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RFID Speeds Up Electric Pole Inspections

The Orangeburg Department of Public Utilities is tagging 30,000 poles to improve maintenance and repair operations.
By Bob Violino
May 21, 2012—The Orangeburg Department of Public Utilities (DPU), in Orangeburg, S.C., has operated as a not-for-profit public service for more than a century. The agency currently provides electricity, water, natural gas and wastewater services to some 25,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers. DPU's electric system consists of 22 electric substations, 65 circuits, approximately 30,000 utility poles and 800 miles of distribution line. It is the largest municipal electric utility in the state, serving a geographic area of roughly 340 square miles.

As with other electrical service providers, the utility's asset infrastructure requires ongoing maintenance. But for years, DPU had a limited pole-inspection program to assess the overall condition and reliability of its electrical assets in the field. "Much of what we did have in place was a labor-intensive, paper-based system that required manual data entry and was, therefore, prone to user error and created gaps in the availability of critical information," says John Bagwell, the director of Orangeburg DPU's electrical division. "We also lacked an automated work-order system that would allow us to schedule inspections and maintenance on a routine basis."

DPU installed 20,000 passive RFID tags on poles located throughout its service area.
All of this created an inefficient workflow process, Bagwell says. Furthermore, DPU could not provide its field-inspection and -maintenance teams with the proper means to communicate with each other electronically. Any maintenance needs identified during inspections were usually delivered via a paper-based format, with little or no accompanying data. As a result, repair crews often needed to make multiple trips, in order to fully understand the scope of the repairs required.

An additional problem was that DPU's existing inspection and maintenance program was not integrated with its geographic information system (GIS). "We had little or no ability to update our inspection program when poles were either being added or removed from the distribution system," Bagwell says.
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