Tales from the Underground

From a young age I was obsessed with construction, trucks, and anything coloured safety orange. I would ask my parents to take detours in the car to drive by construction sites and see the work going on, and even dressed up as a lineman for Halloween back-to-back years. While many children can probably make similar claims, my passion for all things technical did not end. Instead, I channeled that passion into school, hands-on summer jobs, and later into undergraduate and master’s degrees in electrical engineering. My degrees taught me how infrastructure is designed, built, and how the use of critical thinking and technology can be used to solve all sorts of energy problems.


Shortly after graduate school, I started at CableQ as a Testing & Instrumentation Engineering Intern. Within a year of working, my parents found a picture of me at 2 years old performing a “visual inspection” on an underground cable. Even though this photo was taken at a children’s museum over 20 years ago, it still captures the genuine interest and excitement I have about infrastructure and power systems, these days more geared around underground cable. I have now been performing cable testing services with CableQ for almost 3 years and that interest and excitement continues to grow.


In my time with CableQ, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some very experienced people in the underground cable field. I’ve had interesting discussions with folks from all over North America, be it operations and field staff, or cable specialists and diehard cable experts who live and breathe for cable systems and testing. When we were first starting out with cable testing, the knowledge base for cable systems and diagnostics seemed to be inexhaustible. Once I started to learn the principles and intricacies of cable systems, asking these experienced individuals for their thoughts, opinions, advice, or references became a key part in furthering my understanding. By incorporating that information into our interactions with folks in the industry, I was surprised how quickly the tables turned, and how much of my job revolved around passing this information down, and educating others on these principles, no matter how basic or complex. Whether it be explaining the basics of distribution systems and underground cable anatomy, to various failure modes and asset management strategies, folks in the electrical power industry are hungry for knowledge and want to learn. I’m hoping this blog will be one more way for me to share my knowledge and experience.


My work with CableQ has also made me realise that no matter where you are in the world, companies who own underground cable tend to have similar issues: aging infrastructure, much of which is at or beyond expected end-of-life; resource and budget limitations; regulatory pressures and constraints; and, oftentimes uncertainty around the best asset management approach for their situation. With each utility focused on its own infrastructure and needs, it is sometimes easy to forget that there are others out there facing the same issues. Aging infrastructure isn’t unique to Canada or even to North America, asset management is a concern of utilities worldwide which is part of what makes this field so interesting and relevant to those working in the industry.


When looking at the approach for tackling these problems, there is a wide range of possible solutions. On one end there is doing nothing, as in run to failure. This can be a viable option in some cases, but in others can lead to runaway failure rates, poor reliability, and escalating operating budgets to maintain the current system rather than rebuilding it. One the other end there is being proactive, almost to the extreme. For those who are very risk-adverse and who have large capital budgets, the solution may be to replace entire cable systems every 25 to 30 years like clockwork, no questions asked. This last approach is very uncommon as most utilities do not have the resources or budgets to replace millions of dollars’ worth of equipment prematurely. That’s where testing and diagnostics from CableQ can come into play. Depending on factors such as diagnosed cable conditions, demographics, risk tolerance, and budget constraints, a happy medium can be found.


As I keep learning and gaining a deeper understanding of underground cable systems and diagnostics, I will continue to pass on the knowledge to others as others are doing with me. I hope that this blog will help provide useful background and insight on how to best address cable issues in your power system. Stay tuned for future posts where we will cover some of the issues and strategies around underground cable systems and cable testing.


Phil Malone

Testing and Instrumentation Engineer