Under the Hood

April 2021

How fleet operations keeps SVEC rolling

Whether it’s an engineering team staking out new service lines or a crew making system repairs, Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative (SVEC) workers cover a lot of ground daily. Every time they roll out, those teams rely on their vehicles to criss-cross the cooperative’s 2,100-square-mile service area. And keeping their rides in top condition requires much more than the average tune-up.

Manager of Fleet Maintenance Raymond Poole has been with the cooperative for 26 years, almost all of that time working on SVEC’s fleet. Each day starts when he and mechanic Ross Wood get some face-to-face time with the crews to see what equipment is in working order and what could use a quick fix.

“Those guys will do a pre-trip inspection, and a lot of times they find issues and bring them over,” Poole says. “Often, we’re able to jump right on the problem and they can take the equipment with them that day. If it’s something major, then we’ll have a replacement for them while we make repairs.”

With 60 vehicles — including passenger cars, pickup trucks, bucket trucks, digger derricks, tractors, and excavators — there is always something to keep fleet operations workers on their toes. Each vehicle undergoes a weekly visual inspection to make sure lights are working, tires are in good shape and there are no fluid leaks before it hits the road.

“These guys work around high voltage power lines, so it’s very important that everything is carefully inspected to make sure there’s nothing that could be dangerous to the operator,” Poole says. “Maintaining safe equipment is our main goal.”

Tools for the Job

With the sheer mileage cooperative vehicles cover week after week, they experience a lot more wear and tear than the typical private vehicle, from the engine to the tires.

In addition to inspecting tires, Poole and Woodwork with a local contractor to balance tires and mount rear tires on large vehicles and trailers. “That’s very important because we put those on public roads and they pull our large equipment around,” Poole says. “That requires a lot of maintenance to axles, bearings, and tie-downs that people may not realize. But all that takes place to make sure our guys and the driving public stay safe.”

In addition to making sure everything is in working order, fleet operations also take charge of equipping each vehicle to carry the tools crews will need for the job.

“Every department is a little different, and we’ll outfit each piece of equipment based on the jobs they do,” Poole says. “Linemen might need to have a hot stick — a fiberglass pole used when working on live lines — so we install a rack to hold it. The engineering department uses stakes, marker flags, and other items, so we outfit their pickups with toolboxes. There’s a lot of unseen work we do other than just motor maintenance.”

When Poole first joined the cooperative as a welder and fabricator, crews would sketch out what they needed on their vehicle, and then he would build it for them himself. These days, the automotive industry has caught up and can supply many of the modifications SVEC needs.

“It’s much quicker and more efficient now to order things we need on the trucks, such as spotlights, toolboxes, and wire racks,” Poole says. “We don’t have to build them ourselves anymore. They come pre-made, and all we have to do is bolt them on.”

Next Gear

That’s not the only change Poole has seen over the course of his career at SVEC. Trucks across the fleet are now better equipped with features like material handlers that make it easier to raise transformers to mount them on poles. When he arrived, only one bucket truck at the cooperative had a material handler, while the rest had to make do with winches.

Fleet operations also has better data to work with today thanks to the fuel station installed on-site a few years ago. SVEC still buys its gas from a local business, but the on-site pumps help Poole track the fleet’s fuel usage and mileage.

“We also have equipment on every vehicle that tells us where they are at all times,” Poole says. “That allows our dispatchers to quickly direct the closest crew to a trouble spot on the system.”

Despite all the ways the vehicles he works on have changed over the years, Poole says the fundamentals of his job haven’t changed a bit. He still lends the same careful eye to each vehicle he works on, knowing that it could prove crucial in a key moment in the field.

“It’s still the same maintenance and the same mindset toward it. You look for loose bolts, cracks, leaks, rusty parts,” says Poole. “We do each inspection the same as we did 20 years ago. It’s all about making sure each and every one of our employees stays safe and come home to their families in the same condition they came to work.”