Everyone has the potential to learn a new skill in a short amount of time. According to Josh Kaufman, author of The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast!, it only takes about 20 hours of disciplined practice to acquire a new ability such as solving a Rubik’s cube, playing a musical instrument or mastering basic words a foreign language.
Choptank Electric Cooperative proved this theory true when the utility launched the Substation Maintenance and Asset Reliability Tracking (SMART) software in a week. So far, Choptank holds the distinction for the quickest installation of the MinMax Technologies SMARTest cloud-based program.
The challenges electric cooperatives face today are the same challenges they faced in 1936 when Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act to ensure Americans living in areas outside of cities had electricity. By continuing to advance the operation of its utility, Choptank accepts the demands of adhering to industry regulations and supplying cooperative members with high reliability at affordable rates. To guarantee steady and optimal performance, Choptank chose the MinMax SMART software to help maintain its assets so members can continue to receive reasonably priced and uninterrupted service.
Past and Present
Choptank was established on Sept. 21, 1938, to provide power to the Maryland Eastern Shore region. The name was changed to Choptank Electric Cooperative in 1942. The utility joined Old Dominion Electric Cooperative in 1976. This collaboration allows Choptank to buy wholesale power and sell it to members at a cost-effective price.
Presently, Choptank is part of Touchstone Energy Cooperatives, which represents a nationwide alliance of member-owned electric co-ops. The collective forms the largest electric utility in the U.S. and delivers power and energy solutions to approximately 750 unified local cooperatives in 46 states.
Choptank has five facilities located in Denton, Chestertown, St. Michaels, Cambridge and Salisbury, Maryland. The not-for-profit cooperative serves about 54,000 residential, commercial and industrial members in nine counties in Maryland and has 46 miles (74 km) of transmission lines and 36 substations.
For many years, Choptank’s 158 employees relied on the 20th century method of manually recording inspections, filling out paper reports and filing them in folders. The utility eventually upgraded to modern electronic scans and an internally created Microsoft Access database. While the database was good for collecting and organizing information, and creating data entry forms, it had limitations.
The three substation technicians and other field workers tracked inspections using printouts with previously recorded information. They updated the reports with written data gathered onsite at substations and poles. Then they had to drive back to the office to input the information. The procedure led to lost, incorrect or fragmented data that left gaps in information and caused inaccurate reporting. At this point, Choptank began to question if there was a better way to compile, recover and analyze information.
Searching for the Answer
Choptank was seeking a comprehensive and configurable asset management system and had tried software platforms that were not entirely workable. Choptank wanted a user-friendly system with flexibility that allowed servicemen to retrieve historical information and handle inspections in the field.
Todd Bireley, vice president of engineering services, first saw a brief demonstration of the MinMax SMART software at the 2017 TechAdvantage Expo in San Diego, California. He discovered the program could connect to a utility’s in-house systems to export all asset, inspection and test data in Excel and PDF formats with the option to use more than 25 predefined reports. Additional software functions included a management dashboard that displays all inspection and maintenance data with measurable performance metrics, access to archived information accompanied by pictures and comments, and automatically generated schedules for evaluating assets. Users can pick from an array of schedule templates based on the frequencies and kinds of inspections, tests and maintenance procedures.
The system also facilitates the tracking of moved or replaced equipment, change in nameplate data and active or inactive status. The software runs on mobile devices with an intuitive interface so workers are able to send and share work orders, schedules and service calls through email. The software also offers inspection reminders and email alerts in the form of work orders about equipment failures and abnormal conditions.
Bireley was impressed with the system and found that it met Choptank’s criteria for field inspections and that it contained many other useful qualities. On his return to Choptank, Bireley informed executives and administrators about the capabilities of the MinMax SMART system.
In May 2017, Choptank administrators attending the Virginia, Maryland and Delaware Electric Cooperative Association conference had the opportunity to view a demo of the MinMax SMART software. They also attended a breakout session on asset management featuring representatives from MinMax and two other vendors. Vendors gave presentations about their asset management systems and had clients share their experiences with the products. Choptank determined the MinMax SMART software was the best. The software consisted of a variety of tools that matched Choptank’s needs for managing its equipment and substations. When the decision was made, the IT staff validated that the system met specifications and confirmed it was suitable for Choptank’s intended purpose.
The MinMax suite of asset management software is comprised of three packages: SMART, SMARTer and SMARTest. Choptank selected SMARTest because it is capable of initiating and tracking asset, pole and distribution line inspections, identifying and maintaining equipment, and meeting the standards of the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC). Choptank appreciates that the system can dispatch alerts regarding needed repairs and equipment failures, along with having the capacity to track and schedule various periodic inspections.
The process to integrate existing data began on a Monday in January 2018, and the new software was deployed and field tested by Friday. Choptank applied a data layout produced with an in-house developed program to the MinMax SMART system. Within seven days after signing a contract with MinMax, Choptank introduced SMARTest to the workforce in February 2018. Experts from MinMax arrived at the Choptank Salisbury facility in the morning and traveled to the Denton office in the afternoon to assist the staff with installing the software, populating the system with data and conducting a test run. Once the deployment was completed, Choptank began training workers and started the first round of inspections.
Choptank used the in-house program with data from its GIS system to obtain the required information so the MinMax SMART program could be configured to fit Choptank’s requirements. The process consisted of using the GIS as the primary for gathering equipment data followed by cross referencing information from the in-house system and organizing import files for uploading into the program. After transferring the data, Choptank implemented the inspections in the training database and went live.
Choptank Electric has a total of 27,000 pieces of equipment, which includes substation breakers, transformers, load tap changers, generators, regulators, reclosers, pad-mounted switchgear and distribution lines. With the software, Choptank can expand its identification strategy to group different types of equipment together or categorize them individually depending on slight variations.
Choptank says the email reminder is one of the hallmarks of the system because it keeps servicemen up to date about slated inspections and deadlines. Before the MinMax SMART program, workers had no idea if critical data was processed in a timely manner. Now servicemen in the field have a task list that removes jobs as they are completed with a notification that tells them the data was sent and received. Not only does the program enable workers to store and recover information, it is an invaluable tool for the substation technicians. They can inspect assets live in the field, so it is easier to pinpoint what substation and line equipment needs repairs.
MinMax SMART simplifies tasks and the work process. Field servicemen can enter and send data via smartphones, laptops and electronic tablets. They can input data both live with internet or off-line. Choptank’s priority was to track the data for PSC inspection and manage equipment documented with the commission. An added bonus is that the program aids in preventative maintenance on pad-mounted switchgear for tracking the moisture in oil.
Choptank finds this software boosts the productivity of employees because the program reduces the possibility of missing data. Another benefit is the instant availability of the data after it is set up in the system. MinMax SMART is meeting the current inspection needs of Choptank, and it is built to fulfill any upcoming concerns.
Choptank was intent on quickly deploying the system and was not distracted with perfecting the applications of the platform for its own use. Choptank zeroed in on uploading its previously amassed data into the program and held off on making adjustments until a later. Choptank advises other utilities to be prepared to make strides by using formerly stored data. To expedite deployment, Choptank recommends utilities be aware of the source for its current data, know where to locate existing data and understand how to export the data.
The majority of Choptank employees have embraced the introduction of the program, but others who are not computer savvy were hesitant initially about using the system. Rather than force workers to immediately incorporate the digital format, Choptank thinks it is best to give them the freedom to familiarize themselves with the technology and software. Choptank hopes to phase out old models of documentation and workflow once everybody is comfortable with the electronic system.
Toward the Future
The utility is thinking about further applications for the software such as downloading equipment manuals and customizing reports so they meet PSC guidelines. To streamline the work process in the future, Choptank wants to execute auto-notification to target the right servicemen so they are the recipients of warnings about trouble with equipment.
Choptank employees like the convenience and speed of entering data with the software’s auto-complete feature, the program’s adaptability, and how the system allows them to track and collect data that complies with Maryland PSC standards. The aim is to have the program accumulate enough data after three to four months to properly complete regulatory reports.
The steps Choptank followed to deploy MinMax SMARTare similar to Kaufman’s observation about learning a new skill. Kaufman says preparatory action is essential to attaining self-taught knowledge. People can concentrate on becoming proficient at whatever they have chosen to learn when they have all of the required equipment and materials they need to achieve their goal. Choptank’s preparation made a swift installation and implementation of the software possible. Choptank’s fast deployment of the MinMax SMART software is unprecedented but not an impossible feat for other electric cooperatives. ♦
David Robinson joined Choptank Electric Cooperative in 1994 and is communication and control technology engineer. He is responsible for the management of substation construction, as well as asset inspection and data tracking.
Will Keller joined Choptank Electric Cooperative in 2016 and is an electrical engineer. He is responsible for assistance in all aspects of engineering within the company.