Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Street Light Retrofits: GIS adds Value, Capability and Profits!

In 2009 the US Department of Energy began providing block grants to Cities, communities, States, and Indian Tribes, (among others) to increase the energy efficiency of their facilities and infrastructure.  One major component of this program was the upgrade of street lighting systems to more energy efficient fixtures.  Obviously, the replacement of so many light pole fixtures (for an entire city, county or state highway system) represents a large amount of data to be managed. Geographic Information systems (GIS), supported by GPS/GNSS data collection, provides a valuable set of tools for companies involved in street lighting retrofit work.

Most of the street light networks in the US are managed by cities, municipalities, counties, and state governments, along with regional utilities commissions, etc.  More and more of these government entities are requiring that contractors report their utilities data in GIS compatible formats.  As GIS is more widely used, utilities managers demand highly precise geographic locations and organized, integrated attribute management systems from their contractors, in order to manage the information efficiently. 

One company that is a leader in the use of GPS and GIS to support their streetlight work is Northwest Edison (NWE).  NWE is a moderate sized electrical engineering and construction company located in Woodinville, Washington, just outside of Seattle. When required by a client city to provide highly accurate light pole locations based on GPS derived coordinates, NWE invested in a state of the art Trimble Geo series, sub-foot accurate GPS receiver.

Along with Terra Sync ® software, this unit enabled NWE staff to gather accurate pole locations during field audits, along with all the attributes they needed to use for equipment ordering, status and condition tracking, and export all of it to standard GIS formats. Collecting such accurate positions and all the relevant attributes during pre-installation audits put Northwest Edison in the advantageous position of being a step ahead of competitors when bidding on the actual retrofit contracts, which are often separate from the initial audit phase of these projects. Also, NWE now has the side benefit of being able to conduct independent audits of street light networks as a sideline business offering, regardless of the status of the actual equipment replacement project schedule. They can provide high quality, accurate audits to cities to help them in their grant applications.

Of course, gathering data is great; but the question arises “What do we DO with it all?”  When faced with this question, Northwest Edison called me Tom Simon at Synthos, LLC.  They had a great data collection tool, but needed to find a way to manage the data, create maps, and provide the data to their clients in a simple, efficient, and cost effective way.  We helped them select software, developed customized training, and provided support which enabled NWE to make use of the power of GIS without a large financial and time investment.  They did not need a “GIS department,” but just some tools and training so they could use the tools and data to provide industry standard products, and some pretty cool and useful Map Books for their field crews to use.  With the support of Synthos, Northwest Edison has become a leader in their industry in the use of GPS and GIS, increased their efficiency, provided higher quality data products to their customers, and expanded their business opportunities.  Take a look at their great GIS page!

Interested in doing the same with your business? 
Call me, Tom Simon at:  206-406-5246,
or E-mail me at:

Friday, November 14, 2014

“Sometimes it’s the little things…. Part II.” >> The Duct Tape Solution.

As Geo-Spatial professionals, many of us relish the opportunity to make use of high-tech, sophisticated equipment, powerful software, and complicated algorithms and models.  Why?  Because they allow us to collect, process, and understand a wide variety of data, in great quantity and accuracy, and learn important things to support our missions.  But let’s face it:  Tech tools are Cool!  

With GPS we can locate stuff to 1 cm. in 5 seconds. We can process vast amounts of complex data on our laptops. We can produce beautiful, useful maps in minutes that in the past would take years to make, if they could be made at all.
But once and a while, the best solution comes from matching the whiz-bang cool technology with good old common sense.  This is a story about that.

Well Elevations in the Bering Sea
A little over 10 years ago, I was working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the Pribilof Islands, Alaska.  As part of the NOAA Pribilof Islands Environmental Restoration Project, my task was to conduct well head elevation surveys on 43 groundwater monitoring wells on St. George Island.  To do this, my partner John and I used

Trimble 5700 series Survey grade GPS receivers. Using Fast Static and Static post processed techniques, we were able to obtain horizontal and vertical (elevation) measurements of +/- 3mm. with good repeatability. Our job was to survey 43 wells, doing secondary, redundant surveys on 1/3 of them, to minimize blunders and obtain a reliable elevation model of the groundwater network.  It sounds pretty simple:  Set up the tripod, start the observation, and sit in the truck drinking coffee until it was time to move to another well.

The Problem:  Normally, the process is simple:  Set up and level the tripod (3 minutes for most people, 10 for me), measure antenna height, double check everything, and start the GPS observation.  However, on St. George, that didn’t work so well.   Between extremely uneven ground, constant rain, and 50+ mile per hour winds, it was taking us over 45 minutes to get a good setup; only to have a 70mph gust knock the tripod over.  There had to be a better way.

The Solution:  DUCT Tape.  No joke, that did the trick.  While puzzling over what to do, watching sea foam splash on our windshield from 300 feet down the hill; we finally realized the key thing.  Since we were only interested in really accurate and precise Elevation, we didn’t have to center up the tripod horizontally over the well pipe.  Our expected horizontal error was only 1-2 centimeters anyway; well within the width of the pipe we were measuring.  So, we got the idea to just strap the Tribrach holding the GPS antenna right to the pipe.  The Tribrach was a solid piece of metal of a known height.  By simply securing the Tribrach/Antenna assembly directly to the well pipe, we accomplished two important things:

1)    By taping the Antenna directly to the pipe, we eliminated set and measurement errors, and were able to obtain very accurate and repeatable measurements.  Average elevation error over 57 observations was +/- 3mm. (1/100th of a foot).  Standard well elevation measurement specifications.

2)   We completed the Survey!  By reducing our setup time to 3 minutes per well on average, we were able to complete survey of all the wells within the time allotted, and under budget.  This done in a very harsh environment on a remote, isolated island.  Traditional tripod setup would have taken many times longer and introduced much more error.

We had $50,000 worth of GPS gear, $10,000 worth of software, and some great minds; but without that $2 roll of Duct tape, the entire $700,000 groundwater monitoring project might have been significantly compromised. 
Sometimes it is the simple things that are most important.  I’d love to hear stories from others who found elegant, simple ways of solving difficult problems.  In particular with regard to GPS work, GIS, and work in remote areas, as these are some of my interests. 

Please send me an E-mail or post on this Blog.

Best regards,

-Tom S.

Welcome to Tom's Blog.  Tom runs Synthos, LLC, a geospatial service provider based in Seattle, WA

Latest article:   Introducing Synthos, LLC

Sometimes it is the simplest things....Part I.

Hello all!  Thanks for checking out the Inaugural Blog entry for Synthos, LLC – our GIS and Geo-spatial services consulting firm.  My wife Zita and I are excited to offer excellent consulting and data management services to the world.  I'm the Geography dude, GIS wizard, and front end of the operation.  Zita is the Boss, and thanks to her 20+ years of software and process QC/QA experience; she makes sure we deliver the very best, most accurate products to our clients.

After almost 15 years doing GIS, Web Design, and Environmental work for the US Federal Government (NOAA mostly), and working with a large consulting company, I decided I'd had enough of bureaucracy.  I had a great time in both roles, but I finally realized what was holding me back from the work that really excited me:  Complex organizations, rules, and process. I wanted something more simple and direct, with less red tape.

I have learned a lot over the years, and remain even more excited than ever about the possibilities GIS and related tools can offer to businesses, non-profits, and everyday folks; as well big business and government entities. But I wanted to make it simpler for people to access this GIS "magic" that geography nerds like me so love.  

So, I started Synthos, LLC to bring the magic to ordinary people.  GIS used to be a difficult to decipher "black box," but not any more.  We now have a vast number of easy (or easier) to use tools to accomplish really cool work.  I work to use the magic of GPS/GNSS, GIS and related tools to enhance what people are already trying to do.

For example, I've been working with the Catholic Schools in Western Washington, Youth Cross Country, and a local electrical engineering firm.  In all three cases we carefully chose tools which minimized costs, yet added great value to these folks' missions.  Without the time and cost needed to develop in-house GIS systems, I've been able to help my clients use the tools as needed.  I don't sell software, or make things overly complex.  Take a quick look at the CYO cross country maps, (Sample here).   By the way, I offer significant discounts for church, school, and non-profit groups.

So.... that's my goal.  To keep things simple, select the proper technologies and tools to meet the needs of the client, no more and no less; and provide the expertise usually only found in large firms or government GIS departments.  Stay tuned for more information and interesting GIS and map related articles.  And check out our website.

Hope to see you back here soon.  And feel free to contact me with questions, or with your GIS or mapping need.   Best regards,  Tom S.