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Clallam County Public Utility District (PUD) in Washington State has switched out a sprawling set of applications that ran everything from its workforce deployments to its accounting system, and replaced it with integrated enterprise solutions to bring the public power utility’s efficiency and customer service into the 21st Century.
“It has been a huge improvement,” Clallam PUD Finance Manager Sean Worthington said. “Everything done in the system now talks to each other in real time.”
Prior to the conversion, “we had best of breed of most solutions,” Clallam PUD IT System Administrator Eric Jacobson said. While they may have been the best software available for a given task, together they formed a disparate patchwork that utility employees had to knit together manually and, in many cases, they remained separate and were not integrated into a working whole.
For example, there was no link between the data residing in customer accounts and the utility’s accounting system. When customers paid their bills, the cash receipts had to be entered manually into the accounting software. Then, in February 2016, “our general manager, Doug Nass, saw a need to adopt an enterprise solution that was more modern and integrated,” Jacobson said. “We were running multiple legacy systems that used text-based terminal emulation software as the user interface, and the integration between the legacy systems was mostly done through manual processes.”
By early November of that year, the new system went live for customer care and billing (CC&B) applications, and one year later most functions across the utility had been transitioned to a single platform from National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC).
“The adoption of NISC brought the PUD modern technology for our employees and customers with greater integration that is automated,” Jacobson said.
By selecting NISC as its technology partner, Clallam PUD was able to bring all its utility software functions under the same roof and have all of them talk to one another. That enabled a wide variety of benefits, from the automation of previously manual tasks and improved customer care to a movement toward a paperless environment.
In the past, “we couldn’t do a paperless service order,” Jacobson said, but enabling NISC’s “SmartTrack and iVUE AppSuite allowed us to adopt a solution that could be deployed on smart devices and realize workflows we weren’t able to do before.” In the past, service orders were generated through a combination of Excel worksheet printouts and handwritten notes that had to be read, interpreted and entered into a computer.
Now, workers in the field can use mobile devices to see geographical information system (GIS) displays, interleaf it with work order information, make notes and process service orders from a single device.
Clallam PUD also utilizes NISC MapWise, an integrated intelligent mapping solution that allows for quick fixes of duplications, mapping and connectivity errors, and eliminates a need to check multiple layers separately.
Employees update the solution regularly with fuse size changes, transformer additions, customer load additions, tap changes and new construction. This requires regular maintenance from multiple employees but results in a more accurate system, Colin Young, Clallam PUD’s distribution systems supervisor, said.
Young says field employees can send in simple drawings for map corrections to reflect in-field, real-world system configurations. Material failure issues can be tracked using custom layers that show up on the map to alert operations employees of problem areas.
NISC’s CC&B software sends daily customer information updates to MapWise, enabling employees to find relevant customer information, such as addresses and names, without having to jump to the customer information system (CIS). And since the customer record is linked in both programs, errors can easily be found and fixed.
MapWise has a multi-speak conversion tool to create a map that integrates into the engineering analysis software, which has been integral in Clallam PUD making quick system updates. Engineering analysis allows investigation into system issues such as low voltage, overloaded circuits, and line loss. While new construction on feeder and line sections can be viewed with alternate scenarios to see how changes such as regulator installations, conductor upgrades and alternate feeds affect system variables.
NISC’s Outage Management Solution (OMS) is updated from the GIS map and built off NISC MapWise, which forces users to think holistically and make the whole system more accurate.
OMS can be used from multiple terminals at once, including employees across multiple departments. During large outages, customer service representatives (CSRs) can input outages while dispatchers direct linemen to new trouble areas. In addition, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) meters are being integrated with the OMS to show outages even before customers call in to report them.
The conversion to NISC’s enterprise solutions is also benefitting the PUD’s customer-facing functions. Delinquent accounts can be more easily identified, enabling CSRs to personally contact a customer before taking action. That provides a more personal touch, reduces truck rolls and can keep employees out of potentially dangerous situations. NISC is also developing arrears reporting, which will be helpful when a disconnected account is restarted.
NISC systems also enable CSRs to see payments in real time instead of the next business day and track payments made by phone, eliminating reliance on data from other departments within the PUD.
Automation and integration of outage information also lightens the load on CSRs, making them more productive and improving customer interactions. NISC’s SmartHub application gives customers an online outage map at their fingertips, which reduces outage calls.
As AMI meters are being installed, SmartHub allows customers to see their usage on a daily basis instead of only in monthly increments, which will help customers investigate causes for high bills and usage. “That will really help us with high bill complaints,” Clallam PUD Customer Service Supervisor Chanda Halverson said.
And now, because formerly disparate functions are united on a single software platform, the utility is better able to generate reports. “In the past, you needed to wait until the end of the month for accounting to print a 300-page report from the billing software,” Worthington said. “Now you can run a report on payments that happened, for example, six days ago.”
Customers will also reap some of these benefits. They will be able to see payments in real time on SmartHub as Clallam PUD continues with the rollout of AMI. The PUD has installed close to 4,000 AMI devices, leaving about 30,000 to go to reach 100% coverage by 2025 as targeted.
Clallam PUD is also in the process of rolling out an employee self-serve function through NISC that will allow the recording and reporting of paperless timesheets. This new functionality will save employees time and allow them greater flexibility, which could be particularly beneficial in the emerging COVID-19 scenario where employees are working from home. Being able to generate paperless pay stubs has already provided a benefit to employees who had to work remotely.
The timing of Clallam PUD’s conversion to NISC, in fact, has proved beneficial during the COVID-19 quarantine, providing benefits that will continue past the pandemic. Payment kiosks and SmartHub provided additional payment methods during the pandemic. In addition, the utility was not able to have meter readers in the field for a month, but was able to generate estimated meter reads using usage data from the same month of the previous year.
With the new systems, “when customers apply for new service, they will have many ways to pay,” such as enhanced and more flexible pay-by-phone options, Halverson said.
Looking forward, Clallam PUD hopes to realize more benefits from NISC’s platform. The utility is migrating to the adoption of NISC’s iVUE Mosaic, a cloud-based application that allows employees to view data across business segments—accounting, customer care, operations and system administration—on a single smart device.
The conversion to a single enterprise platform was “challenging,” Worthington said. “It required a lot of manhours and behind-the-scene preparations.” But support from NISC during the transition was amazing, he said.
NISC also does an excellent job at providing training for utility employees on the new software, Jacobson said. Training a new CSR used to “take forever,” but using NISC’s materials—click-through training videos and printable guides—“gives us the freedom” to do training “while we do other work,” Halverson added.
In addition, when a utility works with NISC they also join the organization as a member, providing access to other users and their institutional knowledge. It is one of the key benefits, Jacobson said.
Through NISC, Clallam PUD formed a NISC Administrative Team (NAT) that consists of key users to help ensure the PUD is taking the utmost advantage of the software. Clallam PUD also participates in a broader, less-focused regional user group composed of utility NISC users who meet on a regular basis to troubleshoot successes and failures.
NISC’s software comes in a general format that is not necessarily tailored to the needs of any individual utility, Halverson said. “That is where user groups come in handy.”
NISC representatives coordinate biannual meetings that include breakout sessions and roundtable discussions. “We work together and adopt solutions” and continue to communicate throughout the year, Halverson said. The groups are “very helpful and very efficient.”
“NISC had solutions we didn’t know we needed,” Jacobson said.
For more information about NISC cyber security solutions, visit NISC’s website.