Utility Coordination: What to do When You’re in the Way

May 2, 2023

It is a bothersome fact of life that there is new construction and road improvement happening somewhere at any given time. Many such projects insert large pipes under the ground, displace utility poles, or even change the lay of the land. Any time that the earth is dug into, existing utility structures are at risk of inadvertent damage or destruction at the hands of construction equipment. Fortunately, there is an entire professional field dedicated to ensuring that such negative outcomes do not occur. There is a multi-step Utility Coordination process to be aware of, and I would like to take a moment of your time to walk you through it.

To start, when either the Department of Transportation (e.g. Virginia Department of Transportation) or a private developer seeks to enact construction, a survey is first performed on the affected land. During this process, all detectable utilities within the scope of work are located, identified, and recorded. Plans are then drafted of their intended builds onto the surveys so that the former and latter are overlayed onto each other. When doing this, the drafters often attempt to minimize how their plans impact located utilities, however, that may not always be possible within any given set of design requirements. Once the developers have a complete first draft of plans, they finally send their plans to all utility owners found or otherwise expected to be within the scope of project.

When the utility owners receive these plans, their attempts to parse them may end in confusion, even bordering on the plans being considered indecipherable. No two developers use the exact same standards of methodology when designing construction plans. To further compound the difficulty, any necessary, reactionary work on the part of utility owner is not the relatively simple case of placing new utility lines, it is the movement of active systems. Challenges include—but are not limited to—working in and around active construction sites, demand for minimally interrupted or completely uninterrupted service, limited available slack for wires and cables.

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The first goal of our relocation department is to determine if anything even needs to be done. While not common, there are cases in which plans may be returned to the utility owner simply marked “no conflict” and no further action need be taken. What is far more likely however, is that one or more conflicts between the utility owner’s structures and the developer’s plans are found. When that happens, communication is facilitated between involved parties to arrive at a mutual solution. Said solution may be a redesign on the developer’s part, with the new plan eliminating all conflicts with existing structures. If, however, such an outcome does not occur, the required course of action is for a relocation engineer to determine and draft plans to move the at-risk utilities to a safe path.

The Utility Coordination process of relocation usually entails unearthing the flexible, plastic conduits that comprise the utility structures and physically repositioning them to an unoccupied space beside and/or below their original locations. This process is nonintrusive on the operations of the utilities and does not require shutdown of connection during the relocation. In the most extreme cases though, it is unfortunately necessary to conduct rebuilds to bypass the conflicts. When it is unavoidable, the relocation plans will call for the construction of additional utility structures in spaces parallel to the existing ones and not endangered by the developer, followed by briefly cutting the connections on both ends, and immediately splicing the endpoints into the bypass, ultimately rerouting the utility flow through the new construction.

To quickly summarize the process: a public or private developer drafts construction plans, the utility owner receives the potentially conflicting build plans from a developer, the plans and existing utility records are forwarded to our relocation department, we determine what (if anything) needs to be done, a solution between the developer and utility owner is reached, we draft a minimally disruptive plan according to the solution, and the relocation work is applied to the utility lines in the field.

If you ever find your utilities suddenly in the middle of an unexpected construction project, please feel free to contact us and work with our Utility Coordination team. Our engineers are more than able to meticulously cross-reference complex, third-party construction plans with your records to determine what needs to be done to ensure that you won’t suffer the worst-case scenario of a total utility failure.

By Matthew Trump, Relocation Engineer at Express Technologies, Inc.