Jeff Ambrose Mitchell, a Subsurface Utility Engineering (SUE) industry expert, and author of three books on designating best practices, has joined the SAM Learning and Development team. He is collaborating on the development and implementation of several SUE Designator classes for SAM employees. Using an Applied Learning method, the classes provide employees with extensive classroom and hands-on field training to continually build employee skillsets, and provide best in class SUE services for our clients.
Describe the framework of the SUE Designator classes at SAM.
The classes are provided through two and a half days or courses. In the first course we focus on the geophysical instrument operation, the importance of establishing an underground circuit, and understanding electromagnetic fields. We also cover the utility architecture of water and natural gas facilities. The second course is focused on the architecture of the cable utilities, as well as the common problem of distorted electromagnetic fields, how to recognize them, and how to mitigate them. Basically, it has been a matter of breaking up each class into two groups of modules, those that cover some of the utility architecture, and those that cover the designating instrument and its related issues.
What are the goals you hope employees achieve after taking these courses? How are they to apply these learning applications in the field and through their professional careers?
The classes are designed to provide new hires without any SUE experience or knowledge the fundamentals to be confident and productive in their earliest stage of employment. Much of what we learn in our industry is considered “on the job” training, yet that notion mainly entails the familiarity and skill of the occupation. Much of our traditional early learning experiences in other areas take place in a classroom where we studied the basics, like how to read and write. Then, we took that knowledge outside and put it to use. That is what we need to do in our occupation as well; consume as much as we can when training is available, and then build that greater familiarity and skill on the job.
Describe your early experiences in the SUE field.
I have been in the utility industry for over 27 years. I started out in One Call as a field technician locating telephone cables, and later moved into a Regional Trainer position, which I loved. About 15 years ago, I heard about a position with a small SUE firm of two civil engineers that were just starting out. I had never heard of SUE until I met with these two owners. We worked on a variety of projects from Connecticut to California for DOTs, industrial plants, airports, military bases, oil refineries, universities, and directly for a few utility owners. There was a lot of variety.
What training tools do you recommend to professionals wanting to learn more about the utility industry?
When I first started in SUE, I was rather surprised that there were no books available on how to locate or designate buried utility lines. I decided that if no one else was going to cover the subject, then maybe I should. Over the last ten years, I have completed three books and various magazine articles on Utility Mapping. One of my favorites is Locating Buried Utilities: A Professional Approach, co-authored with Christopher Koch, former President of the National Utility Locating Contractors Association (NULCA).
What advanced technology does SAM carry that supports SUE projects across the US?
SAM carries it all. I am always amazed at the tools we have. Our technology suite includes ground penetrating radar units, acoustic geophysical instruments, EM61’s, and I recently found out that crews in both Columbus, Ohio and Brodheadsville, Pennsylvania have been using the Spar 300—a 3D utility modeling instrument—for quite some time. However, the most important instrument that SAM or any other SUE provider uses in designating is a pipe and cable locator. It is the only instrument that can confidently identify an individual utility line, and SAM guarantees that every crew has the top of the line model, the RD8100 or Vivax vLoc 3 series. There are more buried utilities being placed in this country every single minute, so that spider web of underground facilities is growing by the day. At the same time, a few of the manufacturers are developing new technology to help identify individual lines with even greater accuracy, most of it based on comparing the phase shift of multiple frequencies. So, even pipe and cable locators are becoming far more advanced than ever before, and SAM is keeping up with the latest advances in that area.
SUE projects can be simple, yet, many of them include complicated cable architectures such as Digital Loop Carrier Systems and Switch Gear configurations with non-energized power lines. The ASCE 38 SUE standards have not been updated in about 17 years, so it is up to each company to keep diving into the latest technology in both the detection instruments as well as the emerging technologies of the utility industry, and ensuring that this information is getting to the right people in the company. SAM is doing exactly that, which in turn will ensure the most accurate deliverables for clients. SAM is also staying up to date with the proposed changes coming to ASCE 38 and preparing accordingly.
How do you envision the future of utility designating, and what advice do you recommend for professionals entering the field?
A number of us SUE veterans love those old, antiquated instruments from the 1940’s, and the split box locators from the 1960’s, but new advances in technology are driving our occupation forward. The job is becoming more complicated, not less. Designating is a field analysis occupation. The person using the instrument has to make the final decision as to the horizontal position of the utility line. Our occupation is growing every year, but the demand for higher quality results is also growing. The simple one-button instruments are great for placing inside of a glass case in a museum (I own a few of them too), but don’t let yourself become a museum piece. Dive into the latest technology: an RD8100, a Spar 300, an EM61, and of course Ground Penetrating Radar.
SUE is fascinating because it is so beneficial to the clients, to the cost of construction, and to the taxpayers and ratepayers. You need to approach each project with the principle understanding that SUE is an investigation. You never know what you are going to find.