Spatial Technologies: GIS for Utilities

31 Oct, 2004 By: James L. Sipes

Utilities tap GIS to save money and improve services.

The utility industry has undergone significant changes in the past few years. Deregulation has increased competition, and utilities are becoming more market-driven than ever before. The larger utility companies have used GIS technology as a management tool for a while now, and small utilities are now finding that GIS is affordable. Both are looking at how GIS can help them reduce costs, expand capabilities, improve customer service, and become more marketable.

Benefits of Using GIS in Utilities

Digital tools such as GIS, CAD, and AM/FM (automated mapping and facilities mapping) software are quickly becoming an essential part of the utility industry's day-to-day business. The major benefits come from sharing data at all levels of an enterprise. GIS helps utilities better organize, manage, and display data, and in turn help them better meet customer needs. GIS can help predict where potential growth and development may occur and where an expansion of utility services may be warranted.
 Figure 1. The NYPA (New York Power Authority) has initiated an integrated vegetation management intended to help provide safe and reliable transmission of electric power by minimizing potential power outages caused by downed trees. Image courtesy of NYPA.
Figure 1. The NYPA (New York Power Authority) has initiated an integrated vegetation management intended to help provide safe and reliable transmission of electric power by minimizing potential power outages caused by downed trees. Image courtesy of NYPA.

Another objective is to reduce the amount of windshield time required by repair crews. Routing programs can provide accurate street level details, turn-by-turn directions to a specific location, and even dynamic information on traffic jams and construction zones that increase the time needed for a service call. The use of GPS units in service vehicles and accurate GIS maps helps lower maintenance and fuel costs by providing routing information and precise locations of utility features.

Building a Utility GIS

The value of any map used by a utility is based in large part on how accurately it reflects reality. Because the existing paper maps and records of most organizations and municipalities are typically not very accurate, the transition to GIS has been a logical step for most utilities.

A big catalyst is the increased availability of spatial data from a variety of sources. The cost of implementing a GIS is not as great if base data is available from a variety of sources. For example, transportation departments frequently have GIS data on roads and intersections, and planning departments have information on land use, community infrastructure, and future developments. But even if a community has an existing GIS infrastructure, additional data such as manholes, fire hydrants, valves, pump stations, maintenance areas, pressure-reducing stations, and other utility features may need to be generated. Because building a comprehensive GIS dataset for utilities can be time-consuming and expensive, many municipalities have inventoried water, stormwater, and sewer systems at the same time to reduce costs.

Figure 2. To build a GIS dataset, NYPA converted existing records to a GIS format, and then collected field data using portable GIS units. Image courtesy of NYPA.
Figure 2. To build a GIS dataset, NYPA converted existing records to a GIS format, and then collected field data using portable GIS units. Image courtesy of NYPA.

A common approach is to generate maps using existing GIS data sets, then send out crews to collect and verify field data for utility features. This is the only accurate way to ensure the integrity of the data. Portable and handheld GPS units are affordable, easy to use, and provide a level of accuracy that is more than adequate for verifying utility features. For example, field crew members can identify the location of a manhole and then remove the manhole cover to check the size, elevations, and condition of existing pipes. This level of detail provides utilities with the accuracy needed to make good decisions.

Many utility companies are also moving away from traditional maps, instead equipping their field crews with portable units that can access GIS data for a specific project. This reduces printing costs and helps ensure that the field crews have the most up-to-date information.

Enterprise GIS

Many large utilities are transitioning to enterprise GIS structures that link GIS applications throughout their organization. There are significant benefits to maintaining datasets corporate-wide. Southern Company, for example, has used GIS for the last two decades, and just recently implemented an enterprise GIS. Southern Company is one of the largest energy companies in the southeast, supplying energy to a 120,000-square-mile service territory that includes most of Georgia and Alabama, southeastern Mississippi, and the Florida panhandle. Southern Company owns five regulated retail electric utilities: Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power, Mississippi Power, and Savannah Electric. The company also includes a nuclear plant subsidiary, wireless communications and fiber optics businesses, a natural gas business, and an energy services business. Southern is expecting that its new enterprise GIS will help leverage resources, manage information, improve efficiency, reduce redundancy, and better serve the needs of its customers.

Tools for Utilities

Utilities that want to incorporate spatial data into their work can do so by using one of the major GIS programs and modifying it to meet their needs, or by working with programs that have been developed especially for the utility industry.

Utility Sciences' USWorks is a specially designed version of USMap that provides object-oriented GIS tools for utility companies that are responsible for managing electric, gas, water, and telecommunications. The program has a user-configurable set of tools to model and define utility-oriented objects so a utility can build and integrate the system to suit its GIS mapping, maintenance, workflow, and application needs.

WaterWorks/FM is a full-featured, easy-to-use GIS application created specifically for small and rural water utilities. The basic idea behind WaterWorks/FM, which supplements the Autodesk Map Series, is to give managers the tools they need to accurately map their water systems without being a GIS expert.

Intergraph's G/Electric is a geofacilities management solution for electric utilities, while Business Management Systems' Municipal Geographic Management System is an integrated software package that manages the planning, issuing, permitting, tracking, scheduling, documentation, and operations of town and city governments.

ArcFM (Arc Facilities Manager) is an ArcInfo extension from ESRI that includes a collection of geodatabases that represent the behavior and characteristics of land, energy, telecommunications, and water utilities. Miner & Miner's ArcFM Viewer is a query and display program that is part of the company's ArcFM Solution. Based on ESRI's ArcView, this type of program can be used by field technicians to access GIS maps using a laptop or handheld computer. Conduit Manager from Miner & Miner is an integrated set of tools and dialog boxes for designing and managing an underground system with duct banks, trenches, conduits, cross-sections, underground cables, and underground access structures.

Figure 3. Avista Corp., an energy company that provides natural gas and electric to customers in the Pacific Northwest, augments ESRI software by building its own GIS applications and tools based on Miner & Miner products. Image courtesy of Avista.
Figure 3. Avista Corp., an energy company that provides natural gas and electric to customers in the Pacific Northwest, augments ESRI software by building its own GIS applications and tools based on Miner & Miner products. Image courtesy of Avista.

LIDS V6 from the Berit Group is a graphic information and documentation system that comprises a group of integrated products for building complex customer information systems and working with spatial data. These include tools for capturing, building, analyzing, managing, and presenting geospatial data. Technical Operational Information Systems, also from Berit, is used for the distribution and sale of their product.

Origin GIS is an add-on program for ArcGIS that provides utility companies with tools to effectively manage distribution assets and infrastructure. Itron's Overhead Asset Modeler is an add-on to Origin GIS that provides utility customers with a powerful tool to optimize the efficiency and reliability of their delivery infrastructure.

Advantica produces several simulation packages used by utility companies. SynerGEE Water models and analyzes water distribution systems, SynerGEE Electric models and analyzes electric distribution systems, and SynerGEE Gas models and analyzes closed-conduit networks of pipes, regulators, valves, compressors, storage fields, and production wells.

Kudzu Technologies' ClickB4Udig is a GIS-based program that produces maps for underground contractors, excavators, utility companies, and municipalities. DMTI Spatial develops CanMap, a suite of data for mapping streets, rails, water, and routing; GeoPinpoint Suite, an address management software package; and Our Really Smart Spatial Solutions, which strives to help industries understand their customers and make informed business decisions.

On the Web

It should come as no surprise that utilities, like most other industries, are taking advantage of the Internet in a number of ways. Many municipalities use the Internet to make information about utilities available to their constituents. The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio created its Interactive Map Page to provide online access GIS maps and database within the state. Some of the maps available include service territory maps, maps of individual utilities (gas, REAs [Rural Electrification Associations], telephone companies, utility companies based on zip code or county, hazmat routing maps, the Census 2000 Heating Fuel map, utility boundaries overlaid on topographic maps, local access transport areas, and wire center maps.

In the city of Round Rock, Texas, services are provided by several different utility companies. The water facilities for the city typically handle around 36 million gallons per day, rising to 60 million gallons per day during peak summer months, and river authorities for both the lower Colorado and the Brazos provide wastewater services and treat up to 11.7 million gallons a day. Round Rock's online GIS system, called Cityview, lets any user in the city see all of the different types of utilities and their locations throughout the city. The program uses ESRI's ArcIMS to display interactive maps, and the ArcIMS toolbar simplifies the process of creating custom map views. Round Rock was one of the first communities to wire every workplace, household, and community setting with digital capabilities, so all of its citizens are able to access Cityview.

The Kentucky Public Service Commission has established an online GIS-oriented site that includes data on electric, natural gas, telecommunications, and water and sewer utilities in Kentucky. Finished maps are available on the site, but the data (in ArcView shapefile format) can also be downloaded by interested users who want to create their own maps. Each data set has metadata, or data about the data, which includes information about the spatial coordinates and their accuracy, the source of the data, and definitions for the accompanying attributes.

The site includes a variety of data on water and sewer, electric, natural gas, and telecommunications. For example, the Water Resource Information System is a GIS developed to support the goal of providing drinking water to all Kentuckians by the year 2020. Water and wastewater data has been collected since 1998. For water this includes water lines, tanks, treatment plants, surface sources, well sources, purchase sources, pump stations, and pumps. For wastewater this includes sewer lines, lift stations, outfalls, and treatment plants. The site also includes the Water and Sewer GIS Feature Attribute Standard, which includes recommendations for utility companies to encourage them to use GIS and to develop data that can be shared with other utilities and state agencies.

For natural gas, the Kentucky Public Service Commission site includes the locations and selected attributes of natural gas transmission lines, hazardous liquid trunklines, liquefied natural gas facilities, and depleted natural gas fields. There are thirty-nine companies with more than 9,000 miles of pipeline in the state, and a complete dataset was updated in 2003 for the entire pipeline.

The Web is used at the national level to share information. The NPMS (National Pipeline Mapping System) is a full-featured GIS database that contains the locations and data attributes for natural gas lines, hazardous liquid lines, and liquefied natural gas facilities. The project is a joint effort between the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Pipeline Safety, other federal and state agencies, and the pipeline industry. It was developed from mandatory submissions of pipeline and liquefied natural gas facility by pipeline operators.

The NPMS Web site provides up-to-date information on these types of facilities. At this time, the pipeline data compiled by OPS is available only to pipeline operators and local, state, and federal government officials. Data is available for populated areas, commercially navigable waterways, and unusually sensitive areas.

GIS gains

Companies in the utility industry find that integrating geospatial data with CAD drawings, accounting systems, maintenance programs, record keeping, asset management, and other activities enables them to save money and better meet the needs of their customers. An added benefit is that a GIS database helps streamline the process of reviewing and updating existing programs, submitting new applications, and meeting state and federal regulations. The greater the level of integration, the more value GIS brings to their decision-making processes of a utility.

James L. Sipes is the founding principal of Sand County Studios in Seattle, Washington.

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