Collaboration between managers, engineers and tradies led to a development that revolutionised how corroded power poles are repaired without having to replace the whole pole and without having to turn off the electricity supply.
“It’s more cost effective, plus we’re keeping businesses and residents happy by maintaining power,” says the corporation’s acting executive manager for Power Services, Stephen Vlahovic. “It’s a true win-win solution.”
Power and Water nurtures a culture of innovation – with teams empowered to find new ways to improve safety and productivity, save money and continue delivering the highest standard of service.
The challenge to make pole replacement more efficient and cost-effective followed the Todd River bursting its banks in 2015.
Post-flood inspections found that the base of many of the thousands of power poles in Alice Springs are being corroded by acidic soil caused by water mixing with salt.
“The section of the pole below the ground was corroding, which over time could compromise the strength of the poles,” says Dr Vlahovic.
The old method of pole replacement was to disconnect all the wires and transformers and remove the whole of the pole and then replace it with a complete new one.
That was a major job that could take several days for each pole, involved a power outage and cost up to $25,000 each replacement.
The scale of the issue identified in Alice Springs was daunting and expensive, spurring the need for a rethink of how to tackle the program.
The 12-strong Power Services team recognised that the problem was confined to corrosion of the pole concrete footing while the remainder of the pole was structurally sound and safe. Maybe replacing the entire thing was old thinking.
So a metal and concrete machine was engineered to hold the pole in place while the base was cut off and a two-leg replacement welded on and a new concrete footing poured.
The machine – which weighs more than 10 tonnes and is 2.5 metre high, 2 metres wide and 5 metres long – holds the pole in place until the concrete sets.
And “maintainers” fence off a small, temporary worksite, which means pedestrians can still use the footpaths while poles are being repaired.
“We had the prospect of replacing thousands of poles one at a time, which would take a very long time and cost a lot of money,” says Dr. Vlahovic. “So we got together to try to find a way to solve the problem.
“The people who do the work and know what happens in the field were critical in that early ideation phase. We sat in a room and bounced ideas off each other.
“Rolling the prototype cradle out into the field was a big day for us all. Everyone had had a say and influenced the plans, design and process – everyone was invested in a great result.”
The Power Services team designed the machine before passing it to three companies in the Territory – GHD, Foremost and Universal Engineering – for the engineering, fabrication and construction.
Power and Water now has four of the machines in use, each named after Top End crocodiles.
The replacement cost has been slashed to less than $7000 a pole and each pole takes only a few hours, from leaving the workshop to returning – and the power stays on.
Power and Water plans to roll out the new pole replacement method in other parts of the Territory to maintain the poles that support 7736 kilometres of overhead power lines.
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
The new method of replacing power poles would not have been possible without the enthusiasm of the linesmen and women working in the field.
Stephen Vlahovic, the Power and Water Corporation’s acting executive manager for power services, empathises with them.
“They perform very specialised technical roles in an equally challenging environment,” he says.
He was a tradie himself – a fitter and turner for six years before taking an engineering degree followed by a master’s degree.
Power and Water has a philosophy of building talent and know-how in the Territory, encouraging employees to gain extra qualifications, not just so they can earn more money but also to have fulfilling careers that suit their abilities and potential.
“Some of the courses are mandatory but for those with aspirations to progress and expand their skills the career options for our teams within the business are broad” says Dr Vlahovic.
For instance, two tradies, Mark Sinclair and Sanjay Narayan, have recently completed engineering degrees.
“It’s a big deal,” says Dr Vlahovic. “They studied while working and with families. That’s a massive undertaking and it is our customers who reap the benefit of their dedication.”