May 2020 Vol. 75 No. 5


Past SUE Reviews, Predictions & Accomplishments

[Editor's Note: This article accompanies the feature, "Subsurface Utility Engineering Decade in Review; Prognostication of the Future."


By James Anspach

To put in perspective just how far SUE has come in 30 years, here are my previous 10-year summaries:

Subsurface Utility Engineering in 2010 – A Look Back and Towards the Future

Every 10 years or so, I have the good fortune to be able to reflect back and project forward the trends that I see happening in the field of subsurface utility engineering (SUE). This year seems like a good time to do so again, with the re-authorization of ASCE 38 on the imminent horizon. Here’s what I said in an update article in 2001 (Subsurface Utility Engineering – 2001 in review):

“Although a long time coming, the ASCE is expected to publish its Standard Guideline for the Collection and Depiction of Existing Subsurface Utility Data this year. Lawyers on both sides of utility claims are anxiously awaiting this standard, which will be the first standard of its kind that specifically assists engineers in recognizing and managing their utility risks.”

This past decade has indeed seen the value of a national standard for utility data collection. Just in the past year, there have been numerous court cases, large and small, where ASCE 38 has played a significant role in determining the outcome of who pays and how much. A vast majority of these cases settle before there is an official ruling, so it is difficult to determine actual numbers of cases or damages. That being said, I am personally aware of five cases where the total combined damages came close to $200 million dollars.

This trend is bound to continue, as a history of standards adoption and use shows us that their impact begins to arrive about 10 years after initial publication. The second edition of ASCE 38 will not have many changes from the original. That may not be the case looking forward to a third edition. An increasing focus on utility issues research is giving us several clues as to what the practice of subsurface utility engineering may look like a decade from now.

Of course, it is not in the court cases that the value of a standard is best determined. The increasing use of the standard in procurements, specifications, legislation, and practice has benefited project owners, engineers, contractors, utility owners, and most importantly, the citizen. A recent study of the value of subsurface utility engineering by Penn State shows how well we are beginning to leverage this standard as an integral component and concept of SUE.

Previous studies of the value of SUE showed returns on investment at 462 percent (Purdue University), 700 percent (VDOT/FHWA), and 341 percent (University of Toronto). These studies were all performed while the SUE learning curve was in its infancy. The 2008 Penn State study showed a whopping 2,200 percent ROI on a mature SUE program of PENNDOT, with designers trained in how to best use the data. It has been especially gratifying to see state DOTs in Georgia, Utah, Washington and South Carolina embrace and grow their SUE programs from an idea to a robust effort.

ASCE 38 is becoming a world standard. Australia recently licensed it from ASCE for its use. Canada, U.K. and Mexico are leaning in that direction. This follows the understanding that the U.S. utility issues are not unique. Just in the past five years, there has been an infusion of money into the research of utility issues and their solutions. It is a worldwide phenomenon. The European Union funded a study called ORFEUS (Optimising Radar for Finding Everything Under the Street). The U.K. has an ongoing series of studies called Mapping the Underworld.

Here in the United States, we have a large program organized under the direction of the National Academies (Transportation Research Board, Strategic Highway Program, National Cooperative Highway Research Program). And many more are coming from industry groups such as Gas Technology Institute, American Water Works Research Foundation and the Electric Power Research Institute, to name but a few. Private companies such as Caterpillar, Trimble, John Deere, AutoDesk and others continue to fund their own utility-related research.

Data collection

One large push of the research field has been with data collection techniques. GPR has made tremendous strides this decade in ease of use, cost reduction, results, and data output/visualization. It is still (and in my opinion will be so for the foreseeable future) only one tool in the toolbox, but it is now becoming a necessary tool, rather than an exotic one.

Fusing data sensors and data interpretation with a multiple-platform device is one area of research that goes beyond the traditional practice of covering the same ground multiple times with multiple methods and instruments. We saw the beginnings of this with Witten Technologies and the continuance through Underground Imaging Technologies.

Another significant area of both research and progress is in the referencing of utilities’ locations. Laser survey methods, GPS, inertial referencing systems and photo referencing are lowering the costs and time for accurately documenting utilities. This presents both opportunities and dangers. We will need to be diligent and smart in our use of these new technologies.

A third area of research is in utility data management. Acronyms such as GIS (geographic information systems), BIM (building information modeling), and BAM (buried asset management) are now becoming commonplace. We are learning how to leverage the ability to collect and reference good data for intelligent and timely project development and maintenance. Future 3D visualizations of underground utilities may very well mirror this decade’s amazing development of Google Earth.

As with any industry in its early stages, we are seeing growth, consolidation and leverage. The recent purchase of TBE by Cardno is an example. Another example is the development of SUE “divisions” in traditional A/E firms such as Woolpert, Cobb Fendley and Halff & Associates. Even private equity funds are getting into the mix.

So, what is coming in the next decade? We will see more consolidation of SUE firms. We will see a big increase in utility database repositories. I believe this will initially create more problems than it will solve, as we will experience the same “garbage in/garbage out” problems we have always had until we develop industry “certified record drawing” standards and methods of enforcement.

We will see an increasing emphasis in utility issues for project designers. As a function of this, we will see educational institutions place increasing emphasis on utilities through course offerings at the advanced level.

We will see a gradual lessening of the knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 security issues and its manifestation in the unwillingness to share data as the benefits of collaboration for our limited underground space are weighed.

We will see DOTs taking a more active role in utility management in its rights-of-way. Unfortunately, we may see some utility disasters as a result of us not knowing where something is, or not effectively communicating that information to the excavator.

Subsurface Utility Engineering – 2001 in review

The marketplace for subsurface utility engineering is continuing to grow at an unprecedented pace in 2001. As has always been the case, the state DOT market for these services continues to lead demand. Illinois, Washington and Georgia have all begun statewide programs. They join the well-established programs in several other states.

Arkansas, Missouri and South Carolina are slated to begin programs in 2002. Most of these states are only utilizing the mapping component of SUE, but some are adding utility coordination and relocation design to their SUE programs. We expect it to be only a matter of time before states with significant highway systems come to their senses.

Municipalities, airports and pharmaceutical plants have registered a large increase in demand. Perhaps the greatest demand is from the civil engineering community. Prime engineering firms are realizing that subsurface utility engineering is becoming the standard around the country. Continued promotion from ASCE, FHWA, AASHTO, AGC and other organizations fuels this realization.

Case law has also been a persuasive factor for SUE. The January 2002 issue of Civil Engineering magazine cited a recent state supreme court case where it determined that an engineer owes a duty of care to a contractor, regardless of any direct contractual relationship. Specifically, the court found that the contractor was entitled to economic damages caused by the errors or omissions of utility data on the plans (Eastern Steel v. City of Salem).

From a contractor’s point of view, would you rather sue the project owner who could give you future contracts, or sue the engineer who will never be in a position to offer you a contract? Engineers are realizing that they can lower their liability exposure by placing a competent subsurface utility engineer on their team.

Although a long time coming, ASCE is expected to publish its Standard Guideline for the Collection and Depiction of Existing Subsurface Utility Data this year. Lawyers on both sides of utility claims are anxiously awaiting this standard, which will be the first that specifically assists engineers in recognizing and managing their utility risks. Other documents, like AASHTO’s Best Utility Practices, FHWA’s Manual on Avoiding Utility Relocations, and AASHTO’s guide on avoiding construction delays are prominently featuring SUE as a solution to utility issues.

A recent internet search for subsurface utility engineering turned up hundreds of firms promoting their expertise in SUE. Just two years ago, there might have been 50 such firms. As always, explosive growth will bring lots of errors, misconceptions, and downright deceptions to the profession. Utilities present great risks; consumers beware

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