published Thursday, May 8th, 2014

EPB unveils $3.5 million futuristic command bunker in Chattanooga

  • photo
    EPB Senior Manager of System Analysis and Control Don Nannery works in EPB's all-new, state-of-the-art Distribution Center designed to complement the citywide Smart Grid and fiber-optic network.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    EPB resource logistic supervisors Patty Boeninger and Jeff West work in EPB's all-new, state-of-the-art Distribution Center designed to complement the citywide Smart Grid and fiber-optic network.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

  • photo
    Matt Kerr, a network operations technician, works in EPB's all-new, state-of-the-art Distribution Center designed to compliment the citywide Smart Grid and fiber optic network.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

EPB on Wednesday unveiled a new $3.5 million war room and distribution center at the rear of its sprawling complex at the corner of Oak and Greenwood streets.

Access is restricted to the bunker-like facility, which is guarded by security forces and locked with biometric screening devices.

Set in limestone bedrock, the reinforced steel and concrete structure is built to withstand natural disasters, including tornadoes. Metal shutters can be rolled down in an emergency to bolster the impact-proof glass windows, protecting the humans inside EPB's futuristic nerve center.

Dual backup power supplies can keep computers running in case of a power interruption, allowing EPB to continue directing crews in the field during a disaster.

Extra dispatch stations allow the utility to flood the building with extra personnel in case of tornadoes or other storms that cause widespread outages. Those additional dispatchers are required to direct as many as 1,600 field workers who are brought in to deal with the fallout from fallen trees and broken lines.

"We're expecting this building to still be here after a nuclear blast," EPB President Harold DePriest said. "It's pretty stout."

The basement holds hundreds of servers cooled by dozens of air-conditioning units outside. More than $50 million of server equipment, much of which predates the recently-added control room, route television signals from rows of giant satellite dishes into 66,000 homes across Chattanooga.

The utility boasts an entire floor of monitoring rooms dedicated to maintaining both the city's gigabit fiber optic Internet and its power infrastructure. Hundreds of automatic switches manage outages and, and screens track faulty connections. A real-time weather map tracks incoming storms, and a real-time GPS map shows work crews in the field.

EPB juggles about 6,000 customer calls and about 1,000 work orders per day, which are displayed on giant monitors hung from the walls of each control center.

"This is more like playing a Star Wars game," DePriest said. "In the old days, it was like going to the library."

The old days are represented by a 75-year-old brick building raised in the days before the U.S. entered World War II. That space will be converted to offices. Inside, EPB previously relied on an analog representation of the power grid, which used light bulbs on a wall instead of HD monitors.

A separate facility was used during outages to track homes without power and route crews to fix downed lines. Everyone works on the same floor in the new distribution center, instead of in separate buildings.

"I tell people that if you want to know what the Internet is going to look like in 20 years, come here. If you want to see what the electric system of the future looks like, this is it," DePriest said.

The next step in the utility's effort to modernize its infrastructure is to offer ratepayers the ability to control their power costs remotely. Officials are working to develop programmable control system that will allow customers to turn off their air-conditioning while they're at work, among other advances, in order to reduce power bills.

"We'll have that in a year or less," DePriest said. "There are going to be more and more smart appliances. But basically, you ought to be worried about your thermostat."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or with tips and documents.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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