North Carolina Utility Locator Never Skips Steps on Job Sites

North Carolina’s Sweetwater Utility Exploration goes above and beyond in locating utility lines for big clients.
North Carolina Utility Locator Never Skips Steps on Job Sites
The Sweetwater Utility Exploration team includes, from left, Tommy Wyatt, field technician; Matt and Sandy Bellmann, owners; Michael Sheperd, project manager; and Drannan Wyatt, field technician.

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After years of working in the hotel and restaurant business, Matt Bellmann knew it was time for a change. He didn’t want to work inside anymore; he wanted a job that would allow him to be outside.

His dad owned a concrete business, and Bellmann had always dreamed of having his own company. In 2012, that dream became reality when he founded Sweetwater Utility Exploration. “It was just one of those things where I wanted to own a business,” Bellmann says. “I just started pinching pennies and saved wherever I could and went for it.”

The company, based in Troutman, North Carolina, offers vacuum excavation services along with electromagnetic and ground-penetrating radar locating services throughout the Northeast and as far south as Florida. “A lot of our clients are developers and engineering companies, and they have us come out and map the entire area before they’ll even start working,” Bellmann says.

GETTING THE COMPANY GOING

It wasn’t a fast road to starting Sweetwater. After leaving the hotel and restaurant business, Bellmann started as a field technician for his first utility locating company — So-Deep U.S. P.C. — in the 1990s. He completed a project manager training program with the company. In 2004, Bellmann decided he wanted to be home more with his family and he took a job as project manager at the engineering and surveying firm Taylor, Wiseman & Taylor (TWT).

Bellmann began in TWT’s office in Cary, North Carolina, and subsequently started the subsurface utility engineering department in Charlotte.

After eight years with TWT, Bellmann knew it was time to follow his dream and, along with his wife, Sandy, started Sweetwater. “Our goal from the start was to make sure we could do every job from start to finish and we’re doing that now,” Bellmann says.

Sweetwater crews mark every utility on a job site and will also conduct records research on properties for clients. “I’ve got contacts with all the utility companies in the area, so we call them and get all those records,” Bellmann says.

After surveying the job site, crews map the area and compare those maps to the records they received to confirm the location of all utilities and other underground obstacles.

When clients determine where new utilities will go in, Sweetwater uses its custom-built vacuum excavation equipment to pothole.

“We’ll tell them everything we find,” Bellmann says. “If it’s a water pipe, we’ll tell them the type of pipe, size, depth and exact location, and we take a picture of it. We give them everything they would need to know, including soil condition and depth or if there is asphalt or concrete there.”

ALL THE METHODS AVAILABLE

Sweetwater crews start each job performing electromagnetic (EM) locating, where the tools can be directly connected to the utilities, and then proceed to the other options available to them.

“We’ll run the ground-penetrating radar (GPR) over the site and then finish with a sweep of everything,” Bellmann says. “That’s why we use two guys to every job. One has the transmitter and one has the receiver. Once that signal attaches to something conductive, the receiver will start directing you over to the utility.”

If there is no access to connect to the utility and GPR equipment isn’t an option, then crews go to the vacuum excavation equipment.

“We’ll do as much field recon as we can, and then take out the vacuum excavation tools and verify the utility that way,” Bellmann says. “Usually we can get a good feel for what things are. We then come in with the truck and positively identify.”

Bellmann has his favorites when it comes to locating equipment. Most of his EM locators and sondes are from RIDGID, but he also has a Metrotech 810 (Vivax-Metrotech) that he prefers in certain situations.

“That’s my security blanket,” Bellmann says. “When something’s not working out well, I just grab that old Metrotech and it puts me at ease. It’s what I trained on.”

The sondes come in handy often; and the company even has a few that look like fishing bobbers. “We’ll tie fishing line to it and if it’s a flowing current we’ll drop it in there,” Bellmann says. “I have my guys let the line out 5 or 10 feet at a time and we can track it with our receiver. We have environmental clients that have remediation systems, and a lot of that is put in with plastic pipes that run into manufacturing facilities. It’s questionable where these pipes go sometimes, so we use the sondes all the time on those jobs.”

With the GPR equipment, Bellmann has only used MALA equipment. The company recently purchased a new MALA unit. The company’s standard MALA GPR unit has a 350 MHz antenna, while the newest model has a high-dynamic range (HDR) antenna. “It’s still pretty much the same frequency, but they’ve put a greater signal bandwidth on there, so it’s like having multiple antennas in one. You get a lot better depth and the resolution on it is crazy.”

On a job in 2015, Sweetwater found how useful having two GPR units can be. Crews were called to Charlotte to help the city find a sanitary force main. “They weren’t sure where it was,” Bellmann says. “They had it on record but had no idea where it was. We got hired by the engineering company that was helping the city upgrade its sewer system.”

Crews used two GPR units side by side, and both picked up the force main in thick red clay. Bellmann was impressed because normally GPR units have a tough time in clay; the signal reflects back at the unit because of the conductive materials in the clay.

“The locating equipment does pay for itself,” Bellmann says. “It’s a hard business if you don’t have the right equipment. I want my guys and myself to have as many tools as possible that are out there.”

LANDING THE BIG JOBS

Putting that equipment to work is something that Bellmann doesn’t have to worry about. Out of about 120 clients, Bellmann estimates that 80 are environmental and petroleum companies.

“A lot of that work is finding underground storage tanks,” Bellmann says. The environmental companies are a big reason Sweetwater survived the recession. “We were getting a lot of Phase 2 jobs, which are when a business is getting foreclosed on or trying to finance, and an assessment of the site is done to see if there is contamination. Before they go out and do any of their borings for monitoring equipment, they would call us to find where the underground storage tanks would be.”

Aside from the environmental work the company does, Sweetwater performs a lot of work at Charlotte Douglas Airport. Bellmann says it’s a tough environment to work in because of the noise and the wind from planes.

“It’s crazy loud and it’s super intense out there,” Bellmann says. “You’re not only dealing with all these utility lines running everywhere, but you’ve also got directional lighting and the signs. Then the FFA has tons of fiber-optic lines that lead everywhere. It’s one of the jobs where you have to calm yourself.”

Sweetwater began working for the airport about 2 1/2 years ago when called in on a roadway improvement project. The airport wanted to put a bridge over the existing railroad, but running parallel to the tracks were two fiber-optic cables.

“The owners of those cables wanted $75,000 for each line to relocate them,” Bellmann says. “We came in and mapped where the two cables were. Then we went in with vacuum excavation, positively identified the cables and gave them the coordinates.”

The airport was able to design the bridge around the cables and saved $150,000. “It saved them quite a bit of time, too,” Bellmann says. “The company that owned the cables told them it would take at least a year to relocate the cables.”

DOING THE WORK THE RIGHT WAY

Despite being busy, there is one area where Bellmann won’t falter, and that’s the quality of work. He prides himself on running a company that pays attention to the details and follows a very detailed order of operations for every project.

“We charge by the hour, but we’re not going to take advantage of people and stay on the job site forever,” Bellmann says. “If we have a client that is rushing my guys, I would rather have my guys leave the job and tell the client to find somebody else or let us do the job the way we need to.”

Bellmann says there are contractors who will rush through jobs just to get them done, but his company won’t. “If you rush through a job, somebody can get hurt working on that site and then it falls back on you,” he says.

Crews are required to show up on time, clean and in company gear and with all equipment in full working order. “The clients really respect you and I think the guys enjoy that respect,”

Bellmann says. “When we pull up on a job site, people know we mean business. Our motto is, ‘This isn’t recess. We’re not here to play games.’”

Bellmann is happy at where the company stands, with two field crews, but he would like to add one more full-time crew in the coming years to give him time to do other work, such as marketing.

“I’m pretty satisfied with where we are now,” Bellmann says. “We didn’t get into this to get rich. We just wanted a company that has a great reputation and a great client base and I’m thankful for what we have now.”


Finding the right tool

When Matt Bellmann, co-owner of Sweetwater Utility Exploration, started his utility locating business, he decided to go with mainly RIDGID equipment.

“I wanted to be able to have the best possible equipment and offer the most services,” Bellmann says. “We use the SR-60 locator when we do electromagnetic locates.”

The SeekTech SR-60 locator from RIDGID is designed for locating under difficult conditions, such as poor conductors, poor soil conditions and poor grounding. It traces frequencies from 10 Hz to 490,000 Hz and can trace energized lines and sondes at the same time.

“You can pick up electric lines without putting your own signal on it because it can scan and find the frequency of that line,” Bellmann says. “It’s very beneficial when we do interior work.”

When doing work for Duke Power in North Carolina, Sweetwater uses its SR-60 because much of the work is inside buildings.

“We can’t hook up to the utilities and there are concrete floors with rebar that disrupts the GPR units,” Bellmann says. “Our RIDGID, however, will pick up those utilities right away.”

The unit has a readout display that shows the operator a proximity signal, a depth indicator and a frequency signal, all in real time. The readouts help the operator constantly verify the quality of the locate. The unit displays a line on the screen that’s a picture of the utility line below, as opposed to a series of readouts that users have to synthesize in their head.

“You just look at the tracing line on the screen and start walking,” says Bellmann. “You’re actually finding the utility line, rather than guessing.”

Crosshairs on the screen show the operator’s position relative to the target signal. When the tracing line intersects with the crosshairs, the operator knows he’s directly above the line. The tracing line stays on target even if the receiver’s orientation changes, and it indicates when the utility line changes direction.


Building a vacuum

While most utility locating companies that offer vacuum excavation offer big manufacturer-named trucks, Sweetwater Utility Exploration crews went a different route.

They wanted something that fit their needs exactly, so co-owner Matt Bellmann went to the drawing board and developed his own vacuum excavation trailer. “We’re a little bit different than everybody else,” he says. “Our units can get to where a lot of others can’t.”

The main portion of the unit, a Utilivac, is about the size of a 55-gallon drum with wheels and a large bazooka-looking attachment on the top of the drum. “There is a plate on top of the drum, and that plate has the bazooka-looking thing on it,” Bellmann says. “That bazooka takes in the air and pushes it over the top of the drum.”

Also on the top of the drum is a 4-inch port where the vacuum hose is attached. The unit has a door at the bottom for quick access.

“We have a 375 cfm compressor mounted on a car-hauler trailer, and then we outfitted the rest of the unit from there,” Bellmann says. The drum portion of the unit can be wheeled out as far as necessary with hose attachments. “We do a lot of work where guys can’t fit into because they have huge vacuum rigs.”

One such job was for the City of Charlotte on a gas transmission line where the work was down a remote access road. “We had to four-wheel drive down that access road. When we got within 400 feet of where they needed the hole, we couldn’t go any further,” Bellmann says. “We let out the compressor lines and brought the unit out there. The big rigs wouldn’t have even been able to make it down the access road.”

Bellmann says he’s been through a few versions of the unit, making improvements along the way: “They’re a great tool and we get plenty of use out of them.”



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