive knowledge in operations, in particular substation maintenance, she has been a central figure in organizing the substation records and knowing where KAMO assets reside. She has watched KAMO grow from 194 substations in 1987 to approximately 280 substations by 2015 — that is 86 new substations and thousands more substation equipment added.
Payton White has 13 years of experience in the electric utility industry. Working with KAMO Power since 2012, he has worked with all of KAMO’s departments and cooperative members to develop plans for the next five years of construction projects. Currently, White is working with operations on the creation of the asset management database and operational flow using the database to its fullest.