Keen eyes and radio waves help workers find utilities


Herald Writer

EVERETT – Bob Lees needs to apply a little science and a little art to do his job.

He also needs to be a close observer.

Taking a close look at and noting what’s above the ground is the first step for Lees in finding out what’s buried under it.

Lees is the lead employee in the Everett field office for a company known as Locating Inc. It has offices in four states and specializes in doing just what the name implies.

Companies that don’t have crews to locate and mark their own utilities for a construction project hire Locating to do the job.

In Snohomish County, that means Puget Sound Energy, the Snohomish County PUD and a few companies that maintain fiber-optics cables. State law requires such markings when people plan to dig.

Utilities supply Locating with paper or computerized maps, which give Lees and the 14 other employees in the Everett field office an idea of what’s at a location. The Issaquah-based business has 33 state offices and 180 employees.

The maps are "a guideline for us." said Bob Paterson, Locating state manager. "The biggest thing out here is to question and communicate."

Then there’s the observation part.

Lees eyeballs meters on buildings indicating the presence of gas. He looks at power poles and sees where overhead lines stop and drop underground. There are manhole covers indicating sewers, and telecommunications or power "pedestals" either buried or partly buried.

How does he find what’s unseen? Here’s where the art and science weave together.

Lees attaches a collar around a cable or pedestal. It’s actually a radio transmitter that induces a radio frequency into the line. Then he uses a wand, in reality a radio receiver, that tracks the frequency through the pavement, asphalt or ground.

Attached to the wand is a paint gun, and he periodically sprays a dab of paint the appropriate color.

Don’t worry, hastened Paterson. It’s unleaded paint and it usually wears away in a few weeks.

But in the meantime, it gives a contractor or municipal public works crew contemplating a construction job an above-the-ground indication of what’s down under.

Gas companies primarily use plastic pipes, which don’t carry a radio frequency. But a copper wire is buried along with the plastic. That’s the key to pinpointing gas lines. If that wire is broken, however, it becomes impossible to trace gas lines.

In a recent demonstration, Tim Bryant, one of Locating’s regional superintendents, attached a radio frequency transmitter to a small amount of cable sticking out at the meter. He had to dig around to find it.

But Lees was soon able to trace the course of the gas line with his wand. This time he used yellow paint.

Lees uses red paint for electricity, yellow for gas or oil. You also might see orange (telephone or cable TV), blue (water) or green (sewer) on streets.

White markings indicate where the contractor intends to dig.

The job has become increasingly complex because more and more utilities are going underground, including telephone, cable TV, and fiber-optics cable, Paterson said.

"It isn’t a perfect science because of the number of utilities in the ground," said Paterson, who noted that there’s sometimes radio wave "bleedover" transmitted into metal sewer or water pipes that could give an operator the wrong course.

The company does make mistakes, but there are a lot fewer of them when he has experienced personnel.

Locating had problems last year with high employee turnover, and has corrected that by hiring more folks than it needs. That way, the finders will be able to spend more time on each job too, he said.

You can call Herald Writer Jim Haley at 425-339-3447 or send e-mail

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