Locators Need Maintenance As Well

Manufacturers advise about proper care, operation.
Locators Need Maintenance As Well
A McLaughlin locator is used on a job site prior to the start of vacuum excavation.

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Locating equipment is becoming an increasingly important tool in the excavating world. With the underground environment littered with various public and private utilities, it’s important to be able to accurately identify the location of underground pipes and cables before getting started on a project. So you need your locator working properly.

While there may not be many wearable components on locating equipment, it doesn’t mean maintenance can be neglected. Here are some tips to help keep your locating tools in good working order:

Practice proper storage

An easy way to keep locating equipment in good shape is being mindful about how it’s stored when not in use. Eric Huber, a senior product manager for RIDGID, says his company’s locators come in a durable, blow-molded hard case that can be used for storage.

“I would suggest using whatever case your manufacturer provides,” he says.

He also recommends removing the batteries from the unit when it’s not being used.

“It’s a good practice for anything with alkaline batteries,” Huber says. “Recall a time when you’ve gone back to something you had stored away and noticed that the batteries had leaked. Then it’s not the product’s fault. It’s the batteries that caused the problem. We even provide places to put the batteries in the case.”

Other battery-related tips

Matt Manning, products manager of electronics for McLaughlin, seconds that recommendation. Damage related to leaking batteries is a common repair order that comes into his office, he says.

While always removing batteries when the equipment is not in use is the safest practice, contractors who use their locating equipment every day may not have to worry as much.

“Dead batteries leak acid. Good batteries don’t,” Manning says. “Depending on the manufacturer, there may be software in the equipment that shuts it down when it’s not in use. But some manufacturers select not to do that, and the equipment doesn’t shut down unless you do it. If you forget to turn off the equipment, you’ll eventually run the batteries down. If you’re using it every day, it may not be a big issue. But if you’re using it, say once a week, that battery will start leaking acid, and before you know it your unit’s damaged.”

Don’t be careless in the field

Be aware of situations in which the equipment could be susceptible to accidental damage, Manning says. A problem he sees far too often is equipment getting run over.

“Too many people just lay the equipment down where they’re working or they’ll lean it up against a truck, or lay it on the tailgate. Then someone hops in the truck and leaves; next thing you know the locator falls off the truck or gets run over.”

For the most part, the receiver will stay near the user, so a little common sense can go a long way toward keeping it safe. For the transmitter, Manning recommends placing it in such a way that protects it or making its location clearly visible in some way.

“If it’s a direct-connect situation where the transmitter is next to the telephone pole or a utility box, be thinking about if it’s positioned in a way that would open it up to possible damage by someone not seeing it. Put it really close to the telephone pole or utility box to protect it, or better yet mark it with an orange traffic cone.”

Know your environment limitations

Locators aren’t your everyday electronics. Manufacturers build them to withstand rugged working conditions. Still, it’s important to handle the equipment with care and know where to draw the line. Misuse rather than equipment failure is more common, says Huber.

“When something does happen, it usually comes down to some type of misuse — they break the unit or submerge the unit,” he says. “Locators are water-resistant but not usually waterproof. You can use them in a light rain, but if you drop them in a puddle or something like that, that could cause an issue.”

“Some locators are better than others, but most manufacturers have built their equipment to withstand the elements — snow, rain, mist,” Manning says. “Still, there’s a point where it’s probably raining too hard. If you’re comfortable working in it, you’re probably fine. If it’s a downpour where you don’t even want to be out there, it will probably affect the equipment too.”

Establish a test point

Say you’re in the middle of a locate and start having problems. How can you be 100 percent sure it’s the equipment that is at fault and not, for example, interference on the job site? Manning says it’s important to regularly test your equipment on a known pipe or line, so that if a problem arises in the field you can immediately rule out equipment failure.

“Whether they are based out of an office or a home, most people will have a place where they are centrally located. Find a utility there, do a locate on it, get a depth estimate and expose it. Then confirm that the locate was correct and the depth was correct. If that’s all correct, you know your locator is working properly.”

Mark this location and you have a go-to point every time you need to test your equipment. It depends on how often the locator is used, but Manning recommends performing a test at least once a month. For contractors who are more mobile and don’t have a good location for setting up a test point, he says multiple locates should be performed before concluding there is an equipment problem.

“There are interferences on job sites that can distort the magnetic field. When that magnetic field is distorted, it will not locate directly over the utility and will not give you the correct depth. Of course you’re going to think something’s wrong with the equipment if you’re the guy who travels and doesn’t have a constant place to test it. At that point, before you pack it up to send it in for repair, locate another utility. Make sure the problem you’re having is consistent.”

Read the manual

“When people call me with problems, the best questions are from those who have read the manual,” Manning says. “Their questions are usually more specific and I’m better able to help them. Too many people just grab the equipment, learn the basic functions and start using it.”

Educate yourself

Beyond that, he also advises taking a course about the basics of utility locating.

“Many people out there have been handed down information from the previous guy doing their job. But equipment has progressed, and that person’s experience may be related to older pieces of equipment so some things could get missed. If you take a course, they’ll teach you about issues that can arise, like interferences and how they affect a locate.”

Signs of an equipment malfunction

If you have a better understanding of potential job site issues, you can more easily identify cases where it is clearly the equipment that is causing the problem.

“If there’s something wrong with the transmitter or the locator, you might see the line there but can’t possibly locate it. Or there’s no signal on the unit itself and that would indicate a problem with the locator,” Huber says.

“Maybe it’s not going to the right frequency, skipping frequencies or the transmitter is switching frequencies on its own,” Manning says. “If you know the equipment well and can tell it’s just not locating a utility at all and the screens aren’t acting properly, then it’s an equipment problem.”

Software tips

Software is manufacturer-dependent, Manning says. In some cases, an upgrade may be in order to keep your locator functioning properly. In other cases, you may only have to upgrade if you’re looking for some added features.

“It’s not like a computer that needs consistent updates,” he says.
Software issues aren’t something Manning says he encounters often in his work at McLaughlin, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t be the root of an issue.

“If you’re having an issue with your equipment, before you send it in, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make a phone call to the manufacturer and confirm you have their up-to-date software,” he says.

A few tips for doing the work

While there will inevitably come a day when something does break and you have to send in your locator for repair, many issues can be worked out at the job site.

“There is not a lot of maintenance with locators, but there are a lot of intricacies to doing the locating work itself,” Huber says.

To begin, Huber says be sure that you are locating the signal you’re transmitting.

“You could be transmitting 8 kHz, but you’re trying to find 33 kHz and you won’t find it because you’re not transmitting it. Make sure whatever your transmitter is set to your locator is set to.”

As far as what frequency to use, Manning says a trial-and-error method is best.

“That is why multiple-frequency equipment is very important on job sites now, due to the congestion, condition and construction of the utilities. All those factors determine the best frequency to use.”

Be open to experimentation, but starting with the lowest possible frequency is a good general plan of attack, Manning says.

“Use the lowest one that will produce a traceable signal over the distance you want to cover,” Huber says. “Lower frequencies will travel very long distances and not jump to other pipes or cables. So the lower the frequency, the more certain you are to be on that particular line.

“If you have a good circuit and you want to go very long distances, you can use a low frequency. If you don’t need to travel as far, maybe go with a medium frequency. When those have failed, you can use a high frequency.”

Huber says it all comes down to finding the best way to produce a strong signal on the line you’re trying to locate. That could mean changing the frequency, going from a direct-connect method to inductive, or simply moving the transmitter.

“If you know where the utility is at the building and know where it is at the street, but don’t know where it is in between, you can try moving the transmitter to the other end to see if you can put a stronger signal on the line.”


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