Modernizing natural gas infrastructure management with the use of location technology

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By using GIS for natural gas distribution mapping, utilities can better manage outages, respond to issues, and gather business intelligence

By: Drew Powers

Public utilities have been around for more than 100 years and have endured mergers, acquisitions, and many other changes. This results in a constant battle of data inaccuracies and operational challenges. A more robust solution is needed – one that can provide a reliable, single data source to be used across all functions.

Utilities are starting to understand the benefits of using geographic information system (GIS) experts to map natural gas distribution service assets. While there are currently no regulations on mapping assets to this extent (sub-meter accuracy), we know that having the data provided by these services can help utilities respond more rapidly to outages, prevent safety events, and gather business intelligence to enhance the customer experience. Customers may also see financial benefits due to the utilities potentially lowering future maintenance costs.

By combining expertise in survey, data mapping and engineering, our teams have supported our clients’ needs in natural gas distribution mapping. Perfecting program workflows along the way, we’ve been helping our clients find new ways to get more value from the mapping data.

Data is an asset

Data is a core asset for businesses across the power and energy and oil and gas industries. Data can give companies the leverage to improve operations, revenue, customer relationships, and future outcomes.

When it comes to using GIS for natural gas distribution mapping, our team applies a combination of technology and field personnel to create intuitive operation dashboards, perform quality control, track metrics, and monitor progress. This process ensures the highest quality product is delivered to the client while maintaining strict schedules and contracted budgets.

Distribution mapping helps us understand the true location of the assets and provides a user-friendly visual. Because the data collected is in a single, intuitive format, all users can collaborate, communicate, and share business intelligence effectively. This gives our utility clients the ability to make data-driven decisions based on the most up-to-date information.

We’re currently working with a natural gas distribution company that provides reliable, low-cost natural gas service to customers in western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky. They rely on our team to provide support for timely, targeted information, which conforms to ever increasing governmental regulations. The GIS technologies compiles data so it can be viewed and interpreted to reveal relationships and trends. It can also combine traditionally fragmented data into an integrated asset management solution.

By the end of our contract, we will have located and documented all customer meters, curb boxes, and service lines within our client’s contracted territories, which is approximately 651,700 sites and roughly 5,400 miles of underground service lines.

Using customized equipment and ESRI’s ArcGIS Collector mobile application, our team is able to gather Global Positioning System (GPS) positions at an accuracy of +/- 1 foot, collect pertinent information about each site, attach photos, and upload the data in real-time to the project’s web based mapping portal. Due to the largely urban and residential nature of the work, specialized safety training and processes were also developed and implemented. All of our GPS Field Data Technicians are experienced and specifically trained to perform this type of data collection.

Better manage outages

Utility outages happen – and the financial impact continues to increase. When extreme weather events and disruptions in service happen, it’s important for our clients to act quickly to get their customers back online. By using GIS for natural gas distribution mapping, we can easily identify impacted sites and manage outages. Ultimately, a more robust map for operations and true locations of data allows a more timely, accurate response. A client can more easily identify impacted sites and take immediate action, saving the client both time and resources. It also results in a better customer experience.

Enhance your safety response

Being prepared is the fastest way to respond to an emergency. While mapping efforts cannot anticipate all issues, we gather important data about the existing assets’ conditions (such as broken meters, damaged valves/regulators) so that the client can establish a maintenance plan for corrective actions. This proactive, preemptive approach certainly has value when it comes to an improved safety response.

In the presence of a safety event, this data can be used to allow utility operators and construction crews to locate shut-off points quicker, more accurately, and with reduced impact to surrounding service areas.

We’ve had many instances throughout our Pennsylvania project where our techs have detected active gas leaks and reported them to the client. Our client has then been able to take corrective action ahead of a safety incident. This has been an added benefit to having field personnel visit every site.

The future of natural gas infrastructure management

As the saying goes, data is king. If an operator takes the initiative to implement a distribution mapping project using location technology, there are endless ways to use the data collected. From simply updating an outage map for operations, to more involved actions like evaluating load analysis and gas modeling, the more data we have, the more features we can create. Once a strong foundation is built, the operator can continuously improve their system while evolving with the market and any new technologies that may come along.