Investments In Subsurface Utility Mapping Technology Means Big Savings For Cities

It’s no secret that municipal construction projects intended to improve public infrastructure are usually among some of the most costly public works operations undertaken by local, state, and national agencies as well as private contracting firms. Compounding this problem are findings that suggest many of the costs associated with large-scale construction projects stem from the largely unnecessary relocation of underground utilities during their planning stages. As one of the primary design constraints facing city planners, these expensive relocation decisions are usually made out of convenience rather than a serious consideration for financial efficiency. As a result, the total annual cost to the national economy is estimated to be in the billions of dollars. Even with so much money being invested in reliable planning and construction, traditional mapping techniques used to construct composite diagrams of subsurface utilities are notoriously poor and incomplete.

As an alternative to needless relocation undertakings, construction-planning teams also sometimes design highways and other above-ground structures simply to avoid underground assets altogether. Although this helps avoid excavation operations, it often results in unintuitive design schemes, which can prove costly in their own right. In addition, this option requires reliable information regarding underground asset locations––something that is often times not available.

Studies show better mapping systems translate to significant savings

With the inflated costs each of these options pose to construction projects, a third approach is quickly being realized as a much more efficient choice. In this alternative model, development shapes the designs of construction projects to the constraints of underground assets, minimizing the impacts to utilities while achieving the goals of new infrastructure. This relies heavily on detailed utility location data in order to determine what areas are free of underground hazards.

Time and time again, studies suggest that when such information is available, construction plans consist of significantly less costs and project timelines are substantially shortened. According to a 1999 survey conducted by Purdue University sponsored by the US Department of Transportation (USDOT), a total of $4.62 was saved for every $1.00 spent when comprehensive underground utility location maps informed construction projects. In addition to such a measurable degree of savings, researchers also concluded that other aspects of enhanced construction planning made for potentially greater savings than budgets accounted for alone. These savings came in the form of impacts on homes and businesses which would have otherwise been negatively affected by construction.

Other organizations have also undertaken studies to determine the advantages to complete asset maps. A 2004 study carried out by the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Contractors Association authorized the University of Toronto to examine construction operations in Ontario. The university concluded that the average rate of return on every dollar spent to improve the visibility of subsurface utilities resulted in a savings of $3.41. Even more recently, a 2010 study also carried out by the University of Toronto involved monitoring nine large city and highway rebuilding projects, which involved enhanced underground utility asset mapping. Unique to this study, it was able to take into account both tangible and intangible aspects of the project to generate a composite of total savings. It found that a range of positive return-on-investments (ROI) resulted in each of the nine cases. These ranged from $2.05 to $6.59 for every dollar spent to improve subsurface utility mapping data.

RFID as a cost-saving alternative

With new technologies being introduced to the underground utility market that improve the quality of underground asset mapping, the facts are in when it comes to potential long term savings. 

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) systems were first introduced to the subsurface utility industry in the 1980’s, but have recently been refined and streamlined into a complete mapping and locating package. The InfraMarker RFID Infrastructure Marking System utilizes unique tagging and locating tools to both mark specific asset locations with extreme accuracy and then locate those tags using electronic locators––assessing a range of information about a particular utility asset. In addition to vast improvements to marking and locating buried assets in the field, the InfraMarker system can also be used in tandem with your preferred system data maps in the office to generate detailed schemas which can inform on-site technicians about which assets belong to which utility groups.

With RFID integration, utility agencies and contractors can enjoy the kinds of savings now possible to those willing to invest in technological improvement. With RFID systems such as the InfraMarker, you can count on seeing significant improvements in efficiency both to your budget and your calendar.