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How to Meaningfully Increase Locate Capacity Quickly on Projects

The concept of dedicated locating was borne out of the bottlenecks that have emerged over the past 7+ years due to major projects and continued infrastructure revitalization and expansion projects. It is a concept that makes sense since it separates the project locates from smaller public locates like homeowner requests. Its not that simple though since often there is simply not enough locate capacity to separate the two. As a result, it has forced the larger Locate Service Providers (LSPs) to hire and train at huge expense while also being forced to constantly juggle between the public and dedicated locates.

It takes over a year to get a new locator to a workable level of locating from scratch and that is if they stay long enough to get to that point, so ramping up and adding locators to handle the load is not a quick fix. What this means is while there can be added locators added, because of the long learning curve, incremental locate capacity often has a lag of 1-2 years. Sounds bleak I know, but there are some things that could be done to increase capacity quickly and I will outline these below. Its not lost on me that these would take considerable coordination between utility owners and alignment on legal and systems, but we can dream.

In case you do not want to read the entire article, here are the main changes proposed:

  1. Eliminate or Minimize Locate Drawings on Dedicated Projects (20-30% Capacity Impact)
  2. Ticket Request Simplification for Dedicated Projects (10-20% Capacity Impact)
  3. Small-Medium LSP Use on Dedicated Projects (<5% Capacity Impact)
  4. Automatic Alternative Locate Agreements (ALA) (<5% Capacity Impact)
  5. Contractor Self Locating (Long Term Impact)

Eliminate or Minimize Locate Drawings on Dedicated Projects (20-30% Capacity Impact)

The biggest opportunity is to eliminate the need for detailed locate drawings, particularly on dedicated locate projects. Drawing takes 20-30% of a locator’s time and in most cases, contractors rely solely on the field markings and don’t need to refer to the drawings. The main reason drawings have evolved to the complex level they have is for redundancy (markings on ground are unclear), clarity (again, doubt about markings or field conditions), and liability (if a damage does occur, drawings are used as the de facto record of the locate). These are all valid reasons and evolved out of historical accidents and lessons learned so I don’t question the value they add. The requirement for detailed drawings is not a regulatory requirement though and come as a result of industry best practices and many locate contracts reference these practices and often outline their own specific drawing needs too, making it incredibly complex for LSPs to get around the drawing requirements. But dedicated projects already have special approvals and additional liability controls built in due to their nature combined with higher levels of coordination between project owners, contractors, and LSPs. As a result, there is a real opportunity to simplify and minimize drawing requirements to free up some of that 25% of a locator’s time so they can actually deliver completed locates and keep drills and plows moving.  Utility owner liability concerns will make this difficult to achieve, however contracts between LSPs, project owners, and utility owners for dedicated projects could easily be modified to address this to address practices and liability.

Ticket Request Simplification for Dedicated Projects (10-20% Capacity Impact)

A significant multi-party process improvement is for contractors and LSP’s to work together on minimizing locate areas. Often contractors will put tickets in for the entire area of their project without consideration for the additional time or complexity this adds to a locator, even though the contractor will never be working in the entire area. This has major capacity issues for LSPs depending on locations, side of street, and complexity of utilities. By working together when a ticket is put in, 10-20% of locates could be eliminated or reduced on dedicated projects.

Small-Medium LSP Use on Dedicated Projects (<5% Capacity Impact)

Right now the dedicated locator market is being managed mostly by the larger LSPs due to the fact they have existing contracts in place with the largest utilities as well as the resources and training to handle the requirements. This makes complete sense and is the safest and quickest path to implementation for project owners. There is however much more locate capacity on the market through small-medium LSPs that don’t have these contracts in place or the scale of the larger LSPs. In fact, the larger LSPs are often using the smaller LSPs already as subcontractors on these projects to help with capacity demands without any concerns from utility owners because the owners trust the larger LSPs to manage the quality and risk. What’s creating a bottleneck however is that the larger LSP is tying up money and time providing oversight and equipment to these smaller LSPs and the small LSPs are losing margin on their work too. If this necessity to go through the large LSPs were eliminated under certain conditions, it would free up resources for both parties to invest and grow their businesses to serve the market. More capacity is created all around and more options exist for project owners and would allow the large LSP’s to focus on the bigger projects, which the smaller LSPs could be targeted for more specific smaller scaled dedicated projects, which are difficult for the larger LSPs to focus on.

Automatic Alternative Locate Agreements (ALA) (<5% Capacity Impact)

ALA’s already are in use in certain situations, but these can be more broadly implemented. Right now, if a project owner wants to agree on some special rules or situations where locate processes can be avoided or minimized, they need to get the agreement in writing by every utility owner impacted. Flipping the approach to include some standard ALA pre-approval conditions, effectively automatically approving them, still with the ability to counter them could speed up locates.

Contractor Self Locating (Long Term Impact)

This is a tricky one because there is huge potential for the contractors on site to do their own locating. Its makes logistical sense and it would allow them to cross train and more effectively utilize all resources on site. In practice though, this is a very complex undertaking that requires understanding of the locate quality and safety processes and proper oversight and training, none of which most contractors have experience in. This could be a role for the regulator or industry bodies or even LiUNA as the major union to help facilitate for future capacity however.

Final Thoughts The changes discussed in this article consist of both process efficiencies and leveraging current underutilized capacity as well as investment in the future. There is an opportunity with some greater coordination between the regulator and major utility owners to minimize some contractual and process bottlenecks as well as contractor/LSP ticket coordination that could free up 20-40% capacity on dedicated locating projects immediately. Additional smaller changes could serve to add more capacity beyond that and make the locate market more robust for the future. There are different levels of risk tolerance, resourcing, and visibility between various utility owners for sure, but the optimist in me sees a path to address risk and quality concerns to an acceptable level to help the broader goals.  

Ron Laidman, P.Eng., C.Dir., MBA