Posted on July 22, 2013

Employees Begin Using Groundbreaking Gas Leak Surveying Technology

By David Kligman

LIVERMORE — Delivering on PG&E’s commitment to pipeline safety, five union employees are now trained to begin using SUVs equipped with the first-of-its-kind gas-surveying technology that’s 1,000 times more sensitive than traditional leak detection equipment.

PG&E is the first utility in the world to roll out the Picarro Surveyor. Leak testing using the new technology began last week in Sacramento and Santa Rosa. Testing is expected to begin this week in Hayward and Concord and in Stockton within the next few weeks.

Specially customized Ford Escape hybrids are outfitted with Picarro technology that’s 1,000 times more sensitive than traditional leak detection equipment. (Photos by David Kligman.)

PG&E began working last year with Silicon Valley-based Picarro. And now, after more than a year of collaborating with scientists to refine the natural gas detection system, the utility is ready to begin using the technology.

Last week (July 15), select employees represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1245 spent the day at PG&E’s training facility in Livermore to learn how to operate the technology that’s mounted in customized Ford Escape hybrids. Those who attended the training agreed it was a momentous occasion for PG&E and its customers.

“This is one of those days in history we might look back and say, ‘Hey, I remember when we rolled out Picarro,” said Jon Faulk, director of enterprise systems training for PG&E.

Also on hand was Aaron Van Pelt, a Picarro scientist who said it was an exciting day for his company, which already is getting inquiries throughout the utility industry. A utility in Texas recently visited PG&E to find out more.

“My CEO’s calling me, asking, ‘How’s it going?’” Van Pelt said. “This is what we’ve been waiting for — getting the vehicles deployed and getting folks ramped up to use this technology fully in the field.”

Reminder to be aware of anemometer

The daylong training began with a few hours of classroom instruction, which included an emphasis on safety. Part of being safe is driver awareness to make sure there’s enough clearance for the 10-foot-tall anemometer, a kind of sophisticated wind meter that sits atop the vehicle.

Then teams of instructors and gas employees filed into the five vehicles. They drove around the training facility’s simulated city — 14 miniature houses where actual gas is released in a safe environment — to test the equipment.

From left, gas employees Zach Showaker, Bob Byrd, Scot Tomasello, Brian Lincoln and Manny Aguayo will soon use Ford Escape hybrid vehicles equipped with innovative technology to test for natural gas leaks.

The technology uses GPS to pinpoint even the most miniscule natural gas leak.

Natural gas molecules are measured with a near-infrared laser. A high-precision wavelength monitor, meanwhile, ensures that only natural gas is being monitored, virtually eliminating the interference of other gases. Leaks are displayed on an iPad secured on the dashboard.

If the system is in surveying mode, the information is automatically sent real-time to Picarro’s headquarters.

The technology also can tell in less than 10 minutes whether the gas being detected is natural gas or naturally occurring methane. Determining the exact type of gas using traditional leak surveying would involve using a syringe to collect the gas and having it tested in a lab, a process that could take as long as a week.

Picarro also means less intrusive surveying. Traditional surveyors must walk up to every gas meter, often getting permission from homeowners if the meter isn’t easily accessible. The new technology will generally get accurate reads simply by driving past homes. It’s proven to detect natural gas whether the pipe is plastic, steel, cast iron, new or old gas pipe vintages.

Easier to survey PG&E’s gas infrastructure

And using Picarro equipment will make it significantly easier to survey PG&E’s gas infrastructure. Currently, the utility is required to survey its entire system every five years, but PG&E is requesting in its General Rate Case that complete surveying be done in three or four years.

For now, the Picarro surveying vehicles will be used to go above and beyond what’s required to provide better protection and ensure pipeline integrity.

Picarro scientist Aaron Van Pelt, right, explains the gas detection technology to Zach Showaker, left, and Manny Aguayo.

Gas maintenance and construction superintendent Tim Arterberry said PG&E will have better visibility into the condition of its pipeline facilities. For customers, they may see full crews making repairs to a larger area rather than smaller crews addressing one-off leaks.

Meanwhile, a team at PG&E’s San Ramon headquarters for gas employees will oversee the workload from any leaks the technology uncovers.

Manny Aguayo, a gas field person based in Stockton, is one of the five employees handpicked to operate the Picarro-installed vehicles. He said learning the gadgetry wasn’t too hard.

“I got a couple of Mac computers at home,” he said.

And he said it will be different than walking streets to survey for gas leaks.

“I’m pretty stoked to be able to do something like this and speed up the process,” he said. “This is going to cut down on a lot of time.”

Ultimately, though, the purpose of the new technology is to ensure pipeline safety.

Said Arterberry, “It drives home the company’s commitment to be the safest utility.”

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