utility digging

Photo provided from the Damage Prevention Professional Library


With the adoption of automatic data-collection technology into the subsurface utility industry coming at the heels of new retailer and government mandates, keeping ahead of the curve is becoming cheaper and easier for utility companies, public agencies, and contractors alike.


One such piece of technology, which first emerged back in the late 1970’s, is radio frequency identification (RFID).  Now significantly cheaper and more accurate than it was more than two decades ago, RFID is one of the fastest growing technologies being embraced by utility companies today.


In many ways, it represents the future of subsurface utility locating, as older techniques simply do not offer the wide range of cost effective benefits that make RFID such a financially sound tool.


When implemented effectively, RFID has the potential to reduce costs associated with unnecessary extraction techniques, as well as providing a more complete and accurate method of mapping and marking subsurface assets. The majority of utility entities operating around the country today have yet to fully realize the benefits such a system offers to underutilize the value such technology can offer.


Unfortunately, a few misperceptions regarding the technology’s basic properties and abilities in the field have kept it out of the hands of organizations, which would otherwise benefit from its superior capabilities.


A Technological Overview


In broad terms, RFID describes a set of technologies that work by exchanging data wirelessly from a chip to a receiver. In a subsurface utility application, the chip is placed onto buried assets in the form of a tag with technicians using handheld digital readers to locate particular chips from above ground.


The data collected by the readers can then be sent wirelessly to a host computer running software capable of mapping utility lines buried beneath the ground.


From a physical standpoint, RFID is comprised of just a handful of relatively simple components, which together form a powerful system of asset mapping and locating.



Also sometimes referred to as transponders, consist of a simple semiconductor chip and antenna used to transmit data to a RFID reader above ground, and ultimately a central host computer system were data can be organized.


Read/write devices
Also called interrogators, or more commonly, “readers.” Operators on the surface to locate and identify assets buried beneath them use these.


Installed on both the tags and the reader, antennas transmit data back and forth and send mapping data to a host computer.


After being installed onto a central host computer, the RFID-integrated software compiles mapping data. This information can then be used to create 3D maps showing precise location data.


This type of system differs from more traditional tracer wire systems through the ways these components communicate with one another. Where older wire systems require powered connections in order to disrupt electromagnetic fields, RFID relies on radio frequencies, which constitute themselves passively.


In terms of cost effectiveness, the financial benefit of less maintenance projects as a result of less equipment failure means more money saved from frivolous expenditures needed to repair wire buried deep beneath the surface.


This difference gives RFID systems a considerable advantage over electromagnetic units without the need for a dedicated power system. Even without active power, RFID tags can hold a wealth of data useful for both mapping and locating purposes. Tags are capable of holding 64 characters of user defined data such as asset number, serial number and date, among others.


For more information on the InfraMarker, Berntsen’s cutting-edge, all-in-one RFID marking system, visit the InfraMarker product page or request a catalog.