In the past, when the power went out, many Lenoir City Utility Board customers were left in the dark with little hope of contacting anyone at the utility to report the problem. The same was true with water leaks.
But thanks to some advancements in technology — including a new interactive telephone voice-response system — LCUB says those problems are being corrected.
Earlier this month, LCUB implemented the new telephone system, and will eventually do away with its old number, replacing it with 844-687-5282 (844-OUR-LCUB).
"People don't realize how big LCUB is," said Shannon Littleton, the utility's general manager.
Previously, when thousands of customers were without power, they would call and get nothing but a busy signal, he said.
"All they want to know is what's going on," Littleton said. "Now, those answers are going to be immediately accessible. They will have instant feedback on their outage."
After customers enter their phone number or account number, the system will immediately recognize them on subsequent phone calls without having to enter that information again.
There is also a new automated metering system, designed to streamline billing, ensure accuracy and provide proactive notification of any problems to LCUB's more than 63,000 customers in Anderson, Knox, Loudon and Roane counties. LCUB is the eighth-largest provider among the 155 Tennessee Valley Authority power distributors.
"All but a handful of new meters have been installed in gas, water and the electrical departments," Littleton said. "All meters are installed in the same location as the old meters."
LCUB installed the new meters over the past several years, using its own resources, he said.
Meter reader jobs have been phased out and some remaining employees were retrained and are performing other tasks for the utility. Littleton said that meter reading costs are one-tenth of what they were.
"That is a savings to a ratepayer," he added. The new technology not only saves meter reading costs, but offers customers instant analysis of their usage, which can bring additional savings.
"For a residential customer it may be easier for them to monitor their usage through the website," said Littleton of the new system. "They can see their usage and potentially save on their water and electricity [by deciding] when to conserve."
And if someone has a water leak, "we are able to detect that within 24 hours," Littleton said.
Commercial customers, in particular manufacturers, will be able to do quality tests, monitor voltage and detemine the best times to use power during the day.
The automated metering systems will allow internal staff to safely restore power in certain situations.
"In addition to a self-healing grid, the smart distribution system will talk to itself, identify where the failure is, isolate it, and that allows our crews to get to the pinpoint location," Littleton said.
The utility also is preparing to move into new headquarters. Last fall, LCUB broke ground on an 180,000 square-foot facility in the Creekwood Park Development in Lenoir City just off Interstate 75. It will house a state-of-the-art operations and dispatch center and a highly secured tier 3 data center with biometric security.
"We had some issues with the topography of the land, but we should be under roof this fall and move in by June of 2017," Littleton said. "Creekwood Park is an optimal place for us, it is right off the interstate and parallel to Highway 70. We will be in the heart of our system so we can respond very quickly to our customers in Loudon County or West Knoxville."
The centerpiece of the facility will be the dispatch center from which LCUB will deploy outside crews 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Littleton said. The outside crews are currently in a building that was completed in 1958.
With all of these changes, it seemed like an opportune time to refresh the corporate image to match, Littleton said. The LCUB logo has been revamped and a new website has been launched.
LCUB's Facebook and Twitter pages will be used to communicate with customers in real time about important information and alerts, as well as providing useful, money-saving tips.
Also, LCUB is in the early stages of deploying a new smartphone app, which can provide customers specific outage information, among other features.