A Quartet of Best Practices
for Utility Pole Inspections
By Ryan Pierson
Swing the right tool in the right way usually determines a project’s success. For example, a faucet valve in my home recently developed a leak. Fancying myself an amateur plumber, I began the repair process using the tools available in my home. The project was largely successful, until it was time to remove and replace the leaking cartridge inside the valve. I struggled for several hours with little success. It was clear this seemingly simple task was far more complex than I had originally anticipated.
After some choice words and a trip to the hardware store for additional tools, I returned with restored confidence. But, even the new tools were no match for the valve cartridge. Reluctantly, I hopped on the computer and visited the faucet manufacturer’s website (which should have been my first step). After reviewing the instructions for repairing the valve, I realized I had done everything correctly with the exception of one detail. This “minor detail” was causing complete project failure. I was missing the specialty tool. This simple oversight would have saved time, energy, and a much frustration.
The same principle applies to utility pole assessment and maintenance projects. The right tools and technology, when used the right way, will save time, money and resources. The tools selected have the potential to completely limit the type of utility pole assessment performed, and thus limit the maintenance required to extend the life of the utility pole. If the correct tools are not used to properly inspect and maintain utility poles, the pole will likely fail prematurely. This is both time and money unnecessarily lost due to not having the proper tool.
Properly inspecting and maintaining utility poles can result in increased pole longevity. The why is simple, but understanding the how can be a bit more challenging. Following are four ways to optimize utility pole inspections and save time and money:
1. Use mobile communication technology to maintain productivity
The evolution of technology has made a wide range of mobile communication tools readily available. With the ability to maintain frequent contact with individuals in almost any location, mobile communication tools work to enhance worker productivity, make critical information available instantaneously, and promote safety. Since utility pole inspections require regular outdoor work, a rugged smartphone with an IP68 rating should be considered to ensure work hours will not be compromised due to damaged mobile devices.
Smartphone apps and additional devices also can be used as a resource to further necessary information in the workplace. Recording and sharing critical information, photographs and other digital details works to optimize the utility pole inspection process. Position information derived from GPS and other positioning services also provide additional context to the collected information, because position is an important detail when making maintenance decisions. Using the evolution of mobile communication is one of the best ways to increase operational efficiency and reduce costs in an organization. In addition, as the demand for instantaneous information within mobile workforces grows, mobile communication remains one of the most effective methods to meet this expectation.
Texting and emailing don’t always fulfill the communication needs within an organization, and more powerful communication and management tools are necessary to realize the full benefit of mobile communication technology. Ultimately, the benefit this technology brings is keeping employees in the field where they are most productive, rather than waiting around in the office for the information required to complete the job. Again, the right tools are key.
2. Eliminate steps requiring unnecessary manual decision making
Workforce management systems manage package shipping and delivery globally with astounding results. The same technology allowing a package to be delivered to a different continent overnight can be used to manage utility pole inspections and maintenance. This is typically accomplished through a work order system or by designing inspection logic into a project-specific application. Drawing upon historical information, such as the date a pole was last inspected, this technology works to automatically schedule a new inspection. Based on the results of the inspection, pole maintenance work can automatically be scheduled and assigned using the same work order system. Work order systems are already being used by many organizations, and can be implemented as a great tool to optimize utility pole inspections and maintenance workflow.
3. Work smart by implementing technology correctly
Understanding utility pole inspection technology is one thing, but how can one be certain the technology is being implemented efficiently? One detail omitted from my plumbing experience was the use of a pipe wrench as a hammer. It was obvious I was using the pipe wrench for an unintended purpose, and it showed. Use caution as the same misuse of tools can apply to implementing technology into a utility pole inspection process. To make certain technology is being properly applied, it is critical to honestly evaluate work processes and workflow weaknesses. Any discovered weaknesses will illuminate where tools are missing or being improperly used. The time used to properly evaluate the entire utility pole inspection and maintenance process will identify bottlenecks in the workflow where information is slowed or stopped. Look for areas where inaccurate or incomplete information is being stored and shared, these are likely the areas where technology is being misused or missing. These areas typically have an immediate impact on operational efficiency, and are lacking the necessary tool to fix the identified problem.
4. Develop a clear process for gathering utility pole data
Mapping and data collection applications play a big role in properly inspecting and maintaining utility poles. A variety of information must be recorded while at the pole to validate the assessment and to determine whether pole maintenance is required. This information may include recording hammer sounds, drill-core information and a visual inspection for external damage. Post-inspection, this information is aggregated into a pole inspection database, recording inspection dates, maintenance performed, visual assessments, etc. It’s used to determine which poles require repeat inspections, or to calculate budget. The on-site inspection data gathered is critical when creating an effective utility pole inspection and maintenance program. This factor is the basis for developing an effective decision-making routine.
Coupling a work order system with mobile communication is the foundation upon which a comprehensive and effective pole inspection and maintenance program is built. A properly configured system, using mobile communication and a work order system, will provide both office supervisors and field staff with the information necessary to complete scheduled work in a timely and efficient manner. Best of all, this use of technology will keep field staff on task and productive, rather than waiting in the office for assignments.
Coming back to my plumbing experience, within 10 minutes of returning from the supply store with the correct tool, I had successfully removed and replaced the defective cartridge. The faucet leak was fixed. I had successfully identified the issue that was preventing me from completing my task. Clearly, the right tool used the right way made all the difference. Taking the extra time to evaluate current pole inspection practices and create a plan to implement new technology will work as the “specialty tool” to completely optimize current practices and save the company time and money in the process. UP
Ryan Pierson is the utilities and public service manager at Juniper Systems, where he works to connect industry professionals with top-quality rugged handhelds. With over 22 years of experience in field data collection and managing utility assets, Pierson has developed a passion for leveraging technology to enable mobile workforces. According to Pierson, thoughtful preparation and planning is the key to making any project a success. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 435-753-1881.