Utility Strategy Podcast Recap: Q&A with Michael Twohig 

Utility Strategy Podcast Recap: Q&A with Michael Twohig 

Michael Twohig, Director of Subsurface Utility Mapping, recently sat down with David Horesh from 4M’s The Utility Strategy Podcast. With an impressive global underground damage prevention career, Michael has authored more than 40 articles on subsurface utility mapping, industry best practices, and the benefits of combining traditional and modern mapping methods.

In this episode of The Utility Strategy Podcast, Michael discusses his journey in the engineering field, the benefits of utilizing modern utility locating procedures with traditional survey best practices, and more. Below is a recap of the discussion, which you can also listen to here.

Have you been able to find any commonalities in underground utility challenges across the world?

I think we’re all facing the same challenges. Over the past several decades, we’ve seen a degradation in the quality of underground utility information. We’re always playing catch-up.

In the 1980s, when ASCE 38-02 was established in the U.S., we finally saw a guideline and standard level of care as a good metric for our industry. That standard has been adopted worldwide, from Australia to the United Kingdom. Other countries have done an excellent job of adopting and implementing these guidelines broadly, while we’ve fallen behind because we don’t have the same broad adoption across all states. Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Montana made ASCE 38-02 a law, but there are not the same mandatory practices in all other states.

Why do you think adoption is low in states that don’t have ASCE 38-02 as law?

Many people remain optimistic that big design firms will provide accurate utility locations in their designs. However, that’s not always the case. Some design firms know about underground mapping to ASCE standards, but unless the owner is mandating it, they won’t invest additional effort in providing quality underground mapping. Then, when construction begins, it’s a free-for-all that ends in contractor claims and change orders.

Why do you think contractors don’t properly hand in as-builts?

In my experience, there’s no real incentive at the end of a project. A contractor wants to move on to the next project, and there isn’t a substantial financial benefit to the contractor. Even when we work in different industries, such as higher education, we hear the same thing from them regarding inside plans. When one project is built, contractors jump to the next profitable project. Unfortunately, because of this, we’re always left with underground ambiguity. We rarely see an as-built that was created by a surveyor from a construction site that tells us what was put in the ground.

What do you think project stakeholders can do to start investing in utility information in the early stages of a project?

We’ve worked on several major projects where we know the designers have been preparing the existing site condition plans for two or three years. They perform above-ground surveys, but the below-ground information is never depicted properly. Then, they send the plans to the contractor, which usually means construction will begin in two to four weeks. When the contractor looks at the project specifications, they’ll often note that the contractor is responsible for finding all utilities. So the designers have simply passed the buck onto the next party. Since contractors are rushing to get the project going, if they do dedicate time to locating utilities, they’ve done a quick and incomplete job.

We strongly feel that to do this properly, mapping needs to be done in the preliminary design phase of the project. In that phase, you have the opportunity and time to work with all the underground asset owners to understand what is buried in the ground, what’s live, and what’s abandoned in place. Besides shouting from the rooftops that mapping is important, without laws mandating that mapping Is required, it’s an uphill battle to convince project stakeholders of the benefits.

Every year we’re adding more utilities underground, and it’s becoming a spaghetti bowl. What are your thoughts on this?

By the mid-1800s, gas lines were being placed underground by the thousands. It even got more complex as they added telecom and electrics, and these were often smaller tubes that looked like spaghetti. If you look at the old archives for New England, you’ll see that there were very complex underground environments but no problems. In the early 1900s, some fantastic utility records were completed by survey professionals. Not only did asset owners survey their own systems in detail, but they surveyed everybody else’s systems. They had two sets of records, one for their own assets and one for everybody else. The reason they did that was to help with underground damage prevention. So, many of the things we’re seeking to solve today have already been solved; we just forgot how to do it with all the digital technology.

How do we convince design firms that they need to map underground utilities? What are the consequences of them kicking that can down the road?

The best way: Change the state law. You can create best practices and guidelines but it’s just chatter until it becomes a law.

How would you enforce the law?

That would be a good problem to have. In my experience, if someone is working on the side of a highway with a vacuum truck, the sheriff’s department will pull up, get out of the car, and ask to see your Dig Safe ticket. They want to know you’re following the rules. I think design firms will do the right thing if it’s a law.

There’s also a point to be made that project owners shouldn’t have to wait for legislation. Instead, it should be up to DOTs, municipalities, and other organizations to say that if you want to work with us, you must mitigate the utility risk with SUE. What’s your take on that?

Absolutely. The reason that subsurface mapping has been so successful in the U.S. is because of the Federal Highway. Almost all state transportation programs have adopted the SUE and ASCE 38-02 guidelines for transportation best practices. But it’s the work in industrial, higher education, or medical fields that don’t have those same guidelines. I think highway programs have been lacking a good depository of information.

You mentioned that about 3,000 surveyors retire yearly, and only about 300 enter the industry each year. Why do you think that is? 

I think the U.K. is much further ahead than the U.S. with standard training and certification programs to ensure formal education. And of the professionals that are coming into our industry, very few of them are proficient at underground utility mapping. We see that there’s a huge lack of institutional knowledge. At DGT, the principals and senior management, including myself, were lucky to have worked under mentors and industry leaders. We’re trying to provide and inspire that training to the next utility locators.

How do we get more and more people into the industry? What else do we can we do?

Well, I think for subsurface mapping, we actually have a slight advantage over traditional land surveyors. Where surveyors are out in the sun or snow, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to utility professionals. Also, as a profession with radar tomography and pipe locators, you’re able to have a global career. You could work in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and beyond with the same principles and learnings from the U.S. We believe that we can attract more people through our utility mapping group because it can be a lot more attractive, especially with the technology aspect.

What is one thing you would say to stakeholders about subsurface utilities and how they can tackle that challenge?

First, stakeholders need to educate everybody on the project. The asset owner or the project owner must be aware of the standards, guidelines, state laws, and the implications of mapping, or not mapping, for utilities. Next, the designer needs to have a challenging conversation about money for investigations and if that’s been allocated in the budget. If utility investigations are incomplete, the stakeholder should be honest and communicate that to the contractor because now they’re bearing the risk. We believe contractors want all utility mapping just as much as engineers and asset owners because they don’t want to be stuck with delays and climbing costs.

The 4M Utility Strategy Podcast’s latest episode featuring Michael Twohig is a must-listen for anyone interested in subsurface utility mapping and damage prevention.

From discussing common utility challenges around the world to the reasons behind low subsurface utility mapping adoption rates, Michael’s expertise will leave you with valuable takeaways. Tune in to hear the full episode here.

If you’re interested in learning more about DGT’s SUM services or connecting with Michael Twohig, contact us.