Between maintaining transmission hardware, such as pipelines or telephone poles, to overseeing a dispersed set of power-generating or origination facilities, a utility operation of any size must always be vigilant of the condition and status of its infrastructure. If even one component in these complex ecosystems fails prematurely, customers could be immediately cut off from vital services like running water or electricity.
To that end, implementing an effective utilities maintenance strategy is imperative. This is more than just responding to storm damage or other high-profile stress tests. It’s about incorporating preventive strategies that reduce the risk of sudden failure and ensure robust, uninterrupted performance. And like cars, houses, equipment, or anything else comprising multiple components or subsystems, maintenance is the key to reliable performance.
Implementing an effective maintenance plan for energy infrastructure isn’t easy, but it’s certainly possible. Below are a few best practices that can help operators refine their utility maintenance plans and continue to deliver reliable service to customers.
The old saying that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure is just as true for the utilities industry as it is about everything else. In fact, utility inspections designed to catch problems before they arise are mandated by the government. But just because they’re required doesn’t mean a utility provider is taking full advantage of the benefits and knowledge that can be gleaned from regular, thorough inspections by trained personnel.
By using the latest data and field technology to its fullest potential, utilities inspections can go from a regulatory box to be checked to an unparalleled window into the health and condition of the assets in question. Here’s just a small snapshot of what technology and education are doing for the industry:
Incorporating these innovations into inspections and follow-up analysis can pay dividends in cost, efficiency, and operational insight. With a tech-enhanced view of a utility’s infrastructure, your team can better determine how to follow up on field reports, plan preventive maintenance for different assets, and develop short- and long-term operational strategies backed by data.
Utility maintenance best practices are as much a study in upkeep and conditioning as they are in asset management. And one of the core tenets of utility asset management is determining the criticality and classification of everything comprising the greater infrastructure network.
This idea seems fairly straightforward on the face of it – of course, telephone poles aren’t going to be as high of a priority as a transformer or substation – but in an industry where there could be thousands of individual physical assets spread out across hundreds of square miles, organization is imperative. In order to develop an efficient, effective, and practical maintenance plan, a utility provider must know what assets they have, where they are, and how important different assets are to the operation of the complete system.
Multiple strategies can be used to accomplish this. For classification purposes, sorting assets by type and location offers a high-level view of what’s where. More granular data, like serial numbers on asset tags, coordinates, street addresses, and so on, can be used for specific identification and tracking purposes.
Criticality is a bit more nuanced. Within your energy infrastructure, which subsystems are most important to the system’s continued operation as a whole? The answer to that question should take first priority in maintenance and repairs. As you think about less consequential assets, consider factors like accessibility and customer impacts. Not all telephone poles are created equal – if one is on a line that serves 10,000 customers and another handles only 1,000 customers, odds are the former pole will take precedence.
Trees fall, rivers flood, fires rage, winds blow – and all of it can damage both above- and below-ground utilities. And while an energy provider can’t protect their far-flung assets from every weather event or falling tree, they can take preventive steps to minimize Mother Nature’s impacts to the grid.
Vegetation management is especially critical in reducing asset vulnerability to environmental threats. Overgrowth, for instance, might not only lead to an increased risk of trees or branches falling on and damaging assets, but it could also hinder site access, making it difficult or even impossible for crews to perform repairs safely in the case of an emergency maintenance call. Keeping the underbrush and encroaching tree canopy at bay helps minimize the risk of these unexpected challenges by enabling reliable access and safer repair conditions.
Between fire, droughts, tornadoes, and hurricanes, most of the country has some level of exposure to rare but dramatic weather events. While not commonplace, these can potentially cut energy access for hundreds of thousands of customers. The Texas ice storms of 2021 were a particularly acute example of extreme weather’s consequences on an ill-prepared infrastructure.
Meanwhile, in the west, utilities face the opposite issue: sweltering heat waves strain the grid, forcing electric providers to call for reduced public energy consumption and even initiate rolling blackouts. Again, it’s a case of a power grid being challenged by unprecedented weather patterns that, while not common, redraw the bell curve utilities planners must consider.
As similar weather events occur across the country, utility providers must ensure their systems are not only able to withstand regular conditions but also any type of extreme weather predicted in the coming years and decades. This could mean:
Installing any necessary upgrades while conducting routine maintenance can also help to weather-proof a utility’s key assets in a scalable, manageable, systematic approach.
By incorporating all the solutions presented here, utilities providers will find that maintaining their extensive catalog of assets will become easier, more streamlined, and better documented. This doesn’t just lead to a better customer experience – it means a more reliable energy infrastructure for all.