We spend most of our working lives pursuing the holy grail: namely, value.

But changes to legislation are putting utility companies and contractors under increased pressure to meet ever increasing standards of performance.

Who would like to work more efficiently, more safely and with an improved public image?

You would be hard pressed to find anyone in any business sector who would say no to this. We live in an age when:

  • Demand for underground space has never been greater
  • When health-and-safety regulations have never been stricter
  • When market forces have never been more competitive
  • When congestion on our roads has never been worse
  • When the public’s culture of complaint has never been stronger.

We are putting more and more plastic utilities into the ground. And yet we continue to emphasise the need for site workers to use traditional detection equipment that is unable to detect these utilities.

Add to these factors the fact that the simple digging of a hole is now surrounded by a minefield of legislation, and you will understand how getting it right first time is now essential if the spiralling costs are to be controlled.

Prior knowledge of utility services beneath the ground can change the economics and reduce the risk significantly. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was one service that could solve a multitude of problems? Well, the answer is: there is.

Companies such as 40SEVEN specialise in using sophisticated non-destructive technology (NDT) to produce comprehensive data as electronic cross sections, showing the exact route, depth and type of buried pipes and cables, without having to dig a hole in the ground.

Non-intrusive surveying also reduces hole tax for the contractor, and complies with Health & Safety Executive (HSE) legislation HS (G) 47, which recommends a utility survey to be carried out before any digging commences. Surveys also identify clear or unused space below the ground, enabling contractors to plan the route of new pipelines or cables with greater confidence.

Utility surveying, however, is not a commodity produced and delivered in an identical format by any supplier. While the final drawings may look similar, the reliability and accuracy of utility surveying relies on skilled site operators, often with years of practical experience.

At 40SEVEN, we pride ourselves on having a skilled workforce with as weight of experience in underground utility surveying services, which are notable in an otherwise immature market.

Indeed, a number of employees have developed and invented some of the electromagnetic technology that is currently used in today’s market place.

They have provided training to many surveyors and experts around the world for the past 30 years on how to use and read the data gathered on both existing and new technology.

Working practices

The cleverness of underground utility mapping for site investigation is having the instinct to recognise when new technology should be mixed with conventional detection equipment.

Rather than one piece of equipment being the standalone, universal solution, an integrated approach is essential. The specific requirements and issues faced by, say, water companies, or consultants, or civil engineering contractors are important. All share common challenges but, equally, they each have individual requirements.

There has never been a better time to reconsider the accepted working practices that we employ on our streets and highways.

To do so, the underground construction and utility industries must change their mindset. And, with the recent flood of smaller, easy-to-use radar systems into the UK market, I believe this is starting to happen.

If underground utility surveying technology has come of age, it is time for users to recognise the potential. The options for change include the wholesale adoption of NDT methods, to the extent that every utility van carries a user-friendly ground-penetrating radar unit in the same way that they currently carry a cable and pipe locator.

Alternatively, rather than bringing the technology in-house, there is an increasing role for third-party specialists like 40SEVEN to play, working in partnership with their clients, to assist with difficult locates or sites.

The HSE may have an important role to play at this point. Although use of GPR is referred to in HS (G) 47, it is not stipulated to the same extent as is use of a pipe and cable locator, prior to and during excavation work.

We are now faced with a new level of product sophistication, and the perennial problem of utility strikes, coupled with the fact that more and more non-metallic utilities are being buried daily below our streets without any thought on how to detect them afterwards.

Is it now time for the HSE to re-assess its strength of support for NDT methods of surveying?

Web-based data

What is exciting is the speed in which new technology is helping to develop and extend the services that underground utility surveying companies can provide.

40SEVEN is currently working on web-based information systems for large sites that enable all information about what lies beneath the ground to be available to any contractor or consultant working on the site.

The client retains control of access to the information, but it means that everyone starts from the same point and the amount of site investigation that has to be carried out before work commences can be significantly reduced.

The website, which is hosted by 40SEVEN on behalf of the client, can be easily updated and integrates a range of online information including CCTV footage and GIS.

Finally, faced with a service that really can improve efficiencies, safety and public relations, it is inconceivable that NDT methods will remain peripheral. If the initial disappointment and the resulting cynicism can be overcome, the value of modern underground utility surveying techniques will finally be realised.

The construction and utility industries have a responsibility to their employees, the public and their shareholders not to ignore it. It has a valuable place within the market.

Pete Bevils is managing director of 40SEVEN.

T: 0700 447 4747.

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