An effort to collect digital mapping data on all new installs has improved safety, integrity and risk analysis for one of the largest energy utility companies in the upper Midwest. The We Energies innovative GPS As-Built Program replaced a cumbersome paper mapping system and has resulted in benefits for both the utility and its customers.
As part of WEC Energy Group, We Energies serves 1.1 million electric customers and 1.1 million natural gas customers in Wisconsin. WEC Energy Group as a whole provides energy services to customers in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Other WEC Energy Group utilities include Michigan Gas Utilities, Minnesota Energy Resources, North Shore Gas, Peoples Gas, Wisconsin Public Service and Upper Michigan Energy Resources.
We Energies launched its GPS As-Built Program in 2015 with its major projects division and has since expanded the initiative throughout the company. The initiative calls for on-site inspectors to collect global positioning system (GPS) data points using a handheld device.
The GPS data is then integrated into the company’s geographic information system (GIS) database to create a robust and accurate mapping resource that can be used to track ongoing projects and maintenance needs. The data can also be shared with emergency response teams to ensure public safety in the event of a gas leak or other potentially dangerous situation.
Prior to implementing the GPS As-Built Program, We Energies used manually entered paper documentation, says Andrew Witkowiak, We Energies gas operations engineering manager. Problems arose with as-built measurements being confusing or inaccurate, which in turn lead to inaccurate maps. Furthermore, the time between as-built in the field to completed mapping was too long, and facilities can prove to be time-consuming and difficult to locate.
In response, We Energies implemented a solution that addressed these problems and provided companywide benefits. By harnessing technology and leveraging GPS locating devices, the company developed a robust GIS database that better managed its gas distribution system.
Implementing the System
Witkowiak’s team manages the We Energies GPS As-Built Program. They develop and facilitate training, offer technical and process support to all users, update and refine the program and collection procedures, perform audits to evaluate as-built quality and lead the GPS steering and governance teams.
As We Energies explored solutions to the problems inherent with manual paper data collection, Witkowiak says that company leadership identified three main objectives:
- A uniform process for GPS as-built data collection.
- A centrally managed GPS data repository.
- Tracking and traceability.
The solution that We Energies developed comprised a handheld GPS unit to collect data in the field, which would then sync wirelessly via cell signal to an internally designed, web-based GPS repository. The GPS data is then imported into ArcGIS for mapping. Once the data is synced, additional information can be added via the internal system.
We Energies field inspectors use a Trimble handheld unit,and a custom application developed by We Energies’ Information Technology department to enter a variety of data points in addition to location, including classification and type of feature, size and material. The unit also provides information on satellite accuracy, including the number of satellites connected, time connected, current estimated accuracy (CEA) and estimated point-processed accuracy (PPA) — those last two readings being the most important to ensuring proper data collection, Witkowiak says.
“One of the pros to our setup, and part of the reason why we made the decision on the device we were going to use, is that the handheld unit has a built-in camera and laser range finder,” Witkowiak says. “For some features, such as tie-ins, images are required.”
Another benefit of the handheld devices is they allow for real-time GPS correction, says We Energies supervising surveyor Jamie York, who supports the GPS Steering Committee with matters related to technology, hardware and mapping.
The process for the We Energies GPS As-Built Program starts with the inspector in the field collecting the GPS data with the handheld unit. After the data syncs, the inspector goes into the GPS repository, adds any needed additional data while also checking for accuracy. Finally, the inspector submits the data into the GIS system for final mapping.
The GPS As-Built Program was rolled out to We Energies’ major projects division in 2015 and implemented on all new installations and replacement projects, says Witkowiak. In 2016-2017, the initiative was expanded to the company’s operations. As of April 2021, We Energies has conducted 48,750 GPS projects and mapped more than 1.2 million features in its distribution system. The company has a little more than 300 employees involved with the program using GPS handheld units to collect mapping data.
Challenges and Solutions
As We Energies rolled out its GPS As-Built Program, there were some bumps in the road. However, the company has managed those problems with a variety of solutions.
“One of the challenges mappers see with the GPS as-built data is ensuring proper data collection,” Witkowiak says. “We give a binder full of protocols to each technician, and a dedicated gas analyst performs quality assurance on our GPS projects. We also hold annual refresher training and publish quarterly newsletters to keep our people updated.”
Witkowiak adds that the company sometimes experiences poor GPS accuracy when working in urban areas with tall buildings or in areas with heavy tree cover at the jobsite. Having the ability to take photos with the handheld unit helps mappers understand and interpret the data more clearly, using pictures as a reference.
On inspection projects, the GPS As-Built Program has resulted in a 40 to 50 percent reduction in the collection time of as-laid information. Part of that is simply the fact that crews don’t have to thumb through a stack of paperwork before handing it over the data to the mapping technicians, Witkowiak says.
One of the challenges inspectors face is understanding when and what data to collect. On some jobsites, safety concerns can impact the ability to properly locate a feature.
“We emphasize safety,” Witkowiak says. “When using the handheld devise around an excavation site and traffic, getting close enough to get an accurate GPS reading, especially in a metropolitan environment, can be difficult. The solution for that is the built-in laser range finder. The inspector can then stand farther back, away from the hazard, to record a datapoint.”
With maintenance and emergency response, such as a gas leak or damage location, the photo capabilities of the handheld GPS unit provide an added layer of accuracy. Images of the leak or damage paired with the GPS data gives the company a clearer picture of the risks to the system for integrity management purposes. The company can then update the existing map for future locating, lessening the chance of third-party damage.
When it comes to emergency response, the GPS As-Built Program allows for a faster turnaround time and improved field safety, Witkowiak says. In the event of third-party damage on a distribution main, the mapping data ensures that We Energies can respond quickly and appropriately to an emergency, by identifying nearby safety valves and passing along accurate information to first responders as needed.
Benefits of Accuracy
Perhaps the biggest benefit of implementing the GPS As-Built Program, Witkowiak says, has been the significant reduction of the mapping backlog at We Energies.
“It took quite a bit of time to get data from the field into the mapping system with old as-laid paper process,” he says. “In addition to improving backlog, the program has improved consistency with information from the field.”
In 2011, it took about 200 days for a new main installation to be updated using the previous mapping system. In 2018, the time was cut down to about 70 days with the implementation of GPS throughout We Energies.
For service lines, it took about 32 days for maps to be updated in 2011. Now, the company is mapping as they are installed.
For maintenance work, there were 5,000 projects in backlog in 2011. By 2018, the number had dropped to 750.
We Energies’ GPS As-Built Program has resulted in quicker turnaround in updating mapping data to ensure accuracy, resulting in a safer and more reliable gas distribution system.
“The primary benefit overall is the time between construction and when we get data updated in the system,” Witkowiak says. “Closing that time gap improves safety, ensuring we have accurate maps to respond to emergencies in service areas and not having to rely on old paper records during those emergencies when time is of the essence.”
Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.