Utility Locator Finding New Ways to Serve Customers

California's Spearhead Locating Services finds niche in serving solar installation companies and sees growth potential

Utility Locator Finding New Ways to Serve Customers

Scott Williams using the remote to move the vacuum debris hose into position as he locates utilities along a sidewalk.

Dave Marzio was getting burned out at his previous job as a manufacturing engineer. He knew he needed to make a change.

That change happened in 2015 when he decided to open his own utility locating business, Spearhead Locating Services, and run it as a one-man operation. “Starting your own company has its pros and cons, but it’s definitely worth it,” Marzio says.

The company, based in Ventura, California, offers electromagnetic, ground-penetrating radar, and CCTV services. Marzio has seen business steadily increase over the past three years and will be adding other services soon that will help the company continue to grow.

A FRESH START

Marzio had been working in the manufacturing industry for 30 years and knew it was time for him to try something on his own.

“A good friend of mine owns a horizontal directional drilling company and suggested looking into utility locating,” Marzio says. “He was always looking for locators to find sewer laterals for his business since the city municipals don’t locate them.”

Marzio researched the industry and thought it was the right move for him. He earned the required training and certificates, including NASSCO training for sewer line inspection. He then opened Spearhead Locating Services in 2015.

“I bought all the equipment, and off I went,” Marzio says. He secured work from his directional drilling friend to begin with and then, by word-of-mouth, got more work. “Now, I’m just bringing in new customers all the time.”

GROWING SERVICES

When he first started the company, Marzio offered only electromagnetic utility locating and CCTV services. “I went with the ones that I needed for directional drilling work first,” he says.

The company added GPR services a year later, calling it another tool in the arsenal. Now Marzio uses both electromagnetic and GPR locators on jobs. With rocky soil conditions in California, the GPR unit can have limited results, but he still finds it a useful backup and often uses it to locate underground tanks.

“A lot of customers ask for GPR just because there’s a lot of materials that are not conductive,” Marzio says. “The GPR gets used all the time.”

For utility locating, Marzio uses vScan (Vivax-Metrotech), Pipehorn 800 (Pipehorn Utility Tool), and RIDGID SR-20 locators. The company also has a camera system from Hathorn for CCTV work.

“On most jobs, a push camera is all that is needed to locate sewer laterals, but on bigger jobs such as a gas line replacement throughout a neighborhood, the CCTV crawler is used,” Marzio says, “and for city sewer mainline inspections.”

RAYS OF SUNLIGHT

A big piece of Spearhead Locating Services’ business comes from solar energy contractors installing large solar panels at private mobile home parks, schools and government centers.

“They’re installing carport-sized solar panels,” Marzio says. The solar arrays have 2-foot holes drilled up to 16 feet deep. “So where they are, drilling needs to be located. Then, most of the time they need horizontal drilling done to tie all the arrays together, so the bore paths have to be scanned for utilities.”

The public utility locators — through the 811 and One Call services — only locate up to the meters, leaving the rest to the private locators like Marzio. “The solar companies go far, anywhere from San Francisco down to San Diego, and I’ll travel anywhere they send me,” Marzio says.

While a majority of the company’s work comes from contractors, Marzio is starting to see residential calls pick up thanks to his website. “I’ve been getting more residential calls to locate waterlines or gas lines,” he says. “They tend to be smaller ticket jobs, but the volume of work more than makes up for that.”

TAKING TO THE AIR

Marzio is always looking for new ways to give his customers what they want. Over the past three years, he’s learned that the majority of the properties he locates on do not have as-built plans.

That brought Marzio together with Justin Van Fleet, owner of VTA DRONES in Ventura. The plan is to generate digital as-built plans for Marzio’s customer base.

“The digital as-builts will be composite maps generated from drone flights above a property Marzio has located,” Van Fleet says.

The maps will consist of hundreds of still images aggregated together into something similar to Google Maps, but with much more detail and with more zoom steps. The users will be able to zoom in close enough to see a coin on the ground, Van Fleet says.

The maps are then added into a free open-source software suite that Marzio and Van Fleet will provide the customers. The software allows for overlays to be added on top of the composite maps and forms to be associated with the features overlaid on the maps.

“For instance, color-coded lines can be drawn on top of the locating marks on the ground,” Van Fleet says. “Then custom forms can be generated and tied to the lines. These forms can contain details about the specific utility lines, as well as pictures taken from a phone.”

Once the map is generated, the user can access the maps from a mobile device or from a web browser. Using GPS on a mobile device, the user can navigate the property and find exactly where the utility lines are located.

“In the solar industry, the process of installation can take a very long time, more than a year in some cases,” Marzio says. “Many times, the customer will have me go out and locate an area where they want the arrays to go, and depending on what I find, they may or may not stay in that location. Sometimes it’s six to eight months later before they actually drill. Many times I’m sent to re-mark the area.”

With the aerial mapping solution, the locations Marzio marks would then permanently be recorded and can be disseminated to all parties involved in the build process.

“We’ve been talking to some of my customers and they’re very interested in it because it puts everybody they are working with on the same page,” Marzio says. “They can look at their phones or computers at the same time and everybody can talk about the same thing and see exactly what is going on at the same time.”

EXCITED FOR THE FUTURE

With the addition of the mapping services via the drones and continuous calls for other utility locating services, Marzio says he’s looking forward to what his company will do in the future.

“This has really peaked my interested as far as where I can take this company,” Marzio says. “I have a feeling that once this gets played out and you can show customers exactly what we can provide them, I think this might be a good way for this company to go and focus on this type of work.”

Marzio has always had a goal of having three to five locators on staff who can go out and he can trust to perform quality locates. “That’s as big as I’d like to get,” he says. “I don’t want to let it get too large and to where I can’t control what is going on out there. Maintaining our high level of accuracy and professionalism as we grow is our primary focus.”


Not mixing signals

Dave Marzio is quick to mention both the vScan (Vivax-Metrotech) and Pipehorn 800 (Pipehorn Utility Tool) utility locators as his go-to pieces of equipment on job sites.

“The Pipehorn and vScan are really versatile pieces of equipment,” says Marzio, owner of California-based Spearhead Locating Services.

The vScan offers a dual-frequency transmitter, data logging, option metal manhole cover detector, GPS and Bluetooth. The receiver offers 32 or 131 kHz active locate signals and passive signals for power, radio and cathodic protection.

“When you put it on the passive mode and you have a live line, the vScan does a great job of picking it up,” Marzio says. “After you do a scan and find something, you can latch onto it with the transmitter and get a positive location on that line.”

The Pipehorn 800 offers simultaneous conductive transmission of both high (480 kHz) and low (9 kHz) frequencies for congested areas and for long-distance locates.

“Those are my tools that I go to all the time,” Marzio says.



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