Locating – Tools of the Trade

When I ordered my lead tech a brand new
RD last month, the invoice came to a little over four grand, even after an $800.00 credit for trading in the old one. Locating
instruments, like the tools of any specialized trade, seem expensive on the surface until you view them from the twin standpoints of their development and production costs distributed over the fairly limited number of units sold for their manufacturers, and the revenue they are capable of generating in the hands of a capable technician over the course of many years of serviceable life.

When I first started out as a route locator more than 20 years ago, I was assigned a boxy Dodge Caravan and a 3M Dynatel 2210. The Caravan I liked for its sliding cargo doors and acres of interior space – something that was helpful when my job involved plastic tote bins brimming with paper prints. The Dynatel I liked for its simplicity. Its shoebox-shaped
transmitter had just two frequencies, 577Hz and 33kHz, and the rear-hinged lid flipped open to expose a cubby perfectly sized for a set of leads and a ped tool. Years later, I was gifted an antique transmitter and its resemblance to the Dynatel was uncanny. Its body was made of varnished wood rather than molded plastic, but it was otherwise basically the same, including the little placard of instructions pasted on the underside of the lid. Like
the Dynatel, its manufacturer had included a strap for easy carrying.

About 10 years ago, I was doing some research into the history of locating when I was given a 1937 article on the Fisher M-Scope and its inventor, Dr. Gerhard Fisher. The article notes that the M-Scope was already being used by utility owners to identify their under-ground lines. A two-piece unit consisting of a transmitter and a receiver, it’s a dead ringer for its great-grandson, the split box Fisher TW-6, which you can still buy new. As with our vehicles, the basic science behind the instruments we use hasn’t changed in the last 80 years.

Decades of development have resulted in incremental improvements to the technology; improvements like digital depth measurement, directional arrows (called “simultaneous peak/null” when it was first introduced), omnidirectional antenna arrays and programmable marker balls. The instrument I carry with me now has a full color, backlit, dot matrix display and allows me to select from a variety of antenna responses over literally dozens of available frequencies.

Just like with our fleet vehicles, the instruments we use can soldier on practically forever with the correct maintenance, but that doesn’t mean they should. I could have kept the old Caravan running, and the Dynatel 2210 I was using in 1996 would still work today, but my
customer doesn’t want to see me pulling up in a 20-year old vehicle using locating technology from the era of Motorola pagers and AOL. I enjoy driving my new truck and like my built-in GPS and Bluetooth even more than I liked the Caravan’s sliding doors. My tech is really enjoying his new locator. Even though it’s only about five years newer than his old one, it has updated features and increased functionality, and compared to the instruments we both started with, looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Speaking of which, my current locator has a carbon fiber receiver blade. How boss is that?

Christopher Koch is a training consultant and President of ZoneOne Locating. He is past president of Nulca and worked on both the 2009 and 2015 revisions to the Nulca  Professional Competency Standard. He can be reached by email at Christopherkoch@live.com or on Twitter @kochauthor.


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