The Utility Line Locator
You’ve probably seen signs that the underground utility technician has been at work: brightly colored markings crisscross the street, the sidewalk or the grass. Those markings show where important pipes, wires and other materials from utilities are buried underground.
And — guess what? The color codes are standardized across the U.S. So if you know what they mean, you can crack the code.
- Red – Electricity
- Orange – Telecommunications
- Yellow – Natural gas or oil
- Green – Sewers
- Blue – Drinking water
- Purple – Irrigation
These colored markings show construction workers where it’s safe to dig (and where it’s not).
Otherwise, catastrophe could strike. If workers hit a water main it could flood the whole neighborhood or contaminate drinking water. If they hit a power line it could turn off the lights for blocks — not to mention bring risk of electrocution. And hitting a gas line could mean everyone in the area has to evacuate.
In fact, the work of underground utility technicians is so important that there’s an official number you can call to get their help: 811. Like 911 or 311, you can dial this number anywhere, and you’ll be connected with local utility services. (Watch this funny but true PSA on why calling 811 really matters!)
Underground utility technicians go by a few different names: locate technicians, utility locator, line locator, or underground cable locator. They usually work for utility companies or construction companies. They use electronic detection equipment as well as blueprints and maps to determine where utility lines are, then mark them for future reference.
Along with their rainbow list of colors, underground utility technicians also use white markings to show the safest path for digging.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN UNDERGROUND UTILITY TECHNICIAN IN GEORGIA
Here’s how a utility locator keeps busy from day to day.
- Read blueprints and local maps to pinpoint utilities
- Mark underground lines with flags or paint in the appropriate colors
- Keep accurate records of site information
- Share information with coworkers and clients
- Follow all safety procedures
WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A LINE LOCATOR
This is what top professionals in the trade say you’ll need to be:
- Good at math. As a utility locator, you use maps and blueprints to make calculations about where to look first.
- Self-motivated. Underground utility technicians usually manage their own time. You need to be focused and directed so you can get the most done in a day.
- Able to see color. The universal system of flags and markings requires different types of utilities be marked with different colors.
- A strong communicator. Utility locators write reports on their daily activities for their bosses and colleagues in construction. You need to provide clear, well-organized information to save time and keep everyone safe.
IS THIS YOU?
Here are a few pros & cons to consider as you decide whether utility locator jobs are right for you.
- Growth. The whole construction industry is expected to see big job increases in the next decade, and the work of underground utility technicians is essential to every job. Plus, state and local governments are putting a lot of resources into educating the public about the need to “call before you dig.” Governments are also establishing more rules that regulate homeowners’ and construction firms’ responsibilities before digging, which helps keep everyone safe.
- Interesting work. If you like solving puzzles, this is the job for you! It’s a little like an everyday scavenger hunt. So you can put those problem-solving skills to work.
- Independence. You manage your own time and spend a lot of hours alone, both outdoors and on the road. Which means you often make your own decisions about the best way to approach the project.
- Line locators often work very long hours, taking advantage of every bit of available daylight to get as much done as they can. So you can expect to put in some fairly long days on the job, especially during the summer.
- You will probably do a lot of driving to get to construction sites all over your region.
A FEW DETAILS OF INTEREST
How much do underground utility technicians make?
The average annual salary for a line locator in the U.S. is $37,000 (PayScale.com, May 2016).
How do you become a utility locator?
Most utility location companies offer on-the-job training. To qualify for a job, you need to have a high school diploma or the equivalent, pass a drug test and be strong enough to do the work. If you’ve got all that, then you’ll probably get field training from an experienced line locator.
During training, you will travel to different job sites and learn how to locate lines under different conditions. You will learn about the different kinds of line locating equipment and the best ways to use it. After you become experienced, you’ll start working on your own.
You can also learn about line locating in short training courses offered at private training centers, community colleges and online colleges. These are usually short courses (less than six months) that introduce you to the basics.
You’ll also learn a little about electromagnetism, which makes line locating equipment work. These courses aren’t necessary for getting a job, though.
Previous job experience in construction or utilities can make you a stronger candidate, too. So don’t turn down opportunities for a summer job on a construction site.
GET TRAINED AS AN UNDERGROUND UTILITY TECHNICIAN
OUTLOOK FOR UNDERGROUND UTILITY TECHNICIANS
The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t have specific data on the job outlook for underground utility technicians. But the construction industry as a whole is expected to add 10% more jobs between 2014-2024, which is more than average. Line locators play an important role in every construction job, so their job opportunities should grow, too.
Plus, local governments – in Georgia and across the U.S. – are passing more laws that make it a legal requirement to “call before you dig,” and educating the public about why it’s important. So overall, the outlook for line locators is very good!
WHY (AND HOW) I LOCATE UTILITIES FOR A LIVING
This 3-minute video of one utility locator’s work has more than 31,000 views. Even if his mom watched it 10,000 times, that’s still a lot. You might enjoy it, too.
LIKE WHAT YOU SEE?
Download this handy PDF for some facts on-the-go.