SpreadBoss: Pipe Tracking Wizard

By Richard Nemec, West Coast Correspondent | May 2012, Vol. 239 No. 5

One of the most nagging offshoots of the San Bruno, CA, natural gas transmission pipeline tragedy was that in the immediate aftermath and the hot glow of federal, state and utility investigations, the operator, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), had no credible information on the section of pipe that failed. Worse yet, this turned out to be not just an isolated case.

As a result, many months after the Sept. 9, 2010 pipe rupture and explosion that killed eight people and destroyed a quiet suburban neighborhood, PG&E is spending tens of millions of dollars to digitize its records and verify the operating pressures in all the critical parts of its 6,000 miles-plus transmission pipeline system.

Ironically, if the giant California combination utility had used a newly emerging digitized tracking system developed by TG Mercer, the Aledo, TX-based midstream pipeline logistics firm, San Bruno might not have happened, or at least the aftermath would have been more manageable.

Instead, PG&E had to rent a former convention and athletic arena, the Cow Palace, in San Francisco to conduct a paper chase that lasted a week and cost tens of millions of dollars, attempting to correct its flawed record-keeping system. If available prior to San Bruno, all of the information that once occupied untold numbers of file boxes could have been digitized into a single, flexible system that Mercer calls “SpreadBoss.”

The name carries multiple connotations, but it draws on a combination of the actual manager in charge of building a pipeline, and the software product’s role building the pipeline’s database. Both the person and the tool are “spread bosses.” Mercer’s virtual version, consisting of millions of lines of software code, is the record-keeping boss and mobile electronic storehouse in a “cloud.” It was created because no one else had shown an ability to automate field record-keeping, according to the Mercer management team that has nurtured its development.

“The fact that at any point in time our customers can download the data into their own spreadsheets back at their offices to put in their own preferred formats or report styles also plays into the origin of the name,” says Charlie Hankins, Mercer’s executive vice president for administration.

The product, still under refinement, but trademarked and commercially available, is a sophisticated, proprietary software program tied to radio frequency identification (RFID) and standard barcode tags, that promises cost- and time-saving for pipeline operators and a step into the next generation of pipeline integrity management safety programs.

If there was one lesson from the San Bruno and other similar pipeline tragedies in recent years it is that there is an extremely critical need to maintain pipe identity from the mill to the trench and through subsequent years of operation. In these recent tragedies the aftermath has shown the identity of the pipe linked to the incident had been lost.

Additionally, for excess pipe left over in inventory, loss of identification means a 90% loss in that pipe’s value, according to Mercer officials who developed SpreadBoss over the past two to three years as a means of overcoming past limitations in accurately and swiftly verifying pipe–its origins and its real-time status.