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Smarter Field Service is Fueling Productivity: A Natural Gas Perspective
By Mike Marsters, Assistant Vice President, Systems Operations, Washington Gas
Mike Marsters, Assistant Vice President, Systems Operations, Washington Gas
For 170 years, Washington Gas has been proud to serve our customers. From our very first, the U.S. Capitol, to our 1.1 million customers across D.C., Maryland and Virginia today, we are privileged to provide clean burning and affordable natural gas. We are committed to maintaining a safe system as our number one priority. In 2019, empowering a top-notch, productive field workforce with effective tools is crucial to achieving that mission, efficiently, while meeting the high expectations of our customers.
System-wide,we operate approximately 13,000 miles of distribution main and roughly 12,500 miles of service lines throughout Washington Gas’ entire footprint. That’s a lot of infrastructure to build, manage and repair, and we’re dedicated to equipping our field team with all the advantages they need to do it right, every step of the way. As we enter our 171st year, we look ahead with great excitement and promise at what the future holds. We are focused on continuing to cultivate a dynamic field service operation to help us succeed in new challenges, while maintaining our track record of over 99% service reliability which our customers expect and deserve.
Across all types of work, from equipment installations, service connections or disconnect orders,to survey and more, an overarching challenge we face is predicated on a common thread – deploying technologies that help streamline processes, integrate systems, save time, ensure accuracy and properly blend human and technology resources for solid results when conducting work out in the field.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the ways we enable our field operations workforce to be more productive:
Field-Ready Rugged Mobile Tablet Computers for Workflows–Our hundreds of trained field technicians are assigned a variety of tasks on any given shift, from gas pipeline inspections and leak repairs to scheduled maintenance orders. Being armed with a trusted mobile device is a tremendous asset. We have rolled out a customer information system company wide and have deployed rugged tablets to support various applications as we push our enterprise work management systems into the field.
The traditional, time-honored skillsets of the utility worker will always be in demand, but we are at a crossroad with technology, and the workforce is embracing the opportunity to add new skills, allowing technicians to perform their jobs even better. This includes the use of tablet computers for accessing GIS information, performing onsite troubleshooting, pinpointing asset location, documenting work tasks, accessing customer records, or retrieving work history. These mobile devices eliminate the need to request or chase down this information from various repositories; instead, they are able to access -- in near real time --information from multiple sources across several platforms right at the user’s fingertips.
Remote Monitoring of our Facilities – As a regulated utility with a sprawling natural gas infrastructure, we have a complex set of compliance tasks to monitor and report on regarding the performance of our distribution system. We continue to add monitoring systems that allow us to remotely collect that detailed information. That way, we can reallocate our resources and apply saved time for other tasks, and especially to meet changing customer expectations. For example, one compliance task includes preventing steel pipe from corroding. We have installed monitoring stations to determine if AC current from power lines is influencing our corrosion prevention systems. We are monitoring those levels remotely, and are not forced to drive out to a site location to manually collect data which is time consuming and puts an added strain on precious resources.
Automated Meter Reading–Conducting routine meter readings is fundamental to how Washington Gas serves our customers. With automated meter reading, we can more efficiently collect information because we don’t have to physically access every individual meter.
Work Assignments – Optimized in Real Time – In January 2017, Washington Gas put Project Vision into production. This large transformational project touched all customer care and billing functions, including the scheduling and dispatch of work performed at customer’s premises. The scheduling system we deployed features real time optimization of work assignments. The solution integrates real-time updates coming from the field to perform intelligent schedule optimization. The speed with which the optimization works enables the instant reshuffling of a schedule to maintain customer commitments when tasks take longer than normal or provide for additional production when work is concluded more quickly. This enables Washington Gas to gain back these minutes, which aggregate into hours of gained productivity each day—from the same workforce.
Make no mistake, the role of our System Operations teams and the critical functions they perform day in and day out has always been, and will continue to be, essential to the productivity, reliability and safety of our daily operations to deliver quality natural gas service. Our legacy of commitment to excellence across the D.C. area depends -- in no small part -- on the strength of our highly valued field operations organization. To ensure they are performing optimally, we enable them to do their job with confidence using sensible tools and techniques that deliver exceptional results so we know we’re doing all we can to ultimately improve the customer experience and fully support safety time and again.