What are the common underground utility location methods?

 In Damage Prevention of Utilities

What are the standard underground utility location methods? This article focuses on electromagnetic utility locating, ground-penetrating radar, acoustic utility locator, hydro excavation, and even dowsing.

Electromagnetic Utility Locating

Interested in Tracer Wire?

The most common method to locate private utilities is known as electromagnetic utility locating. In this technique, the locating equipment generates an electromagnetic radio frequency, and when applied to the ground, the equipment detects the subsurface utilities containing conductive material on its receiver. This method is accurate and commonly used to detect gas, electric, telephone, cable, propane, water, sewer, storm, and irrigation lines. The most significant limitation of this technology is that it cannot locate unmarked plastic, asbestos, concrete, terra-cotta, or non-ductile pipes.

Gas lines are generally constructed of medium or high-density polyethylene pipe or plastic, so tracer wire is commonly run alongside or on top of the pipeline to make the line “locatable.” In these situations, by accessing the system (e.g., a tracer wire box), the operator can induce a current on the tracer wire and locate the tracer wire.

This technology also doesn’t perform well beyond 10-15 feet. Natural gas distribution lines are usually installed 3-4 feet deep, while transmission lines run deeper, though it would be unusual to be buried more than 10 feet.

Ground Penetrating Radar

Ground-penetrating radar, or GPR, is a technology used for subsurface utility locating, which also uses high-frequency pulses. The radio waves are emitted into the ground, and facilities deflect the radio wave back up to the operator, where the equipment displays the objects. This locating equipment is generally used for buried pipes, tanks, utility holes, cables, and other buried objects that typically cannot be located using ordinary methods, such as electromagnetic locating. Operating this equipment and understanding the results require experience and extensive training.

There are some limitations of GPR:

  • Some soils like saline, shale, or clay have high conductivity, limiting the GPR from penetrating the soil.
  • High-frequency GPR antennas (300-1000+ MHz) can only penetrate a short distance down.
  • A common rule applied when using ground-penetrating radar is that the buried facility must be an inch in diameter for every foot in-depth. For example, a six-foot deep pipe must be at least 6” in diameter to locate it via GPR.
  • Soil density, environment accessibility, and crowding of surrounding utilities can also influence the GPR’s effectiveness.

Hydro or Vacuum Excavation (potholing)

Vacuum excavation is a fast and non-destructive way to locate and expose underground utilities safely. Here, high-pressure air breaks up the soil, then vacuumed into a tank. Hydro excavation is used in difficult soil conditions where pressurized water breaks up the soil, then vacuumed into a tank. This method is known as potholing, hydro-digging, hydro-trenching, or soft digging.


While dowsing may not be recognized as a traditional utility location service, many experienced locators will admit that they have and still use dowsing as a reliable way to locate underground utilities and water. Here, dowsing rods, made from coat hangers, can indicate whether you are standing on top of an active pipeline. It will not indicate the depth of the pipeline, but according to many experienced locators, it is a dependable way to locate pipelines. Skeptics claim that there is no science behind this method, and some claim intuition is the driving force in dowsing. No matter who you believe, dowsing has been used to detect underground water since the Middle Ages.

As you can see, there is a wide range of methods used to locate utilities, from state-of-the-art equipment to coat hangers and intuition.

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Showing 25 comments
  • Ram Pal Sharma

    What is methodology of utility identifiation

  • Jason Richards

    ProMark Utility Supply manufactures different types of underground locating posts such as CP Test Stations.

  • Evgeny Dron

    Hi Susan Bender !
    I need to look for the pipe at depth of 20 … 27 m.
    Length of the pipe 300 … 600 m
    It is located under the ground.
    Pipe diameter of 7 feet.
    Material – steel + concrete.
    Which device is suitable?
    Compass is suitable or not?
    If appropriate, what?
    Thank you
    Evgeny Dron

  • Brian Cox

    A member of our customer service team will be emailing within 24 hours.

  • Hazel Owens

    It’s amazing what technology can do nowadays. Electromagnetic radio waves can be used to find metal lines underground, and sound waves can find what electromagnetic waves can’t. It’s important to know where utilities are underground when digging to prevent pipe breakages, and these technologies allow us to do so with ease. Thanks for all the information about different methods to find underground utilities!

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  • holley mullet

    my wife was looking for DD 2400 recently and discovered a company that hosts lots of form templates . If you have been needing DD 2400

  • Kal Koychev

    Hello there, Susan or anybody.
    I’m facing a similar challenge as Evgeny Dron. I need to find a tunnel with old utilities and it is about 80 feet underground. I need to get a clear picture because all the tools we’ve been using so far gave us wrong readings. They confuse water with cavities or air pockets with rocks or concrete etc. Could you please email me some information on what equipment we need to get, so we can get the job done.

  • Susan Bender

    Kal, a member of Linc Energy Systems will be in contact with you by email. Thank you for your inquiry.

  • Dan B.

    Hi, I work for IDS a Ground Penetrating Radar manufacturer, we have many models and use our GPR technology to locate many things underground.

  • I.R.

    I have a problem similar to Kal:
    Need to locate an old tunnel with some utilities about 80-100 feet underground.
    please advise.

  • Lat

    Hello Susan or anyone:

    I need to make sure I am going to use the right tools to find everything before we dig. I have a sinkhole, there is no help for homeowners locally and contractors range from $30,000 to $90,000. We want to dig to find out the reason of the sinkhole.

  • Kyle Winters

    Finding utility lines really should be one of the first things you do before starting any construction project in your yard, so it is nice to get an idea of how to find them. I have to admit that I had no idea that there were so many ways that you could locate these lines without any digging and risking hitting them. Although, it seems to me like ground penetrating radar would be the better option since you can get a clearer location from it.

  • Ron Doak

    Hi, to have enough electromagnetic reading available from a buried water line does it have to be continuous such as wire or tape or can it be detected if only available in short sequences?

  • Farhad

    Could you please send to me your GPR tools

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  • Callum Palmer

    Wow, it really is impressive to see just how far technology has advanced in order to detect underground cables and stuff. After all, I used to think that ground penetrating radar was the best it got. However, I can only imagine how some of these things make it so much easier to dig pools and stuff while avoiding underground utilities.

  • Nick

    It depends on how long is the pipe and if it is metallic or plastic.

  • california leak detection

    Here, high pressure air is used to break up the soil, which is then vacuumed into a tank.

  • Muhamad

    Hi I need to inquire how to locate underground power cables?
    How to find depth of underground cables?

    • Al Jenness

      May I suggest you connect with either a local utility locating company? Or a seller of the equipment? We sell the tracer wire, not the equipment. Thanks and good luck.

  • PCTE

    Amazing Blog! It’s important for safety and efficiency of work. Thank you for sharing

  • PCTE

    Your post was thought-provoking and insightful, and I appreciate the time you took to write it.

  • PCTE

    This blog topic provides a comprehensive overview of standard underground utility location methods. It offers valuable information to help readers understand and choose the most suitable project techniques. Well done!

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