How to best protect buried assets


Author: Andrew Allen

Attitudes around the world are changing when it comes to protecting buried services. This is most noticeable when we look at the terminology people are using. Most markedly, there has been a shift from talking about underground utilities to talking about underground assets. When companies and regional governments change names to money-related terms, attitudes transform. Money also drives awareness and legislation. People sit up and listen when their assets are threatened.

Globally, the move from attitudes like you know it’s there if you hit it to we must maintain accurate and reliable maps of our buried utilities have developed at a slow rate. Leading countries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany and the USA, have a highly-regulated and formulaic approach to breaking ground. Germany, as an example, introduced a government rebate for every locator bought. On the other side, however, there are regions and countries where not even the utility companies know where assets lie.

How do we protect assets from damage? The answer to that lies in:

  • Adequate government support
  • A global approach from the contractor
  • Building awareness
  • Better equipment
  • Increasing user skill.

Let’s look at these in detail.

Government support

When trying to change minds or introduce a new concept to a new area, we tend to need a nudge in the right direction, either with legislation, regulation or guidance from our governments. As mentioned earlier, countries where this has been very successful are Germany, the United Kingdom and the USA. These three countries have some form of government support for protecting buried assets, either through encouraging the purchase of the necessary equipment, formal guidance on what should be done before breaking ground, or dedicated services to help with identifying potential utilities near where you dig. Ideally, all three should be present if we really want to keep people and assets safe.

A global approach

Some larger companies in developing countries try to take the same approach to breaking ground as they do in the United Kingdom and Europe, setting standards for local contractors to follow. By doing this they:

  • Introduce safe working practices
  • Train local contractors in equipment use
  • Implement methods of safe working
  • Build awareness of the dangers involved in excavation work

Leading by example drives governments to develop and improve legislation for their countries.

Building awareness

Following on from legislation, regulation and guidance, we need to build awareness not only of what lies underground but also of the consequences of not knowing what is beneath your excavator’s bucket or shovel. A utility strike is not only costly in terms of damaged equipment, damaged utilities and service interruption, but it can also damage lives and potentially end them.

This means that scanning before digging needs to become a standard practice wherever there are buried cables. This change of attitude will be driven by governments being urged by utility owners and health and safety bodies.

Better equipment

The process of locating cables for avoidance has changed little over the past decades. Many manufacturers have stuck with fiddly dials and buttons which require user training to even switch the product on. This can lead to inexperienced or untrained users being unable to use the equipment when the time comes to perform their avoidance scan.

Since the introduction of the automatic DigiCAT locators in the early 2000s, Leica Geosystems has been one of the big innovators in utility detection, simplifying workflows and increasing capabilities to analyse assets performance in less time.

The launch of the new DD SMART utility locator solution allows users to map buried utilities, transfer and access data remotely to a hosted service for multiple users across multiple sites to manage site activities. The Leica DD SMART utility locator series uses industry-leading digital signal processing to identify underground assets deeper, faster and more accurately than any other system.

Increasing user skill

This is the No.1 key area for asset protection. The best laws, equipment and risk awareness will not help someone who does not know how to use the equipment. Yet, it is not simply user skill in equipment use –  it is ensuring that operators know how to visually scan an area for clues about what might be underground and where. It is giving them the understanding that one scan at ground level is not enough; they need to keep scanning throughout the dig. It is ensuring they know that only some buried cables can be found using the locator on its own, and if you want to be thorough, you need to use a signal transmitter, too. It is all these things and more. Leica Geosystems offers several courses ranging from a half-day user training to a five-day utility surveyor course.

With automatic pinpointing, onboard video tutorials, usage alerts, and audio and visual displays in DD SMART utility locators, Leica Geosystems simplifies utility location. Nonetheless, without formal training in the use of the equipment and cable locating, assets and people are still in danger.

Knowing how to use the equipment properly and applying knowledge to an excavating environment is most important for finding and identifying assets correctly, and therefore, staying safe during excavation.

Each of the above areas have their benefits on their own, but only when they all work together are buried assets truly protected.

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