Professional Surveyors And Utility Locations

Ever since adoption of 811 utility locate legislation by the states a number of years ago, professional surveyors have been faced with the ongoing challenge of walking the tight rope of legislative mandates without falling into an abyss of liability, confused and unhappy clients, unsatisfied design engineers, missed deadlines and higher costs, not to mention near universal frustration.

Surveyors are frequently faced with utility-related issues that, if not resolved adequately, can result in negligence claims accompanied by inordinately high liability. Whether the concern is showing utility locations as part of a design survey, setting monuments in close proximity to a buried utility or locating subsurface infrastructure in preparation for excavation, the problem that surveyors face in obtaining accurate utility locations is pervasive.

Before exploring these problems there must, however, be a frank acknowledgment that surveyors have been in the past, and continue to be, a source of damage to underground utilities, so they cannot claim they are inculpable and that they should simply be awarded wholesale exemption from the law. There is no denying that fact. Yet, 811 calls from surveyors very frequently result in, at best, incomplete responses. And while some states offer some relief to professional surveyors when excavation is not pending, most states, with all good intentions, do not.

Depending on what state a surveyor is working in, an 811 call might not be required at all, or might be mandatory with no exceptions. For example, in Illinois, excavation requiring an 811 call does not include “land surveying operations as defined in the Illinois Professional Land Surveyor Act of 1989 when not using power equipment…” Yet in Indiana, surveyors have been told in no uncertain terms that anything driven into the ground more than one inch requires an 811 locate request with absolutely no exceptions.

“No exceptions” is ostensibly not unreasonable; however, the ramifications can present a major challenge. If the surveyor simply needs to set the corners of a property being surveyed – either because of state laws or client requirements – a utility locate is likely required, or at least advised. Yet, when the locators are told (or eventually realize) that the request is for a survey, they will often simply not respond. This, too, is understandable when the choice the locator has is to respond to the contractor down the street sitting on a backhoe… or a surveyor. But, if the surveyor decides, after several non-responses, to go ahead and set the corners, he or she is liable for any damage.

The undeniable fact, however, is that it is far more cost effective and logical to have good, reliable utility information prior to design and construction than it is to be faced with change orders, delays and even damage to utilities (accompanied by finger-pointing and liability) during construction.

In any event, a nonresponse will either precipitate a second call – accompanied by a delay – or the surveyor simply going ahead and setting the corners. And even if the initial call did result in a response, if the locate markers (typically paint or flags) indicate a buried utility within two feet of the corner to be set, the surveyor will have to hand dig a hole to the depth of the monument to be set (which in many cases is two feet or more deep).

Setting a monument under that situation – rather than taking 30 seconds – may take 30 minutes or more depending on soil conditions. If multiple monuments are to be set, the cost and time can increase from perhaps an hour or two and a few hundred dollars to a day or more and more than a thousand dollars.

Admittedly, this is all in the name of safety, but this illuminates just one of the problems.

One step that states have made is to create a “design ticket” request that can be used to obtain information for planning and design when excavation is not imminent (understanding, as noted above, that, at least in some states, simply setting a wood stake constitutes excavation).

There may, however, under the law, be tradeoffs when requesting a design locate such as a longer time allowed for locators to respond, limitations on how many requests for re-marking can be made, and how many design requests can be made in the same location.

The undeniable fact, however, is that it is far more cost effective and logical to have good, reliable utility information prior to design and construction than it is to be faced with change orders, delays and even damage to utilities (accompanied by finger-pointing and liability) during construction.

In consideration of all of this and acknowledging the need to document accurate locations of utilities during the design process, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) developed National Consensus Standard ASCE C-I 38-02: Standard Guidelines for the Collection and Depiction of Existing Subsurface Utility Data. This standard outlines the attributes of Quality Levels D through A, with D being the least comprehensive and A representing the most thorough investigation of the standard.

Interestingly, a new Colorado law has tapped into this by requiring that a licensed professional engineer designing a government “subsurface utility engineering-required project” must submit a location request to Colorado 811 during the design phase. With regard to utility locations, the law mandates that the project plans meet the ASCE Quality Level B criteria, using appropriate surface geophysical methods to determine the existence and approximate horizontal position of subsurface utilities.

That seems eminently logical, but it is not a panacea. The engineering community in Colorado has concerns about being held responsible for utility information depicted in engineering drawings because it is typically not something they would be gathering themselves. And although one could argue that design plans are routinely produced using information produced or gathered by professional surveyors, the difference here is that the statute puts the burden of the locate request on the engineer which will have consequences relating to liability.

The 2016 Minimum Standard Detailed Requirements for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys are a national survey standard mandated by clients and title companies thousands of times a day. Table A, item 11 of those standards essentially represents an ASCE Quality Level C investigation. The ALTA and NSPS committees will, during the next revision, consider whether ASCE C-I 38-02 Quality Level C should be specified as the performance standard for Table A item 11. However, while providing clarity as to the surveyor’s responsibility, that will do nothing to overcome the problems outlined above with respect to responses to utility locate requests.

It is likely that surveyors will begin to receive more requests to perform utility investigations to one of the ASCE quality levels, so they will be familiarizing themselves with ASCE C-I 38-02 and be acutely aware of their responsibilities under their state’s utility damage prevention law.

Surveyors do not have x-ray vision, but they can mitigate potential liability and dangerous situations by knowing the law, the applicable standards and, most importantly, by clearly communicating what they know, what they do not know and what steps they took to locate and depict underground utility locations.

Yet, there must be some recognition, acknowledgment and accommodation by the damage prevention and utility locating communities of the problems surveyors face.

What are the answers? For starters, it would help to increase the number of locators so survey requests can be at least responded to in a timely manner (or, in many cases, at all). It is also necessary to strengthen the laws and provide training. If surveyors are required under the law to make a locate request, the locators should be required under the law to respond.

Whatever the resolutions are, they lie in what is almost always overlooked in any problem our society faces: listening to and understanding each other’s concerns, and collaborating on a mutually acceptable solution.


Gary Kent is Integrated Services Director for Schneider Geomatics in Indianapolis. He has presented programs on a variety of survey, title and leadership topics in the U.S. and Europe. He is a columnist for American Surveyor and is frequently sought as an expert witness. Gary can be reached at gkent@schneidercorp.com.

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