Subsurface Utility Engineering

The term subsurface utility engineering, or SUE for short, has been aroundsince 1989. The practice of subsurface utility engineering is, however, anever-evolving profession.

An exploding demand for better utilityinformation driven through a noticeable financial benefit, case law and anAmerican Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) engineering standard all continue toconvince more project owners and engineers to use SUE. One effect is a rise inthe number of companies that provide services. A recent Google search turned upmore than 5,000 firms operating throughout the United States and Canada thatreference SUE as a service on their Web sites; this compares to just a handfulof firms not quite 10 years ago.

The SUE evolution is quite similar innature to the trenchless technology industry in the 1990s. Throw together agrowing market, new technology, a mix of qualified and unqualified providers anda mix of desires from project owners that encompass the range of professionalservices to day labor, and you get continuing questions on what is subsurfaceutility engineering.

The Correct Answer
The correct answer isthat it is a professional service performed under the direct control of licensedengineers, surveyors and geologists that manages the risks that undergroundutilities present on projects. The fact that it is comprised of a variety oftasks, some highly professional in nature and some relatively low-skilled labor,complicates the picture. Some so-called providers of SUE services can onlysupply the low-skilled labor aspects. But having a vacuum truck does not qualifyas a SUE firm. Surveying a contract locator’s paint marks does not qualify as aSUE firm. However, this is the current state of the industry — a mixture ofqualified professional firms performing or directly managing the tasks thatcomprise SUE, professional firms not directly managing certain SUE tasks butimplying they are and non-professional firms performing labor and calling itSUE.

All of this makes it hard for project owners to figure out how toselect a provider.

ASCE published a national standard in 2000 to addressthis issue. ASCE 38-02 (Standard Guidelines for the Collection and Depiction ofExisting Subsurface Utility Data) was developed to assist project owners andsubsurface utility engineering firms in developing a standardized scope of workfor the important utility mapping tasks integral to SUE. An increasing number ofproject owners are beginning to reference ASCE 38-02 in their requests forproposals (RFPs) and contract specifications as a means to communicateexpectations for their engineers in dealing with existing utilities. This hasproduced a significant shift and expansion in the subsurface utility engineeringmarket.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the primary market for subsurfaceutility engineering was several, progressive state departments of transportation(DOTs). There were occasional clients such as cities, airports, nuclear andindustrial plants and military bases, but they were few and far between. Nudgingby FHWA, DOE, DOD, APWA and other organizations convinced many project owners totry SUE.

Bombarded by claims from local firms that they were providersof SUE, sometimes armed only with a vacuum truck and a ruler or a single pipeand cable locator and colored paint, project owners gave it a try. Theylegitimately determined that their expectations for SUE were not met, notrealizing that they did not select a subsurface utility engineering provider.This slowed market growth considerably. ASCE 38-02 is beginning to reverse thatprocess.

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Beginning in 2000, engineering firms themselves increasingly incorporatingsubsurface utility engineering in their project delivery. No longer is thehiring of SUE firms done just by project owners directly; now a majority of SUEfirms are hired for specific projects by those prime A/E firms managing thatproject for the owner. The reason for this shift is simple; subsurface utilityengineering is becoming a standard of care. Not using SUE leaves engineeringcompanies open to claims of negligence — a claim that is increasing in legalcases around the United States. This trend is driving the SUE market and theproviders within it to higher sales volume. It is slowly weeding out thenon-professional firms. It is rapidly expanding the number of professional firmsgetting into this niche market. It makes for an interesting transitional periodin the subsurface utility engineering world.

To what are wetransitioning? Time will tell but here are some educated guesses. SUE will beused on an increasing number of projects. A majority of those projects will bewhere a prime A/E firm hires a sub-consultant to provide all or a portion ofthose specialized services. The type of projects will continue to expand beyondhighway transportation and will involve projects of any kind where dirt will bemoved during construction. It may also involve projects where the currentpurpose is primarily data collection and management (e.g. GIS systems) forfuture projects unrelated to construction, such as permitting and security.

ASCE 38-02 defines the following responsibilities for engineers. Some ofthose responsibilities are to:

• Advise the project owner regardingpotential impacts that the project may have on existing subsurfaceutilities.
• Inform the project owner regarding utility quality levels andreliability of data for each quality level and costs and benefits.
•Recommend a scope for utility investigations dependent upon project needs.Discuss and recommend formatting of deliverables.
• Discuss sequence ofacquiring appropriate quality level data throughout the planning and designprocess.
• Prepare a utility composite drawing or file, with appropriatesupporting documents that clearly identifies utilities at quality levels (QL A,QL B, QL C, and/or QL D).
• Review data with utility owners.
• Reviewplans as design develops to analyze the effects of design changes to currentutility information.
• Affix an engineer’s stamp on the plans that depictexisting subsurface utility data at the indicated quality levels.
• Discussutility accommodation and utility relocation policies for the project owner’simplementation.

Of course, SUE also contains elements of utilitycondition assessment, relocation design, utility coordination and agreements andso on. Some A/E firms will develop in-house capabilities to perform all thesefunctions. Others may perform some of the tasks themselves and hiresub-consultants for the remaining ones. Others still may hire a sub-consultantto perform all these tasks.

Utility risk management doesn’t stop withdesign. Project owners will begin to hire SUE firms to assist in construction,such as filling in the gaps of the one-call damage prevention process, andproviding certified record drawings of relocated utilities.

In thefuture, there will be an increasing awareness that existing utilities presentrisks and that subsurface utility engineering can manage them. There will bemany more firms providing some or all of the tasks of a subsurface utilityengineer. Universities and other organizations will be providing an increasingamount of training in subsurface utility engineering. Project specificationswill routinely include ASCE 38-02 or future standards relating to SUE.Subsurface utility engineering will use new design tools like 3-D modeling toportray utilities. There will be new surface geophysical imaging techniques andequipment. And no doubt, there will be an increasing number of court cases andmediation that will continue to define the standard of care for addressing therisks to projects and the public that are created by existing utilities.

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