A Quick Guide to Utility Location in 2022

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Utility damages and underground incidents of similar nature have persistently been a major issue in the construction industry in North America. Based on the available data gathered and reported by the Common Ground Alliance, we have not seen a meaningful reduction in the occurrence of facility damages during excavation activities despite the immense damage prevention efforts made in legal and public awareness spheres.

On the contrary, damages to underground infrastructure during construction have been steadily on the rise ever since the organization first started reporting on the incidents, with only occasional dips due to decreased construction activity.

Needless to say, the financial and societal costs of such incidents are enormous and multi-dimensional. They incur major costs that go far beyond the unfortunate human fatalities and injuries. They include the costs of property damage, facility repairs, project delays, and legal costs as well as expenses associated with business and community service disruptions. According to the same reports, these costs amount to approximately $30 billion annually.

The predominant culprit of these incidents continues to be the issues with utility location. Failure to follow proper procedures such as notifying the one call center prior to digging, and poor survey and location practices that lead to inaccurate or uncompleted markings have been reported as the top known root causes almost every year.

How to Reduce Risks of Utility Strikes?

The first step to avoiding such unfortunate events is awareness. The next is contacting utility locating professionals prior to any construction work. And we are not only talking about large commercial and residential construction projects but also home renovations of any kind that affect utility lines underneath your property such as landscape remodeling, inground pool installation, extensions, or alterations like adding a porch, etc.

If you are unsure about whether or not your project necessitates locating utility lines first, we suggest playing it safe and making a call just to make sure. Paying attention now before starting your project saves you from paying much higher costs later on.

What Is the Request Process?

The locating request process has been streamlined and standardized throughout the years. The procedure starts with the property owner or contractor contacting the free public utility locating service either via a phone call to 811 or online at least 48 hours (or longer depending on the state) before the start of the project. The one call center asks for information about the project including its location and duration and issues a ticket that includes additional instructions. Most states require the excavating party to outline the proposed dig site with white surface marks such as paint, chalk, and flags before contacting the one call center.

After receiving a request, the one call center sends the information to the utility companies in the area that may own assets at the site. These companies have an obligation to complete the task before the designated date and they do it either through their contractors or by sending an in-house locator.

What Is the Locating Process?

Before being deployed to the site, representatives of utility companies usually review the property’s as-built documentation to see if they can get information regarding the location of above-ground and underground utility lines. However, since these drawings are often inaccurate or incomplete and cannot be completely relied on, performing an on-site survey is always necessary.

After arriving on site, locators begin the process by conducting a visual inspection of the site and its surrounding areas to look for clues of where underground utilities might be. Then, they proceed to conduct active and passive surveys using different equipment. The locators finish the work by marking the location and depth of the buried utilities before documenting the job done and confirming its competition with the one call center. 

Underground Utility Mark-Outs

The temporary markings of underground facilities follow a uniform color code system to minimize confusion for all parties involved. The goal is easy identification of different utility types and their locations. Locators generally survey the area within the proposed excavation area delineated in white by the client, and designate their utilities on the ground by surface marks like paint sprays and chalks or vertical markers such as flags and stakes, using the appropriate colors defined in the guidelines. 

The colors red and yellow mark the most dangerous utilities to hit such as electric power and gas lines. As such, any excavation activity should be performed as far away from them as possible. Sometimes just a small thrust of a shovel is enough to cause a disaster. 

Orange and blue marks indicate the location of communication lines and water pipes respectively, and green is for sewers and drain lines. While striking these lines may not be as life-threatening as the power and fuel lines, they can cost the at-fault party a fortune since their repair costs can be very high. There are other colors used for more specific purposes that you can learn about by referring to the APWA guidelines.

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