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Insulator washing program makes a splash

While some women struggle to get their man to do the dishes or the washing, it’s no problem for the men of AltaLink’s line crew! For more than two months, AltaLink’s south lines crew spent their days doing the wash – insulator washing that is!

And if you think insulator washing sounds like a simple job – it is anything but that. Ken Cooper, North Lines Manager, Jim Hill, South Line Crew Foreman, Ted Graham, North Line Crew Foreman and Jordie McKenize, South Line Crew Work Leader, spent countless hours fine tuning AltaLink’s insulator washing program with the help of our asset management team. Now, 10,000 insulators later, AltaLink has completed the biggest washing program in its history. Here’s how it all began.

AltaLink has to wash our insulators to keep them free from contaminants. Insulators have an important role to play in the transmission system – insulators protect and insulate the transmission line (conductor) from the transmission structure (pole or tower). Insulators get contaminated from sources such as pollution from cars and refineries, gravel roads and farmers laying fertilizers. When insulators are contaminated, electricity can track up the insulator and flash over to the cross arm of the transmission structure causing an electrical fire. Cross arm burn off causes several outages throughout the year, often on critical lines that feed Independent Power Producers (IPPs) who depend on a reliable supply of electricity.

To prevent outages caused from insulator contamination, an insulator washing program was developed four years ago by Field Operations and Asset Management. The first years of the program concentrated on washing our 240 kV lines near Edmonton. This year we tackled the 138 kV lines in the southern part of the province – 38 lines to be exact.

As part of the work, Jim, Ted and Ken refined the training program and job procedure for insulator washing. “After Bill Sutton and Al Lucas had identified which lines needed to be washed, Jim and I sat down with a map and figured out the route. There were three phases and we had to organize every detail from the helicopter and water truck to the fuel truck. It was kind of like Nascar,” says Jordie. Along with the route, this team coordinated helicopter landing zones, outages with System Operations and managed resourcing.

Resourcing and training were important elements of the program as insulator washing requires specialized lineman skills and the use of a helicopter. Big Horn Helicopters, out of Cranbrook, helped AltaLink with the work and were responsible for maintaining constant communication with the crew, avoiding hazards and working in adverse wind conditions.

So how did the crew actually perform the insulator washing? Using a wash boom that connects to the helicopter platform, the lineman stands on the platform and washes the insulators as the helicopter hovers near the line, ensuring not to get any closer than 3 metres of the line.

“Inside the helicopter there is a water tank that we fill with 45 gallons of water which is the optimum weight with about 200 pounds of fuel,” says Jordie. “During the work we were able to refine how many structures we could wash before having to land to refuel and refill the water tank. We could wash about 20 structures in 35 minutes and during one, nine-hour day we even finished 432 structures. The crew was focused on working efficiently but always focused on safety.”

Outages were coordinated through the washing but 50 per cent of the work was done live. If you are thinking that water and electricity don’t mix – water in its pure form is non-conductive. However, if water sits, particles can build up and become conductive. To prevent this from happening, the crew tested the water every couple of hours to measure the level of contamination and ensure that it met standards.

“Our crew did a great job on this program. We had our barehand certified linemen – Paul Hill, Andy Shaw, Sandy Cardinal, Shane Duttenhoffer, Jim Hill and me – washing the lines and we had additional lineman on the ground to take care of water testing, keep paperwork up to date, and help figure out the next landing zone,” says Jordie. “Every 100 structures we needed a landing zone to refuel, fill water, and drink a juice box. Overall, it was a great opportunity for skill development and allowed some of our newer linemen to learn how to work around helicopters, keep up with the helicopter, read job packages and learn how to read landing zone maps.”

“This was Jordie’s first time managing a huge insulator washing program and he did great job,” says Rodger Pierce, Director, Field Operations. “Through program efficiencies we saved more than $100,000 and have washed more insulators than in all of AltaLink’s history combined. This program will occur every summer in the north and south and will significantly reduce outages caused by insulator contamination.”