Students’ research will improve underground utility mapping, safety © Nov. 2, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich students Tyler Hermanson [left] and Robert Butts demonstrate an electromagetic underground detection device to other students in front of Norwich’s Kreitzberg Library.

photo by Jordan Silverman, staffNorwich students Tyler Hermanson [left] and Robert Butts demonstrate an electromagetic underground detection device to other students in front of Norwich’s Kreitzberg Library.

You never know what you might hit when you dig down into the ground.

If you hit cable television, phone, sewer or water lines, the result can be disastrous. If you hit a power or gas line, it can be deadly.

Four Norwich University students have joined a major effort to improve safety for anyone attempting a dig, from a major excavation to mailbox installation. The students, who come from a variety of academic tracks, spent the summer helping local companies with their underground utility mapping, and studying how to do it better.

“It makes me realize how complex it is for utilities,” said Tyler Hermanson, a geology major from Gilford, Vt. “It’s just like a maze underground.”

The students were paid through a federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration grant, administered by Vermont, to test out a variety of methods for locating utility lines. These ranged from old-fashioned surveyors’ techniques to ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic field generators that work in conjunction with GPS mapping software. Not only were they able to help local Vermont utilities—mostly propane companies—get a better handle on where their lines were located, but students created reports based on their experiences for a broader information clearinghouse and call center. Dig Safe covers all of New England and puts homeowners and contractors in contact with utilities. Vermont law requires anyone conducting an excavation to notify the service for a test.

Robert Butts, a Sherman, Conn., student in the Construction Management program, said they were tasked with learning the most practical way to locate underground utilities for Vermont, where soil is rocky and utility providers tend to be small and unable to afford expensive equipment. It was a challenge, particularly in the beginning.

“Every scenario is kind of different,” said Butts. “I remember the first week we were using the equipment, we couldn’t even find the water pipes by the [Norwich] library.”

The group, which included civil engineering student Anthony Mushaw and prospective geologist Brian Demers, was given a few days of training with the equipment. Then they began the more frustrating challenge of making it work in practice. Students were issued electromagnetic “wands,” which worked well in certain scenarios but were useless with plain PVC pipes. In that case, they might switch to ground-penetrating radar. In best-case instances, the pipes or lines were already outfitted with tracer wire, which would give students an exact reading. A few times, they found themselves digging.

Hermanson, a senior, called the equipment top-of-the-line. But group members would still occasionally find themselves scratching their heads in frustration. There are still ways the methods and equipment might be improved, he said.

“Sometimes, you’re better off just going with measuring tape,” said Hermanson, who concentrated mostly on the mapping element of the project, figuring out how to quickly create a reliable record of utility location. “There’s limits to what [you can do] with the technology.”

Butts said he felt some of the mapping technology, in which software automatically recorded the GPS points identified by their instruments, was not ready for widespread usage. Buildings and landmarks tended to throw readings off. They often had better luck triangulating a location from known points using simple surveying techniques, he said.

Both said it was a satisfying and practical experience, which Butts described as a cross between an internship and summer job. These new skills may prove useful in job situations, and knowledge of underground utilities is great for a professional in his field, he said.

“The locating part is huge,” said Butts. “That’s a big skill to have.”

Civil Engineering Prof. Adam Sevi, one of two professors who oversaw the project, also praised the practical knowledge students gleaned from the work. In addition to the skill of locating, they learned how owners of utilities organize and record information about installations.

“Every piece of infrastructure has somebody managing it, and that's an important job,” said Sevi.

Sevi has applied with the company that loaned the equipment to Norwich with hopes they will provide it permanently. This would benefit students in many different majors, and also provide value to the company. Young engineers, construction managers and natural scientists would have a working knowledge of their products, he said. Norwich may try to offer the opportunity to other students in subsequent years, added Sevi. Next year, they might concentrate on researching the accuracy of the readings made this summer.

Students added the work was fun.

“When you find [a utility], it just feels good,” said Hermanson. “It was a good internship. I enjoyed myself and it made the summer go by quickly.”