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Ground Control

Gas, electric and water companies slowly adopt RFID to reduce costs and improve services.
By Jennifer Zaino
May 08, 2016

Cities and towns worldwide are populated with a wide variety of cables, pipes and poles that supply us with electricity, gas and water. These assets, made of concrete, metal, plastic or wood, reside above and below ground. Every day, workers spend hours in the field inspecting the integrity of these items, doing essential maintenance and repairs, and ensuring other utility or construction firms working in the vicinity don't accidently damage them. Much of that time is spent locating the assets and manually updating records.

RFID, often in combination with other technologies, can help utility companies save time and money by speeding their ability to locate and identify assets, thereby facilitating inspections and services. The solutions also provide a more cost-effective way to comply with government regulations.

Illustration: iStockphoto
In addition, the ability to quickly locate critical assets during an emergency can reduce infrastructure damage and enable utilities to restore services to customers within hours rather than days. Responding to the natural gas explosion that took place in Seattle in March was delayed, in part, because workers had to find and then drill down to underground gas shutoff valves, says Mike Klonsinski, international business development director for Berntsen, which makes the InfraMarker RFID system.

A public works group responsible for water utility maintenance is considering using RFID to help it speed repairs when a water main blows, preventing thousands of gallons of water from becoming waste, says Robert Zielinski, CDO Technologies' director of commercial marketing. Multiple valves sit at street-level intersections, and each valve controls a different water line and has a different set of tooling and on/off configuration procedures. "If they had a passive UHF RFID tag next to each valve, repair crews could read them [even through inches of water] to find out which valve controls which line and what tooling is needed for it," he says.

Clearly, several strong business cases exist for using RFID in the utilities sector. RFID providers say utility companies now understand what the technology is and how it can address their problems, and interest in their solutions is picking up. But while some utility companies have deployed RFID systems, many are not in a rush to embrace the technology.

Cost, especially for small, local utility firms, remains a barrier to adoption, as does the industry's culture. "The utilities industry is very conservative," says Jim Anspach, director at Cardno, which coordinates and conducts worldwide research of utility issues, and founding governor of the American Society of Civil Engineers' Utility Engineering and Surveying Institute. "It has been resisting, to a degree, some of the new technology."

One concern utilities have is that they'll become too efficient using technologies like RFID, Anspach says. "They can't put themselves in danger of not being able to, say, carry enough manpower on a regular basis to handle those emergencies that crop up," he says.

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