Customer Service, Executive Insight, News, Outage Management, Transmission

How SRP transformed an outdated vegetation management platform into a goal-breaking software solution

Two Decades, Two Challenges, One Solution

For years, the Vegetation Management (VM) department at Salt River Project (SRP) dispatched work to our contracted tree crews by handing them a folder with one or more maps.  The tree company pre-planner would identify required vegetation maintenance work and tree crews from the same company would execute the prescribed tree pruning and removal.  Once complete, the tree crews would turn in the completed folder. VM staff would record the work completed in our SmallWorld mapped environment in a layer called “Arbor.” Between work assignment and completion, VM had little visibility into what was happening in the field and, except for weekly verbal reports, little knowledge of where crews were working. Additionally, the amount of work required to map the completed work orders into the Arbor layer was simply too inefficient and costly.

Even with the addition of a third party to assist with pre-planning and permitting, our VM team knew automation and streamlining were needed. We also knew that if we had an inventory of vegetation across our service territory, it would be easier to plan work. These were serious needs because, as of that time, the VM team had yet to complete a distribution cycle on time. Transmission cycles always finished on time due to regulatory requirements, but that often meant our teams and contractors focused exclusively on transmission lines between November and February — while distribution lines waited. Over a two-year cycle, that meant VM was typically six months behind.

This was one part of the challenge we were facing at SRP. But when our VM team learned that the Arbor layer was no longer going to be supported by Smallworld (and that we had less than a year to identify a replacement), the need for a new solution was urgent. A number of outside vendors and their platforms were considered with respect to our timeline and budget, but after careful evaluation, we determined the most cost-effective solution with the shortest time to implement could, in fact, be built by our own GIS team working closely with our VM team.

We successfully configured an app that allowed the VM team to automate the influx of information, better capture tree inventory, and affect a significant change in role-based work dispatch and completion. We were also able to integrate our contracted partners into the new solution.

Introducing Arbor II

Arbor II was created as a way for the VM team to catch up to and eradicate the consistent distribution lag. Using our in-house development team, we completed the Arbor II work management application in 2016. In keeping with our current work cycles and processes, SRP identifies a specific region of our service territory requiring vegetation management work. This area is mapped out in Arbor II and released to our third-party vegetation management consultant, ACRT, to assess numerous aspects of the area, make tree prescriptions, and input all data into Arbor II.

ACRT pre-planners are equipped with a pictorial representation of our overhead 12kV and 69kV distribution lines. As vegetation is inspected along rights-of-way and in customer neighborhoods, trees are marked, quantities and species are identified, potentially aggressive dogs or homeowners are noted, and dates of when a neighborhood or lot was entered are collected. Some information is captured by ACRT personnel in the field while other data such as dates and line voltage are captured automatically by the tool.

This new process has significantly increased and enhanced our overall productivity and the accuracy of our information. We are now able to capture data remotely and view it immediately thanks to WiFi and cellular data sync.

Once the assessment of the mapped region is completed, the required tree prescriptions and any other vegetation-related work are released to tree crews in their respective layer within Arbor II. Work is identified as L (lift) or M (manual), so the type of work crew needed can be viewed and dispatched up front.

SRP Arbor II Software – Distribution, with the overhead lines shown. The pink tree with a letter “c” indicates customer-pruned. The orange palms are “P2’s

As an aside, the collaborative efforts between our pre-planners and tree crews have paid dividends. Thanks to a system of benchmarking, prescription testing, and comparison, both parties jointly identified the best path forward toward achieving SRP vegetation management goals and are on the same page at all times. An immediate result of this collaboration is efficient completion of work for each region.

Long-Term Benefits of Arbor II

Arbor II brought many immediate and post-implementation benefits, such as faster data capture and cataloging, better visibility into the vegetation and customers throughout our service territory, better decision-making via data, and increased productivity due to collaboration between our consultants and work crews. These were a boon to our operations, but the true value rests in what Arbor II has allowed us to accomplish over time.

Simply by launching Arbor II and eliminating the need to map out the different areas on our system requiring vegetation work and customer notifications, we were able to realize a quantifiable savings of five percent in a single year. Another long-term benefit with a significant impact on our bottom line rests in the customer satisfaction realm. There are two components to this, the first being the launch of Arbor II and the second being an internal decision to transition to a 100 percent customer notification model.

Prior to the development of Arbor II, work required on customer streets and alleys was performed without necessarily informing residents. This was not a sustainable model, as it led to complaints and pressure on our Consumer Affairs Ombudsman Office. With the launch of Arbor II and the decision to notify all customers near where our teams would be working, customer complaints have dropped significantly. All customers are now notified of work to be performed in advance, and little intervention is needed from the Ombudsman Office.

SRP Arbor Completed Trees.

Another benefit tied to the ease of data capture is the manner in which different lines were being worked on. Prior to Arbor II, SRP worked 12kV and 69kV lines in separate cycles, even though 12kV lines are often underbuilt below 69kV lines. Crews would pass through the same areas twice — treating the two voltages separately due to each having a separate budget tied to them. The same was being done for higher voltage transmission lines. This is no longer the case. Now, we are working lines at the same time and all year long, so as not to end up months behind on cycles that were already short in duration. As a result, SRP was tracking ahead of schedule for both distribution and transmission lines at the midyear mark for the first time. Completing our 2-year Distribution cycle on time will afford an additional savings of nearly 25% by shaving 6 months of operational labor from our cycle expenditures.

The Future of Arbor II

While Arbor II has been up and running for nearly two years, the platform won’t stop with distribution and low-voltage transmission. Work is already underway on Arbor II-T — a transmission-specific version of Arbor II focusing on 115kV, 230kV and 500kV transmission lines.

SRP Arbor IIT – 115 and 230 kV – green shading is
the ROW and red shading indicates a sensitive
area where only hand cutting is allowed.

Beyond that, enhanced reporting features are being developed to enhance lead time. This past year, weekly production metrics were put in place for tree crews and pre-planners. Rather than having crews focus on completing geographical regions as their production targets, SRP is now asking for crews to complete unit-based weekly production targets for trees and brush pruning/removal. To ensure crews are able to fulfill that goal, ACRT pre-planners must identify sufficient required work in advance of the tree crews completing the required vegetation maintenance. This has led to a lag-time metric of 8-10 weeks between work identification and completion. We have achieved this goal in some areas, while others are closing in. Once realized system-wide, a system of robocalls and other advance customer notification can be implemented as an additional touchpoint for our customers.

Additional plans are in the works, but for now, our focus is on fine-tuning and further developing Arbor II and Arbor II-T to continue our goal of improving operational efficiency, lowering tree-related outages (currently 2 percent of all outages at SRP), and improving our service to our valued customers throughout our service territory.

Lead image: SRP Arbor II Permitted, Working, Complete.


DISTRIBUTECH International will host sessions on vegetation management on all three days of the event, which takes place next week in San Antonio, Texas, US. See the educational offerings here.