Utility Coordination Best Practices

Utility Coordination

Almost every single project that deals with construction, improvement, maintenance, or environmental management will involve utilities in some way.

Unfortunately, utilities are often the least visible component of a project, and the most difficult feature to document accurately.

But accurate information about subsurface utilities is crucial for a coordinated response to utility issues.

Without proper utility coordination, there are significant risks posed to the success of a project, especially in terms of schedule delays, budget overruns, and frustration among stakeholders as well as local communities of residents, travelers, or users.

In this post, we will cover the following points:

  • Why is utility coordination necessary?
  • What can happen without utility coordination?
  • Elements of utility coordination: communication protocol, data collection, data management, design strategy, construction strategy, and asset management
  • Phases of utility coordination: planning, beginning of preliminary design, end of preliminary design, beginning of final design, end of final design, construction
  • Strategies and tools of utility coordination
  • Best practices for utility coordination

Why is utility coordination necessary?

Utility coordination is crucial to deal with a variety of conflicts or issues that may arise between existing infrastructure and planned changes or regulations. Conflicts can arise between:

  • An existing utility and a planned or existing design feature
  • An existing utility and a planned or existing construction process
  • An existing utility and a planned utility
  • Site works and utility accommodation regulations
  • Site works and permit requirements
  • Site works and safety or accessibility requirements

Utility coordination can prevent delays, additional costs, need for design changes, and surprise discoveries on the job site due to these different kinds of conflicts.

What can happen without utility coordination?

Many problems can arise when utility coordination is not done on time, with comprehensive information, and without good communication between contractors and subcontractors. This can lead to:

Disruption to construction sites: When information about existing utilities is inaccurate or incomplete, when abandoned utilities are not documented, when changes in infrastructure are not updated throughout the project phases.

Accidental utility strikes and damages: Causing interruptions to service, health and safety risks, and release of hazardous or explosive liquids or gases.

Environmental impacts: Due to late discovery of abandoned utilities made of obsolete materials which require special handling, or due to leakage or contamination of surrounding soil.

Unnecessary utility relocation or service interruption: Due to late discovery of conflicts between existing and planned facilities and inadequate planning for design accommodation.

Project schedule and budget overruns: Due to late discovery of conflicts causing the need for design changes, construction halts, new contractor bids, possible litigation, and greater disruption to public.

Elements of utility coordination

Utility coordination encompasses multiple elements including communication protocol, data collection, data management, design strategy, construction strategy, and asset management.

Effective communication protocols are necessary between project owners and utility stakeholders in order to keep all parties up to date and in alignment on the project status. This entails due diligence in the preparation, negotiation, and execution of agreements, documents, bids, contracts, and permits.

Utility data collection must be carried out strategically and effectively for each project based on availability of records, accessibility of site, adequate budgeting for subsurface utility engineering, and comprehensive search methods. Utility mapping is a cost-effective and rapid way of collecting data on subsurface utilities remotely, so that subsurface utility locating and designating can be done on-site more effectively in later project phases.

Utility data management needs to integrate the collected data, make the data easily available to stakeholders, and provide the tools to use the data effectively. This includes managing metadata such as quality level of collected data as well as utility type, age, content, material, and ownership. All geographic data must be reconciled on a consistent and reliable base plan or 3D modeling space. Furthermore, changes to utilities or other key data, which can happen at any point throughout the project timeline, must be effectively highlighted and communicated to project stakeholders. Effective utility data management will help to avoid, minimize or accommodate conflicts between existing utilities and proposed project features, and resolve such conflicts using a systematic approach.

Design strategy should be intelligently applied to prevent unnecessary utility relocations, resolve unavoidable conflicts with as little impact and disruption as possible, and align project interests with cost-effective “protect-in-place” measures for existing utilities. This includes careful coordination of project scheduling and intelligent phasing. A good design strategy must also avoid intractable conflicts and prepare for potential alternative design solutions in the worst-case scenario that abandoned or unknown utilities are discovered late in the project timeline or even actual construction.

Construction strategy must follow strict protocols and perform due diligence to protect existing utilities, create new design interventions to a high standard, and conclude the project with high-quality records for future use. Construction strategy includes procedures such as excavating, exposing, protecting, building, monitoring, inspecting, and surveying on-site utilities. In addition, design changes or deviations must be properly documented so that the as-built or as-constructed records include comprehensive and accurate location data based on what was actually built on site. Construction strategy must also include compliance, permitting, traffic impacts, worker safety, environmental safety, access, etc.

Utility asset management goes beyond individual design projects, and considers utilities over their entire lifespan, from planning, design, and construction to maintenance, improvement, and eventual decommissioning. Asset management includes methods for accommodating, permitting, managing, documenting, and assessing utility facility conditions within the right-of-way and throughout their lifecycle, thus preventing disruptions, design redundancies, lack of documentation, negative environmental impacts, accidental strikes, and avoidable health risks.

Phases of utility coordination

Utility coordination has several benchmarks for progress throughout the project timeline, as well as absolute limits on the latest execution of certain required steps. In all cases, utility locations should be investigated as early as possible, and as soon as the budget and project managing resources can allow. Utility mapping has the benefit that it is possible to commission and execute earlier than on-site utility locating, and for a lower cost, to get comprehensive data as soon as possible.

During the planning phase:

  • Conduct utility mapping if possible
  • Identify major utility features and aspects that may affect the project at any point during future phases
  • Contact utility owners that are involved in the area of interest

At the beginning of the preliminary design phase:

  • Conduct utility mapping and designating as much as possible
  • Investigate major spatial constraints associated with existing utilities
  • Carry out initial assessment of utility impacts and determine priorities for additional investigation and data gathering in conflict-prone locations
  • Inform utility owners of proposed construction schemes

Towards the end of the preliminary design phase:

  • Conduct utility mapping and designating, including on-site survey and geophysical sensing methods
  • Aggregate and correlate utility data to reveal and pinpoint conflicts
  • Identify utility conflicts in mapped and itemized formats
  • Communicate potential conflicts to utility owners
  • Analyze potential obstacles to constructability and develop potential design solutions
  • Identify locations for further investigation

At the beginning of the final design phase:

  • Conduct utility locating and designating including on-site exposure and geophysical sensing methods
  • Aggregate and correlate utility data to reveal and pinpoint conflicts
  • Develop and review design solutions to prioritize avoiding or minimizing utility conflicts
  • Consider and confirm any unavoidable utility relocation if it is the most efficient solution in terms of time, cost, material, environmental, and functional implications
  • Prepare utility relocation proposals including plans, schedules, permits, and contractual agreements
  • Coordinate proposed utility relocations with adequate documentation, contracting, and execution

Towards the end of the final design phase:

  • Confirm utility relocation plans, schedules, and documents
  • Develop utility accommodation plans for infrastructure that is not in conflict with the final design
  • Prepare all necessary utility documentation for bid package

During the construction phase:

  • Hold meetings for pre-construction utility coordination
  • Hold regular meetings for utility coordination throughout construction
  • Maintain up-to-date information and respond rapidly to any new discoveries relating to utilities and potential conflicts
  • Fine-tune schedule in accordance with any changes or new information through construction process
  • Keep track of all design changes in order to prepare accurate as-built records

Strategies and tools of utility coordination

The essential strategy of utility coordination is to accommodate existing utilities, protect utilities in place during construction, design around existing utilities, or relocate utilities when there is no other option or when it is financially, logistically, materially, or environmentally preferable given the status, age, and location of the existing utilities and the options for improvement.

Utility coordination tools include itemized conflict lists, utility plans, investigation deliverables, project plans, site visit reports, right-of-way plans, structural and environmental analysis, schedules, installation specifications, accommodation protocols, professional industry and legal standards, and negotiations and collaborations with utility owners and other stakeholders.

Utility coordination describes issues and identifies preferred resolutions, for example:

  • Identify existing utility through utility mapping → Investigate further using geophysical methods
  • Confirm existing utility using GPR → Locate utility through exposure
  • Confirm existing utility location through exposure → Assess utility implications on proposed design
  • Compare options for utility accommodation, improvement, or relocation → Select best option according to all stakeholders, regulations, cost, and time implications
  • Confirm final proposal for utility throughout construction → Execute utility coordination plan

It is crucial to keep in mind that different stakeholders will almost certainly have different priorities for utility coordination. Preserving, accommodating, or altering a utility will have different ramifications for the longevity of the utility, disruption of service, environmental compliance, availability of public funding, impacts on nearby residents or users of a utility, complexity of design, access and right-of-way acquisition, etc.

Some important questions to consider when choosing strategies for utility coordination:

  • Is there sufficient utility mapping and locating data to make an informed decision?
  • Can ongoing and probable future design proposals maintain adequate clearance between critical utility infrastructure?
  • Can accidental damage or disruption of service have critical health and safety consequences, making protection a greater priority?
  • Are the necessary equipment, protective clothing, skill sets, and protocols confirmed in order to safely accommodate all affected utilities?
  • How large is the network of impacted users depending on the type of utility?
  • What is the interdependency of utility networks, e.g. natural gas relying on electricity?
  • Are several utilities bundled in a single sheath, or can they be accommodated independently?
  • Will the costs of utility accommodation or alteration fall disproportionately on one stakeholder?
  • Are there federal funds allocated for utility improvement or material specifications that could pertain to the project?
  • Can proposed changes be approved by the utility owner, or do they require lengthy governmental permitting procedures to be approved?
  • Are proposed changes in the public interest, and do they display long-term planning and foresight and contribute to future resiliency?
  • Will the proposed changes maintain collaborative relationships between public authorities, contractors, utility and land owners?

Best practices for utility coordination

To sum up, the best practices for utility coordination may include:

  • Collecting utility data and investigating in greater detail as early as possible
  • Tracking utility data in granular detail, with specific locations and tagged criteria for conflicts, accommodations, or further investigation requirements
  • Maintaining and updating utility data frequently and consistently throughout the project timeline
  • Using value-adding technologies and software for better utility data management, mapping, and design
  • Involving stakeholders (utility owners, engineers, contractors, landowners, government agencies) as early as possible in utility coordination review and planning
  • Communicating effectively about utility data, changes, designs, and scheduling with all stakeholders
  • Conducting due diligence and confirming liability, responsibility, and financial implications for all utility accommodation and alteration circumstances

Without a doubt, the single most important factor for successful utility coordination is early, comprehensive utility data collection and management. All utility coordination issues can be more easily avoided with advance knowledge, and better resolved with more time before critical deadlines pass for design approval and breaking ground on construction sites.

Utility mapping is one of the most powerful tools to gather information about infrastructure on and around the area of interest. Utility mapping can be used to discover abandoned utilities and correct faulty or incomplete as-builts, even when working remotely and with no boots on the ground. And it can achieve these results quickly and cost-effectively, making it ideal for the planning and early preliminary design phases.

Utility coordination can hit a much higher standard of performance if utility mapping is implemented early in the project timeline, and used consistently to manage utility changes to the site between project phases.

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