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Utility Company Uses RFID to Identify Underground Pipes, Wires

Bravo Environmental has buried approximately 100 InfraMarker tags to help it identity the locations of infrastructure, as well as the work performed at those areas.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 04, 2016

Seattle-based underground utility maintenance and inspection company Bravo Environmental is burying a radio frequency identification tag at each location it accesses underground, in order to create an automatic record of what occurred, as well as where and when, and to enable personnel and customers to locate a particular pipe, conduit or other underground equipment after it is covered. The company is using the InfraMarker's asset-management solution, provided by Berntsen—which consists of the RFID tags, an iOS- and Android-based app, and geographic information systems (GIS) software supplied AmigoCloud—to manage data regarding each marker's location.

Bravo Environmental operates vacuum trucks to clean sewer lines and catch basins, and also provides excavation (commonly referred to as potholing) by digging holes to search for buried pipes or other infrastructure, in advance of construction projects. This task, known as subsurface utility engineering (SUE), is carried out so that when contractors begin a project—as building a road or digging a trench, for example—they can avoid inadvertently striking an existing underground pipe, cable or other asset.

The InfraMarker 362B utility marker is made with an Omni-ID Dura 3000 RFID tag.
In May 2016, Bravo began burying approximately 50 InfraMarker tags underground near Interstate 90 in Bellevue, Wash. Each tag contains an off-the-shelf EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID transponder, as well as a magnet detectable by means of a magnetic locator. The company determined that Berntsen's markers could easily be scanned by an RFID reader or magnetic locator after the project was complete, says Kemp Garcia, Bravo Environmental's project manager, and is now installing the markers wherever it digs.

The SUE excavation process consists of evaluating an area at the request of an engineering firm, with workers visibly searching for manholes or other signs of utilities aboveground and then excavating to seek the horizontal and vertical locations of a piece of infrastructure, such as a gas line, water pipe or electric cable. Before Bravo Environmental began using the InfraMarker system, its employees manually recorded the locations of whatever they found underground, took pictures of those items and forwarded that data to the office so that the information could be packaged and shared with the customer. "Our history," Garcia says, "has been sending crews out with a spreadsheet," who then recorded the size, depth and type of utility they located. However, he adds, this process can be slow and still leaves room for error.

For years, Garcia reports, he has been seeking a more automated solution that could precisely identify where underground infrastructure exists, so that it could easily be found again. Although there are other RFID solutions for this application, he notes, some customers—such as engineers, utility employees or contractors—lack an RFID reader on hand to access data, or the ability to easily access the information in the field.

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