illustration: design of a blueprint

From backlog to blueprint excellence

Inside the hydroelectric industry, where power generation and transmission are paramount, the importance of accurate engineering drawings cannot be overstated. These documents, often referred to as “as-built” drawings, serve as the backbone of new projects and maintenance operations, ensuring not only efficiency but, more crucially, safety for the workers tasked with maintaining and upgrading infrastructure.

Leaders in the Sierra Nevada region shed light on the vital role of updated and accurate engineering drawings and the transformational efforts to rectify discrepancies and ensure the well-being of those working in the field.

SN Construction Manager Jeff Miller and Project Manager Mike Jackson recently began clearing a backlog in SN and have played key roles in reshaping the approach to as-built drawings within WAPA. Maintenance Technical Support Manager Tish Saare, appointed to lead this endeavor, inherited the responsibility of managing the region’s as-built drawings and the ambitious goal of achieving a safer and more efficient transmission system.

The significance of accurate drawings

Accurate engineering drawings represent the cornerstone of any complex infrastructure system. For WAPA, these drawings are not just blueprints; they are the lifeline of the power grid. Miller describes them as “the bible” that defines the facilities, their systems and their configurations.

“Imagine a technician arriving at a substation or community site, trusting the drawings for guidance, only to find that they do not match the actual setup,” Miller said. “This mismatch can lead to confusion, inefficiency and, most critically, safety hazards.”

Now the construction manager, Miller previously oversaw the technical services group, which manages these vital documents. Working in these roles allowed him to witness firsthand the growing disparity between the drawings and reality, which workers have contended with for years.

He acknowledged that updating the drawings isn’t just a matter of administrative convenience; it’s an issue of safety. When a worker relies on a drawing that does not accurately represent the infrastructure, it exposes them to potential dangers.

Tackling the backlog

WAPA’s transmission system is dynamic, with constant changes, upgrades and maintenance activities. As new projects are commissioned and the grid evolves, keeping engineering drawings current becomes a persistent challenge.

Jackson identified several factors contributing to the backlog of outdated drawings.

“Work cycles often introduce interruptions, where multiple changes happen simultaneously,” he explained. “These changes must be carefully integrated into the existing drawings, a task that can be complex and time-consuming. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted workflow and made it even more challenging to manage this backlog.”

The consequence is that workers might be operating with outdated or incorrect information. When it comes to worker safety, this creates unacceptable risk. Even a single mishap due to inaccurate drawings can severely impact work operations.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, SN has taken proactive steps to rectify the as-built drawing problem. They have transitioned to a project-oriented approach that involves breaking down the backlog into manageable segments, making it easier to allocate resources, establish schedules and drive progress.

Miller explained that tackling the problem was initially overwhelming. He noted that it’s like the expression, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

“By dividing it into project milestones, each with specific goals and deliverables, the team can measure their progress more effectively,” he said. This approach ensures that not only are drawings updated but also that the process remains efficient and sustainable.

Miller described how one of the most important items to update is the process documentation. If the process is inaccurate and outdated, stakeholders will have a tough time obtaining desirable results.

Another vital aspect of this transformation is collaboration. Inefficiencies often arise when various departments within an organization request changes without understanding the full scope of the problem.

Jackson highlighted the importance of creating guidelines and boundaries around the drawing update process. “This prevents the ‘interrupt theory’ where constant interruptions hinder productivity,” he noted. “Now, work is focused on Maintenance organization needs, allowing them to streamline the process and focus on the task at hand.”

Field validation: a critical step ahead

While significant progress has been made in updating drawings, the journey is far from over. The ultimate test lies in ensuring the drawings reflect as-built reality. Saare explained the upcoming phase of physically validating the accuracy of drawings at substations. “This comprehensive field validation process will eliminate any doubts about the status of drawings and provide a solid foundation for the future,” she said.

While the Engineering and the craft sections have provided invaluable assistance in validating drawings onsite in the past, the primary responsibility for conducting field visits rests with Document Control. “It seems we drew the short straw in this regard,” Jackson joked.

In the pursuit of accurate and up to date as-built drawings, Engineering Files Technician James Rodarmel is a crucial member in the process. He undertakes most of the “boots-on-the-ground” work, a task that requires meticulous attention to detail and a commitment to safety.

Rodarmel is currently visiting each of the substations in question. His role is multifaceted; he collaborates closely with the electricians, working hand in hand to validate the accuracy of drawings and ensures they align with the actual infrastructure.

When discrepancies arise, Rodarmel works with the electricians and engineers to reconcile them, bridging the gap between what’s on paper and what exists at each location. He is also verifying that the drawings housed in each substation are the most up-to-date drawings on file. His dedication to this essential task is instrumental in powering the effort towards safer and more efficient operations.

The underlying theme throughout this transformation is safety. SN Director – Transmission and Construction Tim Alme made it clear that inaccurate drawings represent a safety hazard.

“If a worker sustains an injury due to reliance on incorrect or outdated drawings, the organization would be held accountable,” he explained. “Therefore, this initiative is not just about efficiency; it’s about safeguarding the well-being of the people who keep the power grid running.”

An industrywide issue

Miller pointed out that this problem is not unique to SN or WAPA; it’s an industry-wide challenge. The hydroelectric industry relies on accurate as-built drawings, and failure to keep them current poses risks across the board. By addressing this issue head-on, WAPA is setting an example for the industry, demonstrating the importance of maintaining accurate engineering drawings.

As the team at SN makes significant strides in ensuring the accuracy of its engineering drawings, additional measures will be implemented. These include establishing a field review protocol in which staff reviews and updates drawings at each substation at least annually. This will help avoid another backlog in the future.

Clearing the backlog should take roughly a year, but SN is well on its way to rectifying the longstanding problem.

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Last modified on March 12th, 2024