Wednesday: Overview

CATEGORY: Tupelo Stories

AUTHOR: MITCHE

Wednesday: Overview

Thursday: Health

Friday: Schools

Saturday: Jails, civil defense

Sunday: Government

Monday: Industry, transportation

Today: Utilities

Wednesday: Financial institutions, Y2K Preparedness Guide

Hed: Power to the people

Utility companies expect only minor glitches or volume logjams in Y2K transition

By Lena Mitchell

Daily Journal

If people experience problems with their utility services as the calendar changes from 1999 to 2000, it’s more likely to be a result of high volume than computer glitches, utility company officials say.

From electricity to telephones, natural and propane gas to water pumps, most local utilities assert their computer systems have been tested and retested for Y2K readiness and compliance.

Concerns about preparations for the millennium transition center around the ability of computers to read 2000, and not interpret “00” as 1900.

Computer-based devices that misread the date would cause problems, some of them amusing and some all too critical.

For example, when motorists in New Hampshire received new vehicle registrations that called their 2000 model automobiles “horseless carriages” it was to some extent amusing.

But a person with an implanted pacemaker wants to be assured that the computer operating the device knows exactly what year it is.

Master plan

The state Public Service Commission has kept a watchful eye on Y2K compliance for the 1,200 or so utilities that operate under a state certificate. However, many small utility services, such as rural water systems, are not required to have a certificate from the PSC.

“Our utility staff sent out questionnaires in early 1999, requesting entities providing power and any kind of utility service get back with them by end of July,” said Bo Robinson, PSC commissioner for the Northern District.

“All of the companies have indicated they are Y2K compliant, or will be by December 31. I think there may be some bumps in the road, but I don’t think it’s anything for people to be concerned or frustrated about.”

The questionnaire Robinson referred to was mandated by a Y2K Compliance Order issued by the Commission in March 1999.

The four key questions on the survey asked the utilities:

– Are you compliant?

– If not, when will you be?

– Is your system dependent on outside sources for data transfer?

– Do you have a contingency plan?

“Of the 1,200 survey forms mailed, about 750 responded,” said Bob Marsh, utilities staff spokesman. “One hundred percent said they were Y2K compliant or would be by December 31.”

Let there be light

Tennessee Valley Authority is the electricity source for electrical utilities in the Daily Journal’s readership area: Alcorn, Benton, Calhoun, Chickasaw, Clay, Itawamba, Lafayette, Lee, Marshall, Monroe, Pontotoc, Prentiss, Tippah, Tishomingo and Union counties.

“Since 1996, we’ve been working on this issue,” said TVA spokesman Gil Francis. “We have completed year 2000 certification of all our systems. In fact, a number of our facilities are already operating in year 2000 mode. We participated in a nationwide drill conducted Sept. 8-9, and no problems were encountered during that drill.”

For consumers, the ultimate question is “Will my lights come on?”

The answer to that question may be closer at hand, with the local power companies.

TVA is working with the companies that distribute TVA power to make sure they also will be ready to serve customers on Dec. 31, and beyond.

A number of power companies serve the 15 counties of Northeast Mississippi. Prominent among them are Tupelo Water and Light, which serves the city of Tupelo, and Tombigbee Electric Power Association, which serves Lee County and a number of surrounding communities.

Tupelo purchases electricity from TVA and distributes it through six substations. All of the controllers and relays from those substations have been tested and are Y2K compliant, said director Johnny Timmons.

“We also are responsible for the controllers for the traffic light system,” Timmons said. “All of them have been checked and ran OK during testing.”

Central Service Association which handles computer billing to customers has submitted a letter to the system indicating their computers and programs are compliant, as well.

When it was learned that the hand-held computers used to read meters would not make the year 2000 conversion, new ones were purchased and are already in use.

The Northeast Mississippi Water Supply District board of directors has purchased generators that will begin running Dec. 28, and continue into 2000, so that Tupelo water customers will experience no interruption of service.

The city also has generators at the city’s sewer treatment facilities that they use during other emergencies, such as ice storms, and they will also be available during the Y2K transition.

“One thing I do want to get the word out about is people purchasing generators should call us at (662) 841-6460, and let us come out and inspect their installation,” Timmons said.

If the installation is not done properly, it could create a power surge that could back up in the line and pose a danger to the utility’s line workers.

Officials with Tombigbee Electric are also confident that the transition from 1999 to 2000 will come smoothly.

“All of the power is controlled by manual switches and there won’t be any problem at all,” said Bill Stennett, spokesman for Tombigbee Electric. “The substations and switches are all manually done, and TVA will have someone in every substation at midnight (Dec. 31) anyway.”

TVA’s Francis also wants to dispel some misconceptions about electric power generation that may have been spawned by a recent television program, “Y2K: The Movie.”

“Most power plant equipment is not run by computers, they’re run by people,” Francis said. “These are manual systems operated by individuals.”

Talk to me

Just this past Mother’s Day the Tupelo telephone switching station handled about 7.8 million calls without failure, said BellSouth Telecommunications manager Mike Walker.

Every day the telephone system is capable of handling a huge volume of calls, and the company’s preparations for the year 2000 conversion should prevent most problems telephone customers could encounter.

“We are 100 percent complete on all our equipment and things we support, and we don’t anticipate any problems,” Walker said. “All systems have been tested, checked with the long distance companies and local independent phone companies to make sure switching works properly.”

What could potentially create a problem has nothing to do with readiness of the equipment but more to do with human behavior.

“One thing we don’t want people to do is pick up the phone just after midnight to use it to see if it’s working,” he said. “That could interfere with emergency calls and could cause a slow dial tone. We’re not discouraging people from making calls, but just to do as they would any other day.”

BellSouth has also conducted voice and data network tests in conjunction with other telecommunications groups, including the cellular telephone industry and inter-network testing with AT&T.

Making emergency calls to Enhanced 911 systems maintained by BellSouth should be eased by updated computer software that has been installed.

BellSouth has also contacted 911 systems that they do not maintain to assure those systems are aware of the importance of year 2000 compliance.

The telephone system also has a contingency plan, though no interruption of service is expected.

“We’re already experienced with this to some degree with ice storms,” Walker said. “We have battery backup in place and generators. They kick in when there’s an emergency, and everybody knows what to do.”

Additionally, extra BellSouth staff will be working as the transition from 1999 to 2000 occurs to handle any unforeseen or unexpected events.

“Probably the thing individuals and businesses need to do is get in touch with manufacturers of their phone equipment to be sure that it is all compatible,” Walker said.

Most home telephones are pretty simple technology and should experience no problems, but businesses will want to check on their systems.

Pipelines are open

Operating a natural gas system is a 24-hour-a-day business anyway, so observing the year 2000 transition will, in large measure, be business as usual, said Mississippi Valley Gas spokesman Jack Tyler.

“Mississippi Valley Gas is Y2K compliant as we speak,” he said. “Should problems occur we do have contingency plans in place. All offices will have someone on staff during the period we change into the next century. We’re a 24-hour service anyway so it’s not a change from our normal policy except someone will be at the office instead of just on call.”

All of the company’s pipelines can be controlled manually, and reverting to manual operation poses no problems, Tyler said.

“We’re here to serve our customers and that’s our No. 1 priority. If anyone has a problem they would just call the same customer service number they normally use for emergencies.”

Run hot, run cold

A network of water systems criss-cross Northeast Mississippi to serve both city and county customers.

Several different water systems operate in many of the counties, many of them small, independent rural water systems operated under the supervision of the Farmers Home Administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“We’ve notified all our water system customers to check their software providers and be aware of Y2K, but we really don’t expect there to be any problems,” said Woodrow Brown, FHA district manager.

The only potential problems Brown said he might foresee if there is any Y2K computer glitch would be possible late billings, but no interruption of services.

“The systems are semi-automatic, but they have manual override, so a computer system shouldn’t cause a problem,” he said.