Managing vegetation and keeping consumer-members happy can be a tricky endeavor for any electric cooperative.

But when your co-op’s territory is in a place that calls itself “The Garden State,” the stakes get that much higher.

“Part of the Appalachian Trail winds through our service territory, including the ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ When you get to the zenith you can see the wonderful place where we live, and it is heaven,” said Claudia Raffay, director of marketing and member services at Sussex Rural Electric Cooperative. “One goal of our vegetation management program is working with our members to provide reliable power while maintaining the beauty of our state.”

That was a key consideration when the co-op began work on a way to use technology to improve its tree-trimming operations.

“We were using paper reports, and it took quite some time for our vegetation management supervisors to go out and inspect the lines,” said Chris Reese, president and CEO of the Sussex-based distribution co-op. “Sometimes inspections lagged as much as six weeks behind the contractors.”

Last year, Sussex started building its own vegetation-management application suite using its licensed GIS (geographic information system) software, digitized staking maps and mobile computing capabilities.

“It was just a matter of taking the data from our engineering model and using off-the-shelf tools to build some apps that allow you to manage the data,” said Rich St. John, a Sussex REC project engineer.

The apps have shortened the trimming cycle and dramatically improved the quality assurance process because now co-op operations personnel have immediate access to contractor reports.

“While people love trees, they don’t like power outages, so they appreciate the value of what we’re doing,” said Chuck Pike, the co-op’s director of engineering and operations. “The fact that we're staying on top of it means you don't have a lot of extreme cuts to the trees, and people get accustomed to our right-of-way management needs.”

Specific details of the co-op’s apps are also open to Asplundh Tree Expert Co. crews working within Sussex REC territory. They can photograph the results of their work, tag locations and share data and other notes through the app with co-op personnel.

“It makes it easy to track miles, completed work and helps speed up workflow,” said Ryan Swier, an Asplundh regional vice president.

Data collected with the apps gives Sussex REC member services supervisors a lot of details they can share directly with members when questions about tree trimming arise, or if “blinks” or other reliability issues indicate tree trimming may be needed.

“We've had some storms in the past years that have made members more reasonable in what they'll allow to be trimmed,” Pike said. “Particularly after a strong storm, that following year, we'll find members are more accommodating to our needs.”