Launching the 4M Utility Strategy Podcast! Episode 1: Samuel Ariaratnam

We're honored to debut the 4M Utility Strategy Podcast with one of the most passionate and knowledgeable voices in subsurface utilities and particularly trenchless technology: Dr. Samuel T. Ariaratnam!

Sam Ariaratnam, Ph.D., P.E., F.ASCE, NAC, is Professor and Construction Engineering Program Chair at Arizona State University with over 20 years of experience in trenchless pipeline engineering research and education. In 2021, he received the  Stephen D. Bechtel Pipeline Engineering Award and was elected to the governing board of UESI (Utility Engineering and Surveying Institute).

We talked to Sam about his experiences as a world-renowned expert on trenchless, from the classroom to the construction site to the courtroom, and what he sees for the future in terms of technology, safety, climate change, and knowledge sharing. He also told us about his surprising favorite hockey team and what projects he's looking forward to as international travel opens up.

Key takeaways

“Digitizing the underground would be a game changer for construction.”

Sam wants to see an “underground Google Earth” in the near future to address the huge blind spots that many countries around the world, from the U.S. to India and China, have with regards to their existing buried infrastructure. “You can’t trust as-builts, you can’t trust ground marks”—what we need is an up-to-date, digitally accurate geodatabase that we can overlay onto our job sites.

“We have so many abandoned utilities that nobody really knows about, and we’re paying the consequences.”

Sam gives an example: “A contractor says, "I'm going to do this job," and then calls in the One-Call. They come out there, they mark the water line or gas line or whatever it is. Then the contractor starts to excavate, pothole, identifies the line—not in conflict with the design—starts drilling, and then hits a line. Because what was identified was an abandoned utility!” This scenario shows how incomplete and out-of-date information on utilities can thwart the efforts of contractors to follow the proper protocols. In Arizona, new legislation now requires documenting abandoned utilities going forward.

“The number one thing in anything that we do is public safety, so mapping the underground world and understanding where utilities are is really critical.”

Working with underground utilities means being accountable for the enormous power of large infrastructure systems and the dangers involved with breaking ground. Today, installing new fiber optic cables or undergrounding electricity lines brings the risk of striking a gas pipeline or water main—possibly resulting in millions of dollars in damages and irreversible human costs—unless the proper protocols are followed in subsurface excavation.

“Undergrounding is more expensive, but studies have shown it can save significantly on maintenance costs in the long-term compared to above ground.”

With a long career as a consultant, legal expert, and educator, Sam is a strong believer that underground utilities are safer for society. And in today’s world, more safety increasingly means more cost savings. Climate change is causing weather patterns to become more extreme across the world and the U.S., from coast to coast and across all regional climate types, and that means a growing liability associated with above ground utilities. Sam tells us about the utilities making ambitious commitments to future-proof their infrastructure through undergrounding.

Co-hosts: David Horesh (Director of Marketing) and Ophir Wainer (Director of North American Business Development)

Questions? Suggestions? Want to nominate a fantastic guest for a future episode? Get in touch!

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