Similarities and Dissimilarities Among Electric and Gas Outages
By Tom Coolidge and Tom DeWitte
After a storm with strong winds and rain heavy enough to cause flooding, one neighbor away at the time may ask another still there if there are any outages in the neighborhood. It’s understandable if the first response back is about whether the area’s electricity is still on or not. That’s because outage is a term more commonly associated with electricity than natural gas, for good reason. Electric outages are much more common. A survey by the American Gas Association, reported by the Natural Gas Council, revealed in one recent year that Americans experienced 8.1 million power outages and fewer than 100,000 natural gas outages!
One obvious reason for that sizeable difference is that electric distribution networks predominantly are above ground, while gas pipe networks predominantly are underground, free from most hazards on and above the surface. That difference makes it rare for an event to be severe enough to impact the ability of a natural gas distribution network to safely deliver gas to customers. But events of a magnitude sufficient to cause many customer outages at one time do occur. For instance, entire areas of a gas utility service territory can be affected by flooding from a hurricane or pipe breaks from an earthquake. And, likewise, they can be affected by pipe dig-ins at a critical location during construction activities or failure of pipe metal due to corrosion or other cause.
Beyond temporary inconvenience, gas outages caused by pipe damage releasing natural gas may be dangerous. The release of natural gas represents an imminent threat to people and property. That makes resolving this threat as rapidly as possible critical. A gas outage not only presents a threat to the safety of people and the preservation of property, it also presents a negative impact to the local economy. Restaurants that rely on gas to heat their grills and ovens, cannot operate. Hotels are unable offer their rooms when they are unable to heat their rooms or provide hot water for bathing. Manufacturers which rely on natural gas to run their operations must close and send their workers home.
There is another significant difference between electric and gas service. Restoring gas service is more difficult than restoring electric service. That is because electric distribution systems are designed to be shut down under abnormal conditions and natural gas pipe networks aren’t. Restoring natural gas service following an event that causes many outages is a multi-step process involving multiple parties, many workers, and lots of time and effort. For this blog, I will combine the many steps into three groups. These groups are: identification of impacted customers, assignment and transmittal of impacted customers to field staff, restoring gas service to customers.
These three primary steps are the same steps followed back in the horse and buggy days when gas distribution systems were initially implemented. Back then the best technology for enabling this process was paper. Building a gas outage process on paper is problematic. The process of identifying impacted customers is inaccurate and time consuming. It takes some gas organizations hours to generate the list of customers impacted by a gas outage. Having humans manually review lists of customer addresses to determine who is connected to the impacted portion of the pipe system is time consuming and inaccurate. No customer on a cold January day wants to be told that the gas utility is still reviewing customer lists to determine who is impacted. Using paper in the field to track the relight process for restoring gas service is inefficient. Field staff and office management are both blind to the progress of restoration until someone stops working and manually shares their information. These problems are not new, they have been around since the first gas distribution pipe systems were constructed in the early 1800s.
Technology has changed dramatically since the early 1800s. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in the 1870s, greatly improving the speed of communication. John Atanasoff, while teaching at Iowa State University in the 1930s, created the first electronic digital computer, setting the stage for advanced data storage and analytics. Frank Canova of IBM created the first smartphone in the early 1990s. Steve Jobs, of Apple, Inc, would later improve upon the idea of mobile communication and computing with the IPhone. Jack Dangermond, the founder of Esri, Inc., created ArcGIS providing the means to leverage these major technology advances with geography. Geography is core to understanding the connectivity of a pipe system and where along the pipe system impacted customers of a gas outage are located.
With all these amazing advances in communication, digital computing, mobile computers, and Geographical Information Systems (GIS), why are some gas utilities still using a predominantly paper-based solution to gas outage?
There may well be multiple reasons for that, but those possible reasons no longer include the unavailability of GIS capable of supporting a totally computer-based approach to supporting the gas outage restoration process.
Today’s ArcGIS presents gas utilities with the opportunity to greatly improve on how they execute the gas outage restoration process. Modern gas service restoration at its best is an enterprise-wide activity with workers in the field and office working together collaboratively in real-time on one source of the truth.
Next week we will release the first in a series of three blogs on modern gas service restoration.
This first blog addresses the issue of identifying the customers impacted by a gas outage event. This task often takes several hours when it needs to be accomplished in minutes. Additionally, the historical processes have had problems with accurately identifying the impacted customers and communicating precisely where those customer meters are located.
The second blog will address the issue of communicating the list of impacted customers to the gas operations field staff. The typical paper process takes too much time, causing delayed field operations and lower customer satisfaction.
The third blog will address the gas relight process. This process is also typically performed with paper. The use of paper to track and communicate progress adds difficulty and inefficiency to this process. The use of paper not only engrains a delay in relaying the update status to gas management and other interested parties, it also inputs a delay in relaying the status of individual meters between deployed field staff.
These three blogs together will describe how the core capabilities of the ArcGIS platform, enables a gas utility to implement a modern gas service restoration process. A process that is accurate, efficient and timely. A process that will provide customer service reps, gas operations supervisors, and gas management with the real-time clarity on the progress of each customer thru the gas service restoration.
Dramatic enhancements in communication and computation have occurred since the first gas distribution systems were built in the early 1800’s. Industry pioneers such as Bell, Atanasoff, Canova, and Dangermond have given the world incredible enhancements. Isn’t it time these enhancements were put to use?