Photo courtesy of the Damage Prevention Professional Library


The subsurface utility industry has more or less kept itself satisfied with the same technological tools for decades.


Although the tried and true methods for asset location and marking have proved useful to utility agencies and public works technicians over the years, its effectiveness has recently come under scrutiny as newer tools are giving utility workers a measurably more accurate and cost-effective way to manage their utility assets.


Tracer wire systems are one of the premier systems utilized by utility technicians to establish a system for locating buried assets. From a technical perspective, the system is relatively simple: copper wire is laid under the surface near buried utilities. When the asset’s location is needed, technicians use a simple signal and receiver system that detects the electromagnetic signals produced by the buried conductive wire.


Utility companies, public agencies and a variety of contracting services use devices equipped with electromagnetic pipe detection (EPD) technology to find the signals given off by the tracer wire. When a wire is identified, excavation crews can then begin extraction operations to service or remove the asset.


Tracer Wire Capabilities Limited When Compared to Newer Systems


Although this system has become standardized within the subsurface utility industry, newer technologies have begun to raise the bar on accuracy, equipment durability, and time considerations among other things.


A number of flaws with tracer wire have presented challenges for utility technicians over the many years of its use. Perhaps the primary disadvantage of tracer wire system stems from the material of the equipment itself. Although praised for its high conductivity, copper wire is not a particularly durable metal––especially when exposed to weather and other environmental effects over long periods of time.


Another problem commonly attributed to tracer wire systems made up of a number of separate wire systems in close proximity is signal jump. This can also occur when metal piping or other conductive materials are close to the wire being detected. False signal readings can result in frivolous excavation operations that can quickly send project expenditures well over budget.


A third disadvantage of wire tracing systems are expenses. Although compared to other conductive metals, copper is a relatively durable choice, wire breaks, and deterioration can often mean frequent replacement wire is needed. Tracer wire is very difficult and expensive to replace because it must be dug up. Indeed, tracer is often not replaced at all after being broken.


Depending on the specifics of your project, some circumstances may require some areas of bent wire in order to accommodate for environmental or manmade hazards. This can further strain wires and increase the chance of damage.


Finally, it should be noted that tracer wire marks a path only. If there are "elevation elbows," splices or junction boxes on the marked line, the location of them is not noted by tracer wire.


RFID Presents a Novel Solution to Wire Tracer Problems


With wire tracer systems presenting a number of potentially costly problems to utility companies, a number of newer methods are now making their way into the utility industry.


Radio-frequency identification (RFID) was first developed over 30 years ago, but has recently emerged as a viable tracking and identification system for a variety of industries.


Specifically for the subsurface utility industry, it provides a method for tracking, locating as well as mapping buried assets more accurately than previous systems were capable of.


Rather than utilizing electromagnetic signals relying on temperamental wire systems, RFID gives technicians a higher degree of confidence in a system built with longevity in mind. In addition to better-constructed materials, RFID also provides a much more complete array of features compared to traditional tools.


Where the benefits of tracer wire stop with simple asset location, RFID can provide on-site technicians with digital asset ID’s in real-time. RFID can also be integrated with third party software to create digitalized asset maps used for future reference.


Using a passive power system, RFID tags require no power source and are capable of surviving underground for much longer periods of time, even under environmental strain and duress.


Although initial costs associated with emerging technology can dissuade potential buyers from going forward with new solutions, RFID is an investment many are finding is worth the long-term return.


To learn more about the InfraMarker, Berntsen's all-in-one underground RFID marking system, visit the InfraMarker product page or request a catalog.