Locating Underground Utility Lines

The most common use of vacuum excavation is to safely locate utilities, without damaging lines. Using a vacuum excavator helps prevent additional costs, time delays, and injuries.

More than 20 million miles of underground utility lines crisscross farmlands, suburban backyards and urban streets across the United States. According to the CGA, an underground line is struck and damaged every six minutes. This impacts every pipe and cable located in the congested areas underground. We’ve all read the reports and seen the news. Hopefully, no one has experienced firsthand the devastation that can occur when an electrical, gas or water facility is struck. In a best-case scenario, these strikes inconvenience individuals, households, businesses and services. Worst case? Strikes cause outages, explosions, fires, gushing water, outages of essential systems such as those used by hospitals, 911 and airports, homes and businesses are evacuated, businesses are closed and lives can be lost. Dollars and reputations are lost too.

Calling for locates and marking utility lines are helping to reduce damage to property, reputations and lives. They are helping decrease the number of fines and costly repairs needed. And they’re reducing the impact on people, municipalities and services. However, we believe best practices for locating underground utilities can go further.

Strikes to underground utilities or facilities have reached 700,000 a year and while 811 calls, followed by locating and marking the utilities are great first steps in reducing the number of strikes, it would only take a few more relatively simple steps to greatly improve safety.

As you know, most locating of underground utilities is indirect. Cable finders don’t actually “find” underground utilities. They find electromagnetic fields. Locating the “strongest” electromagnetic field “should” indicate where the cable or pipe is located.

So what can go wrong? Electromagnetic Induction relies on the presence of a moving magnetic field in place around a conductor – meaning it’s generally only effective in finding metallic materials. It won’t find polyethylene gas lines or dielectric fiber lines without a conductor. Locators may struggle with interference from other metallic and shallow conductors that parallel the utility. Distortion may also be caused by the changing density of the earth, its composition and moisture content, erosion or grade changes. Because the level and degree of distortion may not be known, utility marks can end up well off the actual underground utility.

Technicians are trained to mitigate many of these challenges, however, there are still some things beyond their control including the age, condition and composition of the utility being “located”.

The most common use of vacuum excavation is to safely locate utilities, without damaging lines. Using a vacuum excavator helps prevent additional costs, time delays, and injuries.

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