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What is a Locator?

Everywhere you look, there is a network of critical infrastructure that supports everything we do to work, play and just plain survive. From water and sewer lines to gas and telecommunications cables to electrical lines, these underground assets provide a lifeline to all of us. However, their lack of visibility poses significant challenges when it comes to construction, DIY projects, landscaping, maintenance, and avoiding accidental damage in any of these situations. This is where a locator will step in, playing a pivotal role in ensuring the integrity and safety of these essential systems.

Before we go further, it is important we try to comprehend just how vast the network of utilities buried beneath the surface really is. Take something as simple as your home. At a minimum in most places in Canada, you will have many lines traversing your property, connecting in from the main lines on the street or in other right of ways near your property that allow you and your house to function. These include water and wastewater/sewage pipes, electrical cables, gas lines, and telecommunications conduits. There may even be other lines running through your property for outdoor lighting, sprinklers, hot tubs, pools, and many more. In most cases, the majority of these lines are underground and out of sight. Take this further and running under the streets and sidewalks are more of these service lines connecting our neighbourhoods, which then connect further into larger central nodes or stations, which then are fed from transmission lines or processing stations. The network is everywhere under our feet and any disruption or damage can lead to costly repairs, service interruptions, and even safety hazards. Repairing underground utilities can also be time-consuming and costly, not to matter put people at risk, further underscoring the importance of preventing damage in the first place.

Enter the locator. These tradespeople use sophisticated tools designed to detect and map the precise location of buried utilities. Locators use technologies such as electromagnetic induction, ground-penetrating radar, and acoustic methods to identify and trace underground assets. Sometimes, infrastructure isn’t detectable using any technology and they are required to use different combinations of unreliable drawings and their own problem solving skills for these complex situations. By accurately pinpointing the location of utilities, locators enable construction crews, utility workers, landscapers and excavators to work safely and efficiently without risking damage to critical infrastructure or risking harm to themselves and the greater public.

In Ontario where I live, locating really came into the forefront many years ago in 2003 when a strip mall exploded in Toronto, killing many innocent people working and visiting stores. A gas leak from construction work had gone unchecked and sparked an explosion. The outcome of this really precipitated much of the focus on legislation a few years later and the drive to make locating a requirement for all excavation work. The industry has continued to evolve since then across North America and processes and technology have reached new levels providing further certainty and safety to the community at large. In behind all of us is a locator who will go to the field to physically verify the location of underground infrastructure, so for every new project or development or activity in our community, there is a locator involved at some point.

Locators don’t just provide underground information for construction, they can also be used to provide key upfront data during the planning and engineering phases of a project. They can inform a design to ensure the project is designed properly up front and avoid costly delays later on and to avoid potentially impacting the businesses and homeowners nearby.

Locators also form part of our emergency response services, often called to accidents and dangerous situations to ensure its safe for equipment and workers to help in a situation. Think a traffic or utility pole being hit by a car or a gas line being hit by a fence installer and before first responders can react to the situation or help people, they need to ensure they know where the electrical and gas and other lines are so they don’t accidentally hurt themselves or cause an explosion during the operation. Because of this, locating companies will always have locators on call 24-7 to respond to emergencies.

More than anything though, a locator ensures we can all go about our lives safely and efficiently without disruption. I’m sure we have all experienced a power or internet outage in recent years. Can you imagine if those were more frequent? Businesses would shut down. You wouldn’t be able to count on connecting and using the internet for anything. Can you imagine contractors damaging your sewage lines out of your house? Or the water lines bringing essential water to hospitals or businesses? How about the gas that comes to many of our homes and businesses and schools that allow us to stay warm through the winter? The fact that we rarely experience outages is a testament to the damage prevention community and the work that’s been done to ensure we can live our lives safely and without worry.

This reliance on underground utilities is only growing and with that comes the continued need for accurate and reliable methods of locating and mapping these assets. Locators will continue to help ensure the safety, efficiency, and sustainability of construction, development, landscape, and maintenance projects. So, thank a locator this week if you see them working in your neighbourhood. I’m sure they’d love to teach you about the colours of the flags and the lines on the road and teach you about their equipment. And if not, just feel comforted that they are out there ensuring you don’t have to live or work with constant disruptions.  

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