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BPA line crew's invention solves one hefty problem
5/28/2013 12:00 AM
The hydraulic spreader stretches strings of insulators weighing hundreds of pounds into a taut, manageable framework, making the job “a lot less back-breaking,” says Olympia foreman III Lee Webb.
New transmission tool “takes the fight out of replacing insulators”
When Lee Webb talks about the challenges of a BPA foreman III’s job in the 21st century, he picks a metaphor from his days as a ranch hand in Eastern Oregon.
“You have to look out,” Webb says. “If you’re not grabbing ahold of the reins and riding this thing, you’re going to fall behind.”
That’s a ride a lot of people at BPA can relate to. It’s driven by the pride they take in their work versus the pressure they feel to excel in an era of cost management and complex, changing jobs.
Like many in Transmission Line Maintenance, one way Webb harnesses that energy is by dreaming up better ways of doing the work. Most recently, he and his crew created a breakthrough tool that’s been adopted and put into use around the agency in the past year.
Webb points out a 2009 snapshot of the Olympia crew that hangs in a place of honor by the door to the bull room, or linemen’s clubhouse. Where that sun-brushed photo from four years ago shows them 13 strong, which included three apprentices, Webb knows his crew today numbers seven. And he can’t stand the idea of BPA falling behind.
“I try to run this like it’s my own business,” he said. “Part of the motivation is to keep ahead or abreast of the wider construction industry. I don’t want to do this job like we’re in the early phases of the power industry, back in the last century. This is 2013 and we need to be innovative, be on the offensive, on the lookout for new tools and industry practices so we can do the job in the best way possible.”
The piece of equipment Webb created, called a hydraulic spreader, looks like a 100-plus-pound steel bar. Halfway along its length sits a red handle, the hand pump for a hydraulic cylinder. With some skill and a few strategic pumps, it can turn a major headache into just another good day’s work.
“We built this for the guys,” Webb says, “to make their work safer, more effective, more productive, to help them work smarter. And to save their backs.”
The Olympia district’s invention responds to a problem BPA crews are encountering more frequently on their line checks, failed insulators. Insulators are the Frisbee-shaped glass or porcelain disks that support the weight and maintain proper tension where transmission lines “dead end” at the steel tower. They also serve to insulate the conductor from the tower. When insulators fail, shattering due to electrical or mechanical stress, the result can be arcing, outages and damage to the conductor.
Replacing the heavy strings of dead-end insulators presents one of a lineman’s most strenuous tasks.
BPA linemen from the Olympia district replace strings of dead-end insulators more quickly and safely using the transmission spreader tool they devised last year.
What makes it so tough? First, picture the equivalent of a series of flattened bowling balls strung on a 12-foot cable. Then, connect two to four of those chains together into a 500- to 1,000-pound assembly and hang it up 90 to 200 feet above the ground. That’s your office, and your job for the day is removing and replacing them.
In lineman’s lingo, where fearsome things get downsized into understatement, the hefty strings of insulators are referred to as “the jewelry.” It’s an apt description for bling scaled up to flatter the Statue of Liberty.
Now imagine a lineman standing in a bucket, or on a ladder suspended from the transmission tower. He disconnects the massive chain of disks, returns it safely to the ground, then wrestles a new assembly of insulators upward to attach it to the tower and conductor.
“It’s about the hardest job we do, apart from building towers,” Webb says. “It’s back-breaking.”
The hydraulic spreader transforms the task. First, a chain of insulators is hooked to the spreader. Then, with a few pumps on the red hydraulic handle, it is stretched taut. Thus stabilized by the spreader’s framework, the insulator assembly can be raised and lowered in one rigid piece, only to be released back to its noodle-like native state when the job’s done.
In this way, two days of work can be accomplished in as little as one. And the advantages of such efficiency ripple across the broader transmission system.
“This innovation greatly sped up the process, as well as making it safer,” says Randy Thompson, safety manager at Olympia. “First, in the situations when it can be used, this system is a major time saver. That means it reduces the amount of outage time required, improving system reliability by maintaining transmission capacity.
“Second, because the spreader reduces the amount of time a lineman has to actually handle the insulators while working aloft, safety is improved. There is just less chance of something going wrong.”
The new tool, which has been tested and certified by BPA’s Mechanical Test Lab and duplicated for use in the tool catalog, comes along at the perfect time. As the agency’s decade-long, $65 million project to replace spacer dampers wraps up this year, changing out insulators looms as the next order of business in transmission maintenance across the BPA system.
The Grand Coulee crew adapted the tool to speed their work to add insulators on a floating dead-end, where a customer was tapping into the Bell-Boundary No. 1 line last year.
“Our crews have a well-deserved reputation for productivity and ingenuity,” says Larry Bekkedahl, senior vice president of Transmission Services. “The hydraulic spreader tool is another great example of operational excellence in the field. It illustrates how our crews reach beyond the challenging work of keeping the system reliable by constantly seeking ways to do the job even better.”
Foreman I Boots Zeller says his Grand Coulee crew adapted the hydraulic spreader to cut in dead-end insulators last year on the 230 kV Bell-Boundary No. 1 line. “We used it in a little different way than I think the Olympia crew thought it would be used,” he says. “It worked out really good for us. It’s a definite time saver, and it made it much less strenuous. It takes the fight out of doing a dead-end insulator change.”
BPA’s new administrator, Bill Drummond, was fascinated to learn of the Olympia linemen’s ingenuity. In March, he recognized them with the Administrator’s Excellence Award for Extraordinary Team Accomplishment. He told Webb after the ceremony that he’s looking forward to making a visit and seeing the crew in action along some of the district’s 1,000 miles of line, which stretches to the wild tip of the Olympic Peninsula.
“Two of the key challenges we face at this juncture in our history are change management and modernizing critical assets,” Drummond says. “We have to answer the question every day, ‘How can we adapt and innovate to do this important work better?’
“The way these guys problem-solved the difficulties of replacing insulator assemblies is inspiring, and the approach they took epitomizes the best ingredients of BPA’s unique identity. It saves the ratepayers money, keeps our crews healthy and reminds us why we’re proud to work at BPA.”
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