Subsurface utility engineering (SUE) is vital to ensuring construction projects are conducted safely and with minimal harm to buried assets in and around excavation zones.
From the average homeowner to the professional utility company, “knowing what’s below” has always been a top concern during the preliminary planning stages of any construction project, big or small.
Unfortunately for construction teams, it can often be a time consuming and potentially expensive endeavor depending on the quality of existing information available to draw upon and the level of research needed to sufficiently map out the region in question.
Still, when compared to the potential setbacks, expenses, and safety concerns teams risk by not doing the necessary detective work before breaking ground, the extra effort and attention to detail can be well worth the trouble.
Mapping and marking techniques leave room for improvement
Today, the planning and mapping process involves gathering data from a variety of sources. While utility records are the go-to source for the most accurate information, a more complete map can be drawn out when these records are combined with licensing agreements, above ground utility assets, roadway plans, joint use agreements, and other recorded documentation about the area.
Even with a wealth of documented information, subsurface utility engineers are counted on to provide the final mapping and marking needed to give teams in the field confidence they’re digging in precisely the right places.
While SUE teams use a handful of tools and technological systems to help them do this, many are still searching for a more thorough and accurate solution. Conventional subsurface locating techniques that haven’t changed much since the 1930’s have gradually been replaced by a variety of newer tools using more sophisticated technology over the past few decades.
3D radar tomography and Ground Penetrating Synthetic Aperture Radar (GPSAR) are just two examples of such systems engineers are using to create better maps, but each present their own performance limitations and drawbacks depending on geographical and other variables.
Compounding this problem is the problem of less-than-accurate asset marking. No matter how precise utility engineers can be with mapping assets, their efforts must be backed up with equally accurate markings in the field. While spray painting and flag placement have been used for years, any experienced digger will agree they’re no guarantee of an accurate mark.
RFID gives engineers a new solution to both mapping and marking
For subsurface utility engineers frustrated with the limitations and shortcomings of their existing asset location tools, a newer solution is available which solves a number of these problems.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has emerged over the past twenty years in a number of industries as a streamlined solution for locating, identifying, and tracking objects. Specifically for subsurface utility locating, it’s provided a means of achieving all of those goals in addition to offering a new method of mapping and marking.
By burying robust, passively powered RFID tags stored with specific information about a particular asset directly onto or above the utility, engineers can use a handheld locator to pinpoint and identify the asset faster and with greater accuracy than GPS equipment alone is capable of.
This system removes any doubt about the identity of a particular buried asset, and gives teams in the field the opportunity to make more precise markings no matter what marking tools crews are using on-site.
The enhanced accuracy and streamlined workflow puts more power in the hands of SUE to provide detailed and complete mapping and marking services to those in charge of researching and compiling information about buried assets before any digging begins.
With such a system, crews will quickly realize their investment in SUE will mean considerable savings in time, effort, and expenses caused by inadequate planning and insufficient asset marking.