Comparing RFID Utility Location Systems With Traditional Location Techniques

Current techniques used to mark and locate underground utility systems have for many years been implemented out of necessity and cost considerations. 

However, with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology increasingly being applied to streamlined systems of hardware and software, many are beginning to question whether or not converting to such systems is a viable long-term, affordable strategy.

If you’re not familiar with this technology, here’s a quick rundown of how the process works from start to finish:

  • Magnetic RFID tags are assigned to each utility asset and encoded with a variety of digital data such as utility type, as well as the physical characteristics of the utility itself.
  • These tags are placed either on or directly above their corresponding utilities before excavated areas are filled in. 
  • Each tag is associated with a GPS coordinate for future locating. These coordinates are stored within a geo-location database.
  • When it comes time to locate newly marked assets during construction or maintenance projects, technicians are able to use handheld electronics alerting them to the presence of a buried marker with “golf ball-sized” accuracy. 
To compare the two techniques, there are at least three categories that need to be considered:

  • Project time 
  • The effectiveness of marking processes in particularly crowded locations
  • Avoiding accidents and other disruptions
Let’s break down exactly how traditional marking and locating stacks up against RFID technology in each of the three categories.

Time considerations

One of the most significant disadvantages of the traditional underground utility process is the excessive amount of time it takes to actually find utilities given the sparse and generalized information traditionally used to record their exact positions.

The time it takes to actually find buried utilities often hinges on inconsistent record keeping, which commonly boils down to workers’ personal past experiences with particular utilities.  

Worker familiarity makes such processes operate much more smoothly with certain types of utilities, such as electrical and telecommunication lines. However, water and gas lines involve much more complex techniques.

A lack of prior knowledge about a certain area sometimes leads to crews spending hours at a time to simply mark a specific asset. This can also happen when physical location techniques such as broken wires are used to find gas and water utilities with an electric current.

Unfortunately, it’s often the case that time devoted to marking projects is proportional to the workload of a particular employee, meaning busier schedules often lead to more inaccurate markings.

However, once an employee receives basic training in RFID location, marked assets take only a few minutes to locate---regardless of past experience. 

The employee uses the GPS coordinates associated with the asset (stored in a geo-location database) to get close to it, and then locates the marker precisely with an RFID locator.

Locations where crowding was an issue

Using traditional techniques, marking in particularly crowded areas often proves to be more difficult. 

Locations in between buildings of close proximity, and around intersections often posed the problem of marking a single utility among a number of others close by. This makes the marking process more likely to result in unreliable markings.

After a worker equipped with an RFID reader locates a marked asset, however, he or she can confirm with certainty whether or not that particular asset is the one in question by accessing the data stored within a corresponding RFID marker database. This is true even when underground crowding occurs.

Avoiding accidents and increasing efficiency

Given the difficulties involved with the sorts of overcrowding issues mentioned above, mistakes, like severing telecommunication lines feeding phone service to nearby buildings, have been cited by industry experts as being a consequence of poor utility locating as much as 80% of the time. 

If all assets in a given are properly marked with RFID tags, the chances of poor utility locating drop dramatically, as does the corresponding chance of an accident.

Systems engineered with RFID integration have two major advantages over those engineered with older techniques: 

  • Improved reliability due to vastly more accurate utility locating. 
  • A significant boost in efficiency due to substantially lower locating times. 

It’s safe to conclude that geo-located RFID tags provide definite solutions to many of the problems plaguing traditional techniques that can lead to costly mistakes, which sometimes end in an unfortunate injury or loss of life.

As a secondary advantage, such systems can aid in project management efforts by providing real-time mapping tools for assessing installation and construction projects relative to their deadlines for administrative reporting purposes.