How Several Leading Utilities are Reducing Underground Infrastructure Damages

I COME FROM a family of excavators and have spent much of my career working with infrastructure owners and operators. If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that both sides lose when critical underground infrastructure is damaged.

Unfortunately, the 2019 DIRT Report shows damages to buried infrastructure are on the rise for the fifth consecutive year. In the U.S. alone, total damages increased 4.5 percent year-over-year, costing an estimated $30 billion.

Although damages are on the rise, leading utilities such as Southern Company Gas and Puget Sound Energy have reduced their damages. At the recent Urbint Anticipate conference, I spoke with damage prevention leaders at these companies about what makes their programs successful.

Data-Driven Damage Prevention Decisions

Utilities have a limited number of workers they can dispatch to ensure safe digging. Many still rely heavily on rules-of-thumb and gut feel to decide where to intervene, but Southern Company Gas has taken a data-driven approach.

Instead of relying upon recognition of risky excavators or work types, Southern Company relies on a software that uses AI models trained from previous damage data to assign risk scores to 811 tickets, enabling the utility to easily see where damage is likely to occur so they can intervene on the riskiest excavations. “It can’t be heuristics or who makes the best argument,” said Emeka Igwilo, Chief Data Officer and Vice President of Operations Support. “It has to be based on data.”

Reevaluating Call-Before-You-Dig Campaigns

According to the 2019 DIRT Report, “no call-ins” is the largest individual damage root cause. This might suggest a need for increased call-before-you-dig campaigning to some, but Erika Hunter, Damage Prevention Program Supervisor at Puget Sound Energy, said she’s seen success by reevaluating the messaging of existing campaigns.

Hunter, who serves as the gas chair on the Washington 811 board, said updating overall messaging was key to increasing homeowner call-ins in the state. “We [asked] homeowners, ‘What would make you call?’ It wasn’t that their house could blow up. It was that they were going to get a bill,” Hunter said. “We’re creating a new ad campaign that is focused on the monetary consequences of [unsafe digging].”

A “Golden Record of Assets”

A few decades ago, utilities could rely on workers to pass down important information about their underground infrastructure.

“A senior operator would have someone apprentice with them for years, and they’d pass along this tribal information,” Igwilo said. Although fragmentary, this unofficial knowledge sharing helped protect underground infrastructure from damages.

This type of knowledge sharing does not exist today, which is why Igwilo said Southern Company is creating a “golden record of assets.” The purpose of this repository of information is to pass important information about Southern’s underground infrastructure from employee to employee. “We need to aggregate all that information so decision makers can make decisions that are data-based,” Igwilo said. “Going forward, there must be a standard of data collection to make sure we’re not further exacerbating the problem.”

Intervening on Risky Digs

Using software which, in part, analyzes historical data to identify excavators that are most likely to cause damages, Puget Sound Energy found the majority of their damages were coming from just a few excavators. So, the company began sending representatives to job sites to oversee high-risk digs.

“Excavators didn’t even want to see us when we showed up,” Hunter said, but the utility persisted and won over the excavators with results. “Now, they don’t have damages, so it’s proving our intervention works.”

Dr. Lindsay Jenkins is VP of Strategy and Technical Operations at Urbint, developers of the Urbint Lens for Damage Prevention. Learn more at Urbint.com.

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