Digging Deep

Mid-Atlantic Utility Locating puts its detecting, locating and mapping expertise to good use in an area with a jam-packed underground infrastructure.
Digging Deep
The crew of Mid-Atlantic Utility Locating (shown with their VACMASTERS 5000) includes, from left, Lee Richie, Charles Sturdivant, Michael Cooper, Tommy Lockhart, Stephen Russell, Joseph True II, Zachary Church, Jamie Velasquez, Cody Brown and Brad Markovich.

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As the area with the lengthiest settlement history in the United States, the Mid-Atlantic region presents some unique underground challenges. “The history of human development around here goes back almost 400 years,” says Erek Dorman, marketing and business development manager with Mid-Atlantic Utility Locating. “So people have been living and building and operating in this general geographic area for a long time without any kind of solid records on a lot of stuff.

“Something that you hear a lot about lately is the condition of the nation’s underground infrastructure,” he adds. “And that’s something that comes into play a lot, when we’re digging test pits in particular, because we’re not just gathering data on the utility, as far as how deep it is and how close it is to other utilities, but also what condition it’s in.”

The history of the region presents another major difficulty — the more underground utilities that are installed, the more crowded it gets beneath the surface. High-tech companies and data centers are moving into the area along with companies that are laying miles and miles of cable. “The underground utility congestion is staggering around here,” Dorman says.

SUBSURFACE PRECISION

Located just a dozen miles from Washington, D.C., Mid-Atlantic Utility Locating’s focus remains set on serving area customers with accurate detecting, locating and mapping of all underground utilities. Clients range from civil engineering firms and contractors to developers and utility owners. In addition, the company serves transportation departments, homeowners and various federal and state agencies.

“Our client demographics include civil engineers because they’re doing all the work on the front end, which is where we like to be involved in site development, planning and design,”

Dorman says. “And on the other end general contractors and construction, because by the time they get in the ground they want to know exactly where that gas main is before somebody punctures it with a backhoe.”

The public sector side of the company handles a lot of work in transportation, metro development and government agency projects — especially with the Department of Defense. A lot of the area installations date back to the Civil War, Dorman says, and the military buried various things as needed along the way. When these areas are being developed and revamped for new purposes, there’s a need to locate these types of weapons, aircraft, vehicles and chemicals. “You name it, we pull it out of the ground,” he adds.

Mid-Atlantic’s field crews perform surface utility designating and marking using its fleet of vacuum excavation trucks, ground-penetrating radar investigations and utility survey mapping.

Utility designating involves the use of EM (electromagnetic) locating devices (Vivax-Metrotech). A sounding box is attached to any surface outcropping of a utility, such as switch boxes, to send out a signal that is picked up by the EM locator.

Then a crew member walks the line with a locator that gives an approximate depth, depending on soil conditions, along with a left or right variance in order to stay right on top of the line. The path of the utility is marked with a water-soluble spray paint that is color-coded to the specific type of utility.

Customers turn to Mid-Atlantic Utility Locating to collect this type of data because they’re either going to be installing utility lines, moving utility lines or integrating new connections related to new construction. “Generally we send two-person crews on vacuum excavation jobs and surface-marking jobs,” Dorman says. “But some of the senior guys can handle the surface marking on their own depending on the project needs.

“One thing that we do as opposed to a state-run utility in an 811 organization is we spend a lot more time on site, and our tolerances are much more constrained,” Dorman says. “They get a variance in their markings of almost 2 feet on either side of the line, and we try to keep it to within 18 inches total.”

Because of this, the techniques can differ significantly. “I’ve seen guys driving down a road hanging a locator out of the window of their pickup truck and laying down marks,” he says.

“Their only mandate is to prevent damage, and that’s fine, so they put down marks to let you know there’s a utility down there somewhere. But when you’re talking about providing data and locations to civil engineers and people who are looking for more precise marks and locations, it really becomes more important to stay as close to that line as you can.”

In recent years, civil engineering firms have begun to bring this type of help in-house, thinking it’s a way to save money. “When it comes down to it they can send guys out with spray paint and EM locators, but at some point, if they have to dig any kind of test pit, it’s always going to come down to companies like Mid-Atlantic,” Dorman says. “We have the equipment to do it.”

Mid-Atlantic operates a fleet of vacuum excavation trucks (VACMASTERS) in order to handle this process, which involves opening an 8- to 12-inch square hole and using a high-pressure air lance to loosen the dirt while it is removed by a vacuum tube. It helps prevent the damage of underground assets while allowing for the collection of data such as depth, elevation, proximity to other utilities and condition of utilities.

In addition to designating and locating, the company also provides utility survey mapping services to help prevent project delays, cost overruns and damages to the subsurface infrastructure. Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is used when attempting to locate underground storage tanks, grave sites or any other object that leaves a noticeable disturbance in the subsurface strata.

SMALL SIZE, TIGHT FOCUS

The company continues to fall back on its heritage and the knowledge that it is providing a much-needed offering to its customers. Founded in 2003, Mid-Atlantic Utility Locating was born out of a civil engineering firm and spun off into its own company. “There were civil engineers who recognized the value of this service and then realized how much demand there was for that service,” Dorman says.

This dates back to a time when there were only two or three companies on the East Coast specializing in this type of work. They still exist, he adds, but they’re massive now and have turned into the kind of companies that will take on giant federal projects. Most small, local companies just can’t afford their services.

In the wake of all this, a number of companies sprang up, and at this point Dorman estimates that there are maybe a half dozen competitors on the East Coast. “We have an ongoing challenge where we exist in a market where there is a fairly fixed number of providers, so a key for us is to continue to provide consistent and reliable service,” he says. “I’ve noticed time and again that bigger companies tend to get sloppy and don’t have as much control over their people.”

When companies miss a utility and it gets hit, there are related fines imposed by regulatory agencies, for example, and it can cause a delay to the project at hand. “Not to mention if they hit the right utility or cause enough damage you’ve got lawyers involved and a public relations nightmare on your hands,” he adds.

Recognized as a leading provider of subsurface utility engineering services, Mid-Atlantic Utility Locating has an in-house staff consisting of the company director, administrator, proposal coordinator and marketing and business development manager, while a field crew of 14 operates four vacuum excavation trucks and a fleet of smaller vehicles.

It’s that relatively small size that also allows the company to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. Price is one thing, Dorman says, but there are several competitors that all fall within the same general price range, so what it really comes down to is accuracy, consistency and the ability to fulfill a task when a client needs it.

“We like to keep our focus a lot more narrow so we don’t have so much to pay attention to that we start to lose on any one end of our service offerings,” Dorman adds. “Keeping our focus as narrow as we do really helps us run a much tighter ship.”

All employees are trained in-house, and typically the company avoids hiring locators from other businesses because of the habits that have potentially been developed elsewhere. “To keep employees for as long as we do ensures that we have reliable guys and ensures we’re able to bring them along on the process and equip them with all the knowledge and tools needed to do the job,” he says. “So when our clients call us it’s never a crapshoot as far as who or what they’re going to get.

“I’d like to see our company grow, of course, and we’ve been on a steady growth projection,” he adds. “But as far as rapid expansion I don’t see any benefit in terms of providing reliable service.”



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