Get the Most Out of Your Locating Equipment

An understanding of potential job site challenges can help operators differentiate between malfunctioning tools or a job site issue
Get the Most Out of Your Locating Equipment
Accurate locating is about adjusting to the conditions of the job site.

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With some machines, a consistent regimen of preventive maintenance is critical. Oil needs to be changed out and components need to be greased, or you could be in store for an equipment breakdown out in the field. Locating equipment is no different. It requires a certain amount of maintenance to keep it operational — but that alone won’t ensure success on the job site. You need a solid understanding of how to actually do locating work.

Without that knowledge, it’s easy to mistake a job site problem for an equipment malfunction. Bad depth. Doesn’t locate right. Those are the types of brief, vague descriptions that sometimes accompany McLaughlin locators that get sent in for repair, says Matt Manning, the company’s products manager of electronics.

“We have a physical test we do where we check the equipment at three points. We check multiple frequencies and different modes of locating. If we can’t find a problem, we can’t fix it,” Manning says. “An extremely high percentage of the units we send back out, we never hear about again, which indicates there must have been something wrong at the job site. That’s not our goal. We don’t like sending people equipment where we didn’t define what was wrong. But a majority of the time it’s the user not understanding the job site.”

And in the world of utility locating, the potential job site issues are plentiful. It begins with using the equipment properly.

“Sometimes a locator is only as accurate as its operator,” Manning says. “There can be a lot of human error. A locator is designed to be held straight up and down, not swinging around. And you don’t want to grip the instrument. You want to keep your thumbs relaxed so the locator is always hanging down.”

That allows the locator to move along a consistent, horizontal plane — not according to the contours of the ground.

“I’ve seen a lot of bad locates on the inclines and declines along the side of a road because the instrument was not being used on a consistent, horizontal plane,” Manning says. “I saw a case where there was a mislocate on an embankment because the person was just trying to keep the locator at the same distance off the ground and was not moving on a consistent plane. The locate was right — if you were going off an angle.”

From there, accurate locating is about adjusting to the conditions of the job site. For example, say you’re trying to locate an underground line in an area congested with other utilities. Manning suggests locating the line to a known point.

“You don’t want to just walk away 50 feet from where you’re connected, start to locate and say with certainty you have your line. You want to do an evaluation. Locate back to the source and, if possible, the next visible indicator. I’ve seen a lot of bad locates in which the operator walked to where they thought the utility should be and thought they had it, but they didn’t understand that the signal they were sending out wasn’t on just their utility.”

A remedy for improving the likelihood of staying on your targeted utility in a congested environment is to start your locate in a less congested area.

“People tend to focus on the congested environment,” Manning says. “Instead of setting up at, say a telephone pole or utility box in that area, go to the next one that’s not in the congested area. Locate from the uncongested area into the congested area. That can help a lot in that situation.”

An understanding of soil conditions is also important. Dry soil is less conductive than wet soil and may produce a weak signal on the line being targeted, creating a more challenging locate. That comes into play especially with sandy soils.

“If it recently rained, sand might work alright, but sand drains very quickly so the top surface might not contain any moisture,” Manning says. “You might have to use a different (grounding element). I’ve used a stop sign before to get a ground in sandy situations.”

That can also be helpful in the wintertime when you may be dealing with frozen ground.

“Frozen ground is highly resistant. One time I used a sign that was below the frost line,” Manning says. “That got me from a high resistance down to a wet, low resistance. The key is getting a good ground for the transmitter.”

Develop an understanding of some of these finer points of locating and perhaps you won’t find yourself sending the equipment back to the manufacturer, assuming that it’s the source of your difficulties on a job site.

“People I have worked with who have at least a day of locator training — and I don’t mean on only the instrument — are much better than someone who just grabbed the equipment, read the manual and went out there,” Manning says. “It’s two parts. You have to know the equipment and how to utility locate.”

For more information on locator maintenance, check out our September/October Machine Shop feature.


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