Utility strikes cost money and lives. Here’s what’s being done to prevent this potentially devastating problem.
The luckiest guys alive
It was supposed to be a routine job – a simple water line installation for a private home. And for Tony D’Angelo, a supervisor with Gen-Con Excavating in Philadelphia, that was a good thing. On any given day, 15 backhoes dedicated to Gen-Con’s plumbing business are out in Philadelphia and its suburbs installing sewer and water lines for private homes. These machines are part of just one sector of the company’s business, which includes an equipment rental division and a general excavation branch. But little did D’Angelo know this routine job would almost prove fatal for one of his utility crews.
Philadelphia is one of the oldest urban areas in the United States. The ground around William Penn’s utopian city is stacked with hundreds of years of water, gas and sewer lines – not to mention modern electric and telecommunication cables. “We’ve run into wooden water lines,” D’Angelo recalls. “Stuff that’s so old and fragile, all you have to do is disturb the soil and it lets loose. So we’re tuned into watching for and avoiding underground hazards.”
For D’Angelo, utility strikes are simply a constant hazard – the price his company pays for working in an old city like Philly. The first time D’Angelo witnessed a utility strike was 1986 and he was a 16-year-old backhoe operator, a seasoned vet with four years experience behind the sticks. He hit an old lead water pipe while putting in a residential water line.
The strike rattled the young D’Angelo. But in the grand scheme of things, it was just an ordinary – even mundane – utility strike for Gen-Con. And nothing like the strike that befell a Gen-Con crew just a few years later.
A terrifying near-miss
No one expected anything out of the ordinary on this installation. “But one thing about Philly,” D’Angelo says, “In some places, the Pennsylvania Power Company has buried 13,300-volt electrical cables 15 inches under the ground. They’re dangerous. We watch for them like hawks.”
On this day, the local One Call utility mapping service showed such a cable on the jobsite. “But it was marked 10 feet away from where we were digging,” D’Angelo says. “So my operator thinks this is a no-brainer. We’re just gonna get in here and go to work and get done. He starts the trench and took two buckets out – and on the third bucket he cut right through the power cable.”
The severed electric cable arced up immediately, flashing and sending sparks shooting out of the trench and shutting its transformer down instantly. But in Philadelphia, D’Angelo explains, many transformers rearm after 10 seconds to keep their respective grids online. Gen-Con’s crew had 10 seconds to react before another 13,300-volt power surge came back through the severed cable.
The foreman on the job that day reacted immediately. “Get that bucket outta the hole!” he yelled at the operator. “Everybody else get away from the trench!”
But the operator had panicked at the flash and explosion from the strike. He was already out of his seat and heading over the side of the ‘hoe. “Do not get down off of that machine!” the foreman yelled. “Don’t do anything but get that bucket out of the hole!”
The crew scattered.
The operator got hold of himself. He scrambled back behind the sticks to try and lift the bucket out of the hole. But it was too late. The transformer rearmed and flashed again. A second surge of high-voltage electricity shot through the cable, hit the metal bucket and arced so violently, it blew the backhoe bucket clean off the machine.
It was a bad strike – but it could have been much worse. The blast was strong enough to kill anyone near the bucket when the current came back on line. The flash from the explosion was bright enough that it might have blinded bystanders, and the boom generated by the explosion was loud enough to destroy eardrums and permanently deafen anyone nearby. “We were lucky the grid shut down,” D’Angelo says. “If that transformer had armed itself a third time – which was a possibility – it would have doubled its voltage – up to 26,600 volts – to get the grid back up and running. I don’t want to think about what would have happened then. When the guy from Pennsylvania Power showed up, he took one look at the strike and said, ‘You guys are the luckiest sons of bitches in the world right now.'”
Gambling with workers’ lives
That near-catastrophe haunts D’Angelo. “They found it wasn’t our fault. And nothing came of it – because nobody got hurt,” he says. “But the thing I worry about is: What if somebody had been standing next to that trench when that thing went off? The blast was strong enough to blow a bucket off a backhoe… It would have killed them. And all because of a mismarked utility burial.”
Could things be better? Could the risk of death, injury, property damage and financial loss due to utility strikes be mitigated somehow? Hell, yes, D’Angelo says. “The way I see it, all water mains, gas mains – any utility should be packed in sand or screening material,” he says. “It should have locator tape on it. It should be accurately mapped. And any old lines in the ground should be removed when new ones are put in. And these things should be automatic – they should be mandated by law.”
But it’ll never happen, he says. Contractors and utility company employees are always under the gun. Haste leads to errors. Cost is another issue, D’Angelo says. Replacing a sewer line and water main might cost a homeowner $5,000. “But you do it right – you open that street up, shore it, take out all the old lines, tie in the neighbor’s utilities, pack the new lines in sand, put marking tape on them – that’s going to take a lot more time,” D’Angelo says. “And now, the price of that $5,000 job has tripled – it’s going to cost that homeowner $15,000. They’re not going to go for that.”
Desperate measures – but no guarantees
But it’s not in D’Angelo’s nature to do nothing about what he sees as a serious and potentially deadly problem. Gen-Con hasn’t had a utility strike in four years. And that, D’Angelo says, is because the company adopted new hiring, training and promotion practices aimed directly at eliminating strikes.
“When we hire, we make these guys start out as laborers,” he explains. “You don’t come into our company as an operator. If you know what you’re doing when you’re a laborer down in a hole – and this holds true for residential, commercial, industrial construction – then later, as an operator, you know what that guy down there is looking for as your point man. You know what he’s trying to find and what he’s trying to do. On top of that, you know how to set the hole up. You know how to shelf it. You know how to do everything. Because you were down in there yourself, hands-on, before you ever got on a machine.”
Often, D’Angelo says, laborers in the hole don’t know what they’re looking for when it comes to avoiding a utility strike. Gen-Con teaches them to observe the color and smell of dirt they’re working in and how the dirt feels when they’re digging.
“If you’ve got an old gas service that let loose at one time, that gas is going to aerate into the soil,” he says. “So if you open up the ground and you smell gas – okay, there’s a gas line down here somewhere.”
Same with the color of the dirt. “If it’s a different color from the soil around it, that’s a clue that somebody’s been here before,” he explains. “You’re not dealing with virgin soil. You need to slack up and check things out. We go by all these little clues – and so far it’s worked well for us.”
Still, D’Angelo feels it’s not enough. “I’ve trained my people. I’ve taught them to slow down and be safe… to take their time and be methodical. I’ve done all I can do. It’s time now for the state, local or federal government to step in and start mandating utility installation, removal, marking and pricing. Once we do that, the problem won’t magically go away. But at least we’ll have the bull by the horns and we can start making some progress on this matter. ‘Cause, man, people get killed every day dealing with this stuff.”
Totaling up the bill: The true cost of utility strikes and damage
Retired firefighter Tom Neal spent 30 years rushing to scenes of potential death or injury. But he ranks what happened on December 11, 1998, as he was standing on a sidewalk in St. Cloud, Minnesota, at the top of his list of close calls.
Along with three other firefighters, Neal was responding to an incident he’d begun to think of as routine. A construction crew digging through the sidewalk to install an anchor for a utility pole had struck what emergency responders were told was a small, low-pressure gas pipeline. Neal says there was no cause for major alarm. As it was supposed to do, the pipeline was making a noise as it vented, and readings taken near the dig site showed little to no gas.
Neal was standing about 10 feet away from the hole when a massive explosion knocked him off his feet. A door, brick and debris rained down on him, crushing one side of the firefighter helmet he says he neglected to wear 99 times out of 100. The blast killed four people, injured 12 others and destroyed six buildings.
Neal suffered only minor injuries – a split in the middle finger of his left hand that required 27 stitches and several bad bruises. “The potential was there for something a lot worse,” he says. “It just wasn’t my time. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.”
What it means to you
If you are a construction contractor who does any kind of excavating, the St. Cloud explosion is an example of the worst thing that could happen to your business as a result of damaging an underground utility. But if you think it would take a catastrophe of that scale to shut down your company, the 21st century and its ultra reliance on utilities of all types might have some frightening surprises in store for you. These days a misjudgment at a seemingly mundane jobsite could leave you fighting for your company’s financial survival.
Imagine knocking out electricity to a large shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving. While restoring the electrical line would likely cost less than $10,000, loss of service claims from retailers could easily reach six figures, says Mark Palma, a partner with law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson in Minneapolis and a legal consultant for several industry associations working to prevent underground utility damage. An increasing number of home businesses are also making risk disproportionate to anticipation; cutting off electricity or telephone service to a subdivision could affect several small companies.
Kidney dialysis and other life-sustaining medical treatment can be done in the home now, lending even more disturbing implications to previously run-of-the-mill electrical line strikes in residential areas. “Because we’re so dependent on utilities, any interruption of service could be life threatening,” Palma says.
In general, the most expensive cuts are the ones that happen in densely populated areas, says James Bush, a producer with insurance broker Arthur A. Gallagher Risk Management Solutions and a board member of the Common Ground Alliance. It could be a severed fiber optic line that serves part of downtown Chicago or a cut water pipe that floods several buildings. “It’s like real estate,” Bush says. “At the end of the day it’s about where it is. If you cut a gas line in the middle of nowhere and no one is injured, there’s not going to be much damage.”
Repairing a severed underground line can cost as little as $200 for a small copper wire. But, as in the shopping mall example, the repair costs might be the least of your worries. “It used to be the largest cost was restoration,” Palma says. “The largest cost now is transitioning from restoration to service interruption costs.” These charges are the expenses the utility company incurs as a result of failing to provide service to its customers. They can come about because a customer sued the utility for loss of service or because the utility company was not able to meet the standards of its service-level agreements. An increasing number of utility companies are charging contractors for these costs, and telecom companies are particularly aggressive in pursuing such claims. In the largest settlement Palma has heard of a horizontal directional drilling company agreed to pay $100 million just for loss of service.
One of the first things AT&T does when a contractor damages its network is assign the incident a project number for damage charges, says Tom Gullette, a network operations manager for AT&T. All expenses resulting from the damaged line are recorded under this number, and if the ensuing investigation finds the contractor at fault, AT&T will send him the itemized bill. The first charges on the ticket are for AT&T to move its crew from an existing job to the damage site to repair the line. “That costs us money in that we’re having people do work that we didn’t plan for them to do,” says John Kern, director of AT&T’s global network operations center.
Most telecom companies have contracts with at least some of their customers that require them to pay penalties if service is interrupted for a certain amount of time – minutes, in some cases. With AT&T’s higher-level service agreements, a service interruption of less than an hour in a single building could cost the company a month’s worth of revenue from the affected customer, Kern says. “We would turn around and try to recover that from whoever damaged our infrastructure,” he says. Because charges resulting from loss of service vary drastically, there is no standard range for these costs. Palma does say, however, that service interruption claims – both in their number and in the dollar amount of individual cases – have increased sharply in recent years.
Most telecom companies build the backbones of their networks with spare facilities and integrated hardware and software that automatically re-routes traffic in the case of a severed line, keeping massive service outages from occurring. But loss of service to entire subdivisions or industrial parks is still possible.
While gas companies typically don’t charge contractors for service interruption, there are costs you might not think of associated with damaging this kind of line. A gas company will probably bill you for the time it takes one of its employees to go door to door to re-ignite pilot lights, says Andrew Lu, director of operations and engineering for the American Gas Association. If the company has to shut off a valve in order to make an area safe while it repairs a damaged line, hundreds of its customers could lose service, meaning re-lighting the pilots will take the employee a lot of time and cost you a lot of money.
The companies also use a model for calculating how much gas escapes into the air. They plug in how long the gas was leaking and at what pressure and bill you accordingly. “With the price of gas now that’s not insignificant,” Lu says.
The financial implications
So what happens if one of your crews hits a buried utility line?
If the utility company concludes the hit occurred because of an error on its part, you might not be charged for anything. If not, damage to underground utilities, along with damage to third parties, is covered by your general liability insurance policy. When damage is limited to the cut line, however, chances are the costs will fall under your deductible, says Bush. Construction companies’ general liability deductibles range from $5,000 to $250,000, depending on the size of the firm, he says.
If property damage is more extensive or a utility company wants to be reimbursed for loss of service or, in the worst case, someone is injured or killed, costs can expand exponentially.
If the case is limited to the damaged utility line and loss-of-service claims, and you judge your company will be responsible for charges exceeding your deductible, you would contact your insurance carrier, which would begin negotiations with the utility company. When they agree upon an amount, the insurance company will pay the claim and bill you for your deductible. Most of the time there are no lawsuits in situations like this, although the utility company and insurance carrier can take years to come to an agreement, leaving you puzzled two years later, for example, when you renew your insurance policy and find your rates have gone up. To avoid this situation, Palma suggests hiring a lawyer or claims consultant to monitor negotiations for you. That way you won’t have someone else “writing a check out of your checkbook, so to speak,” he says. “The worst thing you can do is turn it over to an insurance company and not have anything to do with it again.”
If parties other than a utility company sustained property damage or people were harmed, litigation is much more likely. Still, these lawsuits rarely make it to court. In 2003 settlements in six suits connected to the St. Cloud explosion diverted a trial to decide who was responsible for the deaths, injuries and property damage.
If there is a lawsuit, in most cases your insurance company will handle it as well, and will hire its own lawyer. As in the situation described above, negotiations will ensue and the insurance company will try to come to a monetary agreement with the other party. But if the insurance company ascertains a settlement or jury award will be larger than the amount of insurance you carry – which is often the case with incidents involving fatalities – it is likely to turn over the policy limit early in negotiations and bolt the scene, leaving you in the spotlight, Palma says. With the insurance company out of the picture, the injured party will go after your business. A settlement or jury award could force you to sell your firm’s assets, which would most likely mean the death of your company.
On the bright side
The good news is that in most cases utility strikes are minor, and while there are no hard statistics to prove it, industry experts agree the annual number of incidents is going down. Bob Kipp, president of the Common Ground Alliance, a group dedicated to preventing underground utility damage, estimates there are 400,000 to 500,000 utility strikes per year in the United States. Of those, 95 percent cost less than $500, and homeowners and landscapers are responsible for most of them.
“There’s a lot of finger pointing at Joe’s Excavating Service,” Kipp says. “It does take heavy-duty machinery to break a large line, but most breaks are not big.”
One Call centers process more than 20 million requests annually. Overall, contractors are doing a great job, as are utility companies and One Call personnel, Palma says. That’s why there aren’t more catastrophic events. “Most days everything goes well,” Palma says. “Every now and then the stars align and something goes terribly wrong.”
A series of factors have caused an accelerated decrease in the number of incidents over the past three years.
Palma says contractors are more involved in the damage prevention process and are members of groups such as the Associated General Contractors of America and the National Utility Contractors Association that are putting an emphasis on the problem and providing training materials – in Spanish as well as English. As a result, contractors are using One Call more often, are doing a better job of educating their employees and are hand exposing more utilities. Even though exposing buried lines is required by law in most states, until recently a lot of contractors weren’t taking that step, Palma says. Many have begun potholing with vacuum excavators. Equipment manufacturers are also making their products safer and are holding more training classes.
Bush says fewer underground utility damage claims are being reported to insurance companies. And while higher deductibles are one reason for this, he says the other is that best practices communication efforts by CGA and other associations are paying off. “In today’s world contractors who are doing this kind of work have a lot more resources,” he says. “They just need to utilize those resources more.”
That’s something the construction company involved in the St. Cloud disaster didn’t do. The incident is a worst-case scenario legally and financially for several reasons.
The property damage was extensive – affecting an entire city block. And not only were there deaths, but the fatality list included third parties – people not employed by the construction firm. Two power company employees – a gas technician and a utility locator technician – died, along with a post office worker on her lunch break and a resident of one of the buildings that was destroyed. Cases in which innocent bystanders are killed or injured almost always result in larger out-of-court settlements or jury awards, Palma says.
The National Transportation Safety Board primarily blamed the construction company for the catastrophe and found it was at fault on two levels: for not following procedures to prevent damage to underground utilities and for waiting too long – 30 minutes – to notify the gas line operator or emergency responders (someone not associated with the construction project called 911).
Meanwhile gas from what turned out to be a large, high-pressure pipeline was collecting in the sandy soil underground and in the basement of a nearby building that contained a pizza restaurant and a deli. Water heaters in the basement most likely ignited the gas. A power company construction crew dispatched to shut down the damaged portion of the line was two blocks away from the accident site when the explosion occurred.
If emergency responders had been contacted sooner, Neal says the building that blew up might have been ventilated in time to avert the blast. He says he became a poster child for lobbying efforts that produced a Minnesota law requiring an immediate 911 call after gas line strikes. “I can’t stress enough,” Neal says, “if you make a mistake, for God’s sake, make your first call to 911. Don’t overanalyze it and don’t be afraid to call the people who can fix it.”
Breaking down barriers
Jim Barron has worked in the underground utility industry for more than 30 years and has run his own company, Ronkin Construction, for more than 20. When he heard about a meeting where industry leaders could talk about how to reduce underground hazards, he got involved. More than 160 others would join him in Arlington, Virginia, in August 1998, for the gathering that planted the seeds for what would eventually produce the Common Ground Study and the Common Ground Alliance. Just before the meeting commenced, Barron’s interest in the subject took a personal twist when the backhoe his son was operating struck a mismarked 15-kilovolt electric line.
“That (incident) almost killed my son,” says Barron, the first president of CGA and a current representative for the National Utility Contractors Association. “It became a very personal safety issue for me and the contractor/excavation community. We had to be at the table in Arlington and I was happy to get involved.”
Barron’s son’s mishap came right before two landmark incidents rocked the industry. In 1999 three people died when a 16-inch-diameter hazardous liquid pipeline ruptured in Bellingham, Washington. And in August 2000, 12 people died when a 30-inch-diameter natural gas pipeline ruptured violently near the Pecos River in New Mexico.
With more and more utilities going underground, “the problems were only growing worse and showed no signs of improving,” Barron says.
Laying the groundwork
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Pipeline Safety had been required by the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century to pull these groups together and conduct the study. Representatives from national contracting organizations, government officials and individual contractors and utility companies worked on more than 10 separate teams in Virginia, meeting at least twice a week to produce a list of more than 130 best practices for damage prevention. Their report, called the Common Ground Study of One Call Systems and Damage Prevention Best Practices, was delivered to then-Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater in June 1999 and officially published in August.
The study unveiled steps essential to avoiding utility strikes, including:
· Implementing One Call organization membership for all facility owners and operators
· Notifying call centers before excavation
· Accurate location and marking of all utilities prior to excavation
· Overall safe excavation practices by construction crews
“Underground utility contractors were always excluded from the One Call boards and always blamed for damage when it occurred, whether we were at fault or not,” Barron says. “The Common Ground Study provided the first opportunity for us to have a voice. Now we all had the opportunity to check our guns at the door, sit down and have an open, honest discussion about our concerns and potential remedies to a very serious problem. Prior to the study, we always met our opponents in court.”
The study recommended the formation of the Common Ground Alliance as a division of the Department of Transportation. The CGA would update or add to the best practices as needed, as well as promote the safety of pipelines, power and telecommunications cables and other underground facilities. Upon Slater’s approval, the CGA was founded September 19, 2000.
A copy of the best practices recommendations is available as a free download on the CGA’s website: www.commongroundalliance.com. It includes information on:
· Planning and design
· One Call centers
· Location and marking
· Public education
· Reporting and evaluating best practices
Barron sat on the study’s steering team, which had oversight of the entire process and acted as senior management. “I believe (Barron’s) experience combined with his thoughtful leadership, in-depth knowledge of construction and underground utility safety and damage prevention made him an obvious choice,” says Allen Gray, director of the utility division of the Carolinas Associated General Contractors and a fellow steering team member.
CGA moving forward
Since CGA’s inception, membership has increased six-fold to 1,200, including community activists and experts, 135 member organizations and 25 sponsors. Its most recent accomplishment is the Federal Communication Commission’s new 811 national call-before-you-dig number, which contractors can use to call in locates. The number is free of charge, and is expected to be in full use within the next 18 months.
The CGA initiated the Office of Pipeline Safety’s Dig Safely Program, a campaign designed to address external force damage issues during excavation activities. Dig Safely campaigns make the general public and construction personnel aware of the importance of notifying One Call centers before construction begins and it is now a subcommittee of CGA. The goal to promote shared responsibility became CGA’s tag line for recognizing all stakeholders’ accountability in the process, Gray says.
To Gray, his participation in the study and CGA’s establishment are two of his proudest professional accomplishments. “We were instrumental in promoting 811 and developing facility marking guidelines,” he says. “Our charge was to promote all 130-plus best practices – it is up to others, such as the FCC in the case of 811, to implement them. From utility owner/operators, One Call centers, locators to excavators, we all have responsibilities in protecting our workforce, the public and vital facilities. ”
Barron adds: “The path forward is much clearer than it was seven years ago, but we still have a long way to go. We are constantly bringing new stakeholder groups into CGA, bringing new members into CGA under existing stakeholder groups and expanding the regional CGA partner program so we have stakeholder representatives in the local communities where the real problems exist. I am sure many, many lives have been saved, a great deal of injury, pain and suffering has been avoided and property damage has been greatly reduced since that first meeting. And if one life was saved, we have been successful.”
On the mark
In Clay Township in Hamilton County there’s an area bounded by U.S. Highway 31 to the west, 106th Street to the north, the Delaware Township line to the east and 96th Street to the south.
Dennis Creasy knows this territory by heart.
As a utility locator for SM&P Utility Resources, Carmel, Indiana, Creasy does an average of 20 to 40 locates a day in this booming area just north of Indianapolis. It’s a job where he’s somewhat of a lone ranger, with a laptop riding shotgun at his side, placed on an angled pedestal. In real time, the wireless laptop gives him his day’s job tickets, updates those tickets throughout the day and provides access to utility maps. He consults it at the beginning and end of each locate – and sometimes in the middle.
In summer, Creasy likes to get rolling when the sun comes up, so he can work his first tickets in cooler weather. But he doesn’t mind the weather – being outside, in fact, was one factor that attracted him to the job. Another was the independence. “Essentially,” he says, “you’re in your own office and you’re your own boss, although I do have a supervisor.”
Even though the job Creasy’s held for five years is now second nature to the 33-year-old, it’s apparent when you ride with him that being a locator carries tremendous responsibilities. Locators are the frontline troops in the war against utility line damage. They find and – using a national color code assigned to each utility type (see sidebar on page 44) -mark buried utility lines.
“It’s a job you tend to take home with you everyday,” says Blaine Walters, SM&P’s quality manager and a former locator. “You lie in bed at night thinking about the tickets you did that day. You might even drive by a ticket and see that the work’s done. You absolutely can’t shut it off at 5 p.m.”
Only one in 10
SM&P estimates that only one in 10 applicants qualify to go through its locator training. The company – led by Robert Shively, the current president of the National Utility Locating Contractors Association – holds itself to high standards. Its locator training regimen is intense, with classroom instruction on specifics of each type of utility, followed by in-the-field mentoring. Safety is drilled into lessons and into the company’s procedure.
“Locating is as much an art as a science,” says Tim Seelig, vice president, sales and marketing. “We can teach the science part but the art takes time.”
“Good locators can sense things from the sounds their locating equipment makes,” adds Dan Baker, district manager. “They can be marking a line and turn around and know, ‘This is a steel gas main, so there’s no way it can make that drop.'”
And everybody comes in green. “There’s really no other job that can prepare you to be a locator,” Walters says.
Direct to the laptop
Ten years ago, supervisors would hand deliver the day’s tickets to each locator. The locators dealt with a stack of paper tickets they would then fill out by hand. Working within the typical 48-hour window, locators sometimes didn’t receive tickets until they were 24 hours old.
Technology has reworked this procedure. At SM&P, which operates in nine states, 80 percent of the One Call requests are automatically routed to locator laptops like Creasy’s. The remaining 20 percent of calls are manually routed.
Wireless technology has created the possibility of a locator completing a job, refreshing his tickets and finding a new ticket that’s just two lots down. “This is a big advantage to everyone because we can get tickets handled sooner,” Baker says.
SM&P notifies Creasy of emergency tickets through his two-way radio/pager phone. He pulls over, flips open his laptop and looks up the ticket. He knows he needs to handle emergency tickets, which usually involve the loss of service, within two hours.
In Creasy’s territory SM&P has locating contracts for several local utilities. Non-SM&P utilities are either located by the utilities themselves or by other contract locating companies. According to Creasy, a spirit of cooperation exists between the various locators on a jobsite. “We’re all here to do the same job,” he says.
After reviewing the job ticket and available maps, Creasy gets out his locating equipment, hooks up his transmitter and walks the job using the receiver in a controlled swing. Then he starts to paint and flag, marking the services underneath. Locates are accomplished with the same type of transmitter and receiver pipe-and-locator systems familiar to horizontal directional drilling contractors. Instead of using a sonde transmitter that travels with the boring head, however, these locators use a transmitter they connect to existing pipes or cables, sending the signal along the entire facility.”
All in a day’s work
“In the locating industry we never know how many work orders we’ll receive in a day – and they’re all due within 48 or 72 hours,” Seelig says. The company knows there are frustrations over tardy locates, especially in the spring when jobs are gearing up.
Locating has its own list of sticky situations, including difficult-to-locate lines. “It’s a toss up between water and gas as to which presents the most problems,” Creasy says. “Some old cast iron pipes could have nicks in them and might be grounding out.” And as relatively new as fiber optic lines are, some don’t carry the metal wire necessary to accurately locate them.
There are also a number of environmental reasons one locate can present more difficulties than another, including the moisture in the ground, the type of soil and the other utilities present. All can affect the signal the locator is seeking.
Abandoned utility lines create problems for everyone. These lines are often left off utility maps and can cause signal bleed-overs during locating. And if a contractor hits an abandoned line, he has to make sure it’s abandoned, stopping production. Worse, a contractor might expose an active line thinking it’s an abandoned one.
SM&P sees contractors as its partners in infrastructure protection. “We have the same objectives as contractors – to protect the utility infrastructure and to make sure they dig safely,” Seelig says. “The more open communications we have with contractors, the safer that infrastructure will be.”
Blind yes, bluff no
Spend a career looking for buried objects deep in the ground and eventually you’ll discover something strange – a locomotive, for instance.
That’s the most unusual object Jim Anspach, a principal in the subsurface utility engineering firm So-Deep, says he’s found in four decades of looking for and mapping out underground utilities and storage tanks. And the bizarre nature of finding a locomotive deep underground underscores the fact that Subsurface Utility Engineering, even when it’s codified into a nationally recognized engineering standard, still relies on creative thinking and plain old-fashioned detective work.
SUE is the most accurate way to find and plot underground utilities. It involves a highly methodical set of procedures conducted under the guidance of a licensed engineer. Drawings generated by SUE engineers typically represent dozens, sometimes hundreds, of hours of engineering and field work: from a public records check, to sweeps with pipe and cable locators, to investigations with ground-penetrating radar and non-destructive excavation (potholing) to visually verify the exact elevation, size, position and condition of buried cables or pipes. (See SUE Quality Levels on the next page.)
A money saving idea
According to the Federal Highway Administration, properly used, SUE prevents unnecessary utility relocations, eliminates unexpected conflicts with underground utilities, enhances safety and reduces construction delays and redesign costs. The Virginia Department of Transportation started using SUE in 1984 and now requires it on all highway projects. DOTs in 31 other states also have formal SUE programs, and Maryland, Delaware, Texas, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona are using it extensively, as are some of the larger utility companies. While SUE is used primarily in big projects, it’s not unusual or unwise for contractors and owners of smaller facilities to use it as a more thorough backup to One Call locates. Engineers in the United States perform more than $1 billion in SUE work annually.
On road building projects, SUE work is generally priced at about 10 percent of a project’s engineering fees or 1 percent of a project’s overall costs, but the cost savings are substantial. On projects in Tallahassee and Miami, Florida’s DOT saved $3 in reduced delays and contractor claims for every $1 spent on SUE.
An art backed by science
Anspach, whose firm employs about 100 people in 16 offices around the country, is one of a handful of people who helped create the SUE industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He applied the geophysical principles and practices used in petroleum exploration and underground storage tank detection to the new and growing need to find underground utilities.
Prior to that, finding an unmarked utility in the ground was more an art than a science, and frequently unsuccessful. A few whiz-kids knew how to do it, but they had learned their skills through trial and error on the job. Written standards or procedures didn’t exist and newcomers to the field had to start from scratch. “Some people could do it and some people couldn’t,” Anspach says. With a background in geophysics, Anspach and a handful of like-minded engineers began using science to fortify a process which up until then had been as mysterious to newcomers as the closely guarded knowledge of medieval craft guilds.
Reducing risk for contractors
In 2002, a committee chaired by Anspach got the mapping component of SUE codified in the American Society of Civil Engineers Standard 38-02 – a move that gave the industry professional legitimacy, established best practices for engineering firms to follow and, according to Anspach, took some of the burden of risk away from the contractor.
“The market is changing from the past where the majority of our clients were the project owners protecting their property,” Anspach says. “Now the majority of our clients are the project engineers working for project owners. The engineers realize there is an engineering standard that they better look at, and they’re taking that to the project owner and saying, ‘We have to do this and here’s why.'”
In the past, there wasn’t much pressure for either the project engineers or the contractors to thoroughly map out all utilities before construction started, says Anspach. If unknown utilities cropped up after work commenced, the engineering firms got redesign fees and contractors profited from change orders. “As long as they don’t get an employee hurt, contractors love change orders,” he says.
Despite a reduction in change orders, the ASCE 38-02 standard is creating some positive benefits for the contractor. In utility damage lawsuits where he has participated as an expert witness, Anspach says the failure of engineers or project owners to use SUE tends to put more responsibility for utility strikes on them. “It used to be everybody pointing the finger at the contractor,” he says. “And while the contractor still bears some responsibility, with the advent of SUE he is being looked at now as one player in a process that involves three or four entities. Damage prevention should be a cooperative process, and with SUE the tools exist to make that happen. If you think of the risk as a pie everybody shares, SUE makes the slice belonging to the contractor a bit smaller.”
Ask for it to protect yourself
Even prior to construction or bids, contractors should ask project owners and engineers if they plan to use SUE. “If the answer is no, then I think the contractor has some protection down the line if something goes wrong,” Anspach says.
And while the growth and acceptance of SUE has improved safety and shifted some of the risks, the underground world is growing more congested and harder to map. “The utility owners themselves used to take more ownership in their facilities from a safety standpoint and quite frankly I don’t see that anymore as much,” Anspach says. “I don’t see the resources being put into helping the contractors. I see resources being cut.”
In particular Anspach is concerned with the telecoms and cable TV companies in highly competitive markets where contractors are racing to install cables. “They’ve got a lot of lawyers and they write these contracts that contractors shouldn’t sign, but they do because they need the work.”
Doing it right from the start
One company that’s not skimping on its utility locating is the Salt River Project, a publicly owned power and water supplier located in Phoenix. Faced with aging underground electrical lines and the booming growth of Phoenix and its suburbs, Salt River Project began using SUE on all its jobs, new and replacement, about 10 years ago. Tampa Bay Engineering provides the SUE services for Salt River Project, in an ongoing contract that averages around $1 million a year and has dug more than 10,000 test holes and designated more than 200,000 lineal feet of buried utilities.
Mark Burkhart is the manager of customer and system improvements/cable replacement for Salt River Project and had worked in the field prior to the company’s adaptation of SUE. Before SUE, he says, a backhoe or excavator would come to a site, dig down a foot and look, dig another foot again and look and so on until a pipe or marking tape emerged from the hole, a slow, repetitive process. And the Blue Stake markings (Arizona’s equivalent of One Call locates) have a fudge factor of 24 inches either side of a line, so sometimes crews would dig repeated and completely miss a utility that was just inches to the side. “You had crews, cops, dump trucks all waiting around,” Burkhart says.
But by specifying SUE Quality Level A, with its potholing requirement, (see box on page 47) Burkhart’s subcontractors now know the exact depth and horizontal position of the utility, so they don’t have to gingerly scratch away the dirt until they find something or worry about being too far to one side. “If the plan says is a gas line, 2-inch plastic, 3.75 feet from the top, my backhoe operator takes his first chunk out of the ground at 3 feet,” Burkhart says.
A puzzle with limited clues
One of SUE’s strengths and biggest challenges is its ability to find utilities that nobody knows exist. Anspach says some of the toughest jobs are in rural communities that have lost track of where their water, storm and sanitary lines run. In many of these cases, the plans and documents get lost or discarded, the city or county engineers that built and maintained the systems retire or move away,and obvious clues like manhole covers get paved over. Older, more congested cities can likewise make utility detection difficult because of the shear volume of utilities. Industrial sites and airports also pose unique challenges.
One mystery that showed up strong and clear on the instruments, yet had even Anspach’s most experienced engineers and field crew scratching their heads, was the locomotive.
“We were mapping utilities in an area around an older power plant and everything pointed to this amorphous circle of uncertainty in the plan,” Anspach says. “Signals would head in one direction and just die. When we tried to use a magnometer, the whole area lit up, which indicated that there was a big hunk of metal down there.”
But what was it, and why was it there? If So-Deep’s engineers couldn’t answer that question, they couldn’t say for certain that the strange metal object wouldn’t pose a risk to future construction. The solution was to send So-Deep’s engineers out into the community to knock on doors and call on the plant’s older retired engineers to see if they could shed some light. It took about two weeks, but they finally tracked down a man who knew the answer.
To provide the massive electrical grounding capacity a power plant needed, the plant’s engineers had bought an old locomotive, buried it in a pit and ran all the grounding cables to it. The locomotive was simply there to ground the excess current from the plant.
The incident highlights the challenges SUE engineers face in the field and also shows the strengths of this industry. While contractors, One Call marking personnel and even facility owners can sometimes get away with rough estimates on underground utility locations, SUE companies can’t. Held accountable to the ASCE 38-02 standard, SUE consultants deliver the best and most accurate results in an all too dangerous and uncertain world.