A question that is often asked in our industry is “What does a locate cost?” The answer to this simple question varies from stakeholder to stakeholder and from publicly to privately owned utility lines. For the sake of this conversation, a public utility is a facility owned and/or operated by a utility company or municipality that belongs or should belong to a One Call system. Thinking about a neighborhood, this would be utilities like power, water, sewer, gas and telecommunications. They are public up to a point where they are metered or enter some transition point. From this point on, they are private. To the excavator or homeowner, the One Call system is typically a free service. A locate request can be made by calling 811 or entering the information into an online system, with no cost to the user.
The utility, on the other hand, has several costs related to the locate. First, as a member of the One Call system, the utility pays a cost per locate for the request to be processed and delivered to them or their assigned locate company. While this cost is usually only a little over a dollar per notification, a large utility company may pay tens of thousands of dollars per day across their system.
The response to a locate request is an entirely different cost scenario. The utility will either subcontract the work to a contract locating company or perform the work themselves. Either way, there is a tremendous investment in equipment, materials and training to produce a quality locate. Recent DIRT reports from the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) show that as a group, contract locating companies have fewer damages than their in-house counterparts. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, contract locating companies invest a lot of time into ongoing training. Second, contract locators are dedicated to one thing, locating. In-house technicians often have multiple job functions, so their time is split amongst many different responsibilities.
Costs vary wildly in the industry for these locates. Contract locators strive to work for more than one company when they go to a site. CGA Best Practices recommend the use of one technician on a specific site to locate multiple utilities. This reduces the environmental impact to the community as well as creating a more efficient locate. By “layering” these clients, the locate company can offer their clients considerable savings on a per locate basis. Costs can vary from under $10 to over $100 per locate for critical utility lines.
From the private side of the locating industry, the cost equation is very different. Private utility locating companies typically work on an hourly or bid basis and the majority of the work is on commercial properties like powerplants, campuses, hospitals, strip malls, apartment complexes and naval bases, etc. The cost to the customer in this industry varies from a few hundred dollars or less for the homeowner trying to find a power feed to his/her shed or gas to a pool heater, to many thousands of dollars for design work in large facilities. While this sounds like a lot, studies have shown that for every dollar spent in the design phase of a project, there is a savings of a minimum of four dollars on the back end. It is also important to understand that experts estimate that 65% of all buried utilities are private.
Private locating technicians must have considerably more training than their One Call counterparts. They utilize many different technologies to identify buried utility lines including electromagnetic, ground penetrating radar, sondes and much more. Unlike the public locating industry, technicians working in the private realm are rarely provided with maps of what they are trying to find, which means that they must become utility locating sleuths or investigators to produce a quality private locate.
Costs in our industry are often measured in the negative as well. In other words, what is the cost of not providing a good locate? These costs are very similar among the different stakeholders. Repair costs are often quoted when talking about costs, but there are many other expenses when a locate is wrong, incomplete or not requested. First, there is the potential for loss of life, which unfortunately has been seen across the country due to natural gas ignitions. Secondly, there is a loss of time. This may mean downtime for the excavator or contractor and more importantly, lost productivity for the property owner, costing millions of dollars because their plant, business operation, etc., may be shut down until their “private” utility is repaired. There may also be impacts to safety and the community.
You often hear people react with comments like “A near-miss” or “The bucket is hooked on something” or even “Do you smell that?” What starts off as the smallest problem can quickly turn into a tragic accident. By not ensuring that you have a good quality locate on your project, you might be risking the safety of your employees, your family, or anyone who might be in the area in the event of a potential strike. Think about it… would you want to be next to a backhoe as they unintentionally pull live electrical cables out of the ground? Or perhaps working an area where a gas line is hit, and then a spark ignites into one of those explosions we have heard about all too often? According to the CGA, there are between 400,000 to 500,000 utility strikes per year in the United States. While most of them are considered minor, the cost of not making sure you have a quality locate could become major.
Locating is an important part of the damage prevention equation. Remember that even though the call is free, there are still many costs to a good locate. So, what does it cost to get utilities located? Hopefully, we have been able to show you that there is no simple answer to this question. It really does depend on what is important to the utility, excavator and property owner: safety, lost productivity, experience and community.
Robert Moorhead is Senior Vice President – Sales & Marketing for USIC, LLC. Learn more at USICLLC. com. Robert can be reached at RobertMoorhead@usicllc.com.