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RFID Helps Prevent Sewer Disasters

The Village of Thiensville is tracking its main sewer line, to determine whether and where it's safe for contractors and homeowners to dig.
By Minda Zetlin
Aug 13, 2012—Before anyone in Wisconsin—contractors and homeowners alike—can begin an outdoor construction or improvement project, a call must first be made to the Diggers Hotline, to find out where it is and is not safe to dig. The state enacted the law to improve worker safety, and to prevent damage to underground communication and utility cables and pipes.

In the Village of Thiensville, a one-square-mile town with roughly 3,200 residents, a call to Diggers Hotline traditionally set in motion a complex process. Thiensville would call its engineering firm, Ruekert/Mielke, which would dispatch surveyors armed with existing information regarding where underground facilities were located, along with a vacuum extraction truck. The surveyors would then vacuum down until they could actually see the cable or pipe, and determine whether someone could safely dig at a particular location—and, if so, how deep.

Andy Lafond and Bill Rushing locate an RFID marker.

But the engineers serve other clients as well, so it could take at least three days until they surveyed a site, according to Andy LaFond, the Village of Thiensville's director of public works. Sometimes, a crew would be paid to wait, with shovels at the ready. That situation raised the fear that an impatient contractor or homeowner could decide to dig before receiving official permission. And if the digging were necessary to deal with an emergency, such as a leak or damaged pipe, repair crews might be unable to wait for the surveyors and their extraction truck.

The possibility of damaging the village's force main sanitary sewer line was a particular concern. The 5,000-foot force main runs through an urban area, intersecting with multiple utilities. "This sewer station can pump 4 million gallons a day," LaFond says. "So if we either didn't locate a pipe in time for a contractor, or inaccurately located it and someone accidentally dug through it, the consequences would be enormous in terms of repair, environmental cleanup and fines from the Department of Natural Resources."
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