How to “ground” for clear utility locating transmitter signals?

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Utility locating is a critical process in the construction and maintenance of underground infrastructure. It involves identifying and marking the location of underground utilities such as water, gas, electricity, and telecommunications cables. Accurate location of these utilities is essential to avoid damage during excavation, which can lead to costly repairs, service disruptions, and even safety hazards.

One of the key aspects of effective utility locating is establishing a good ground connection for the transmitter equipment. 

This blog post will explore various methods and best practices for grounding in utility locating, including grounding stakes, and alternative grounding points when stakes cannot be used.

Grounding Stakes

Grounding stakes are the standard method for establishing a ground connection in utility locating. They are driven into the earth near the area where the underground utility is expected to be. The stake serves as a reference point for the transmitter to send a signal through the ground.

The strength and clarity of this signal are significantly influenced by the quality of the ground connection. To achieve a good ground, it's important to ensure the stake is driven into moist soil, as dry conditions can impede the signal.

If the soil is too dry, pouring water around the base of the stake can improve conductivity.

Alternative Grounding Points

In situations where it's not possible to insert a ground stake, such as on hard surfaces like roads or in urban areas, alternative grounding methods are necessary. These methods leverage existing metal structures to complete the ground circuit, allowing for effective signal transmission. Here are some alternative grounding points:

Manhole Covers: Metal frames of manhole covers can serve as effective ground points. By attaching the ground lead to the manhole cover, a ground return path is established, facilitating utility locating on hard surfaces.

Lighting Columns: Metal street-lamp columns, when bonded to the cable sheath, can almost act as a direct connection to the utility being located. This method is especially useful for tracing street lighting and other illuminated street furniture. However, caution is advised if the column is made of concrete, in which case the connection should be made directly to the cable sheath.

Other Metal Structures: Metal drainage grates, railings, and fence posts can also serve as alternative ground points. These structures, due to their conductivity, provide a low resistance path for the locating signal.

Double-Ended Connections

In complex environments with large diameter pipes or heavily congested industrial sites, single-ended connections may not be sufficient due to insulated joints or confusing signal paths.

Double-ended connections, where the transmitter is connected at two points along the target line, can overcome these challenges. 

This method does not rely on the ground as a current return path and can provide a clearer, more reliable signal for identifying and tracing the target utility.

Safety Considerations

When performing ground utility locating, it's essential to adhere to safety protocols, especially when working with live cables or potentially live cables. Only qualified, permitted and licensed operators should handle live connections to prevent accidents and ensure a safe working environment.


Grounding is a fundamental aspect of effective utility locating. Whether using traditional grounding stakes or alternative methods like manhole covers and lighting columns, the goal is to establish a strong and clear signal for accurate utility identification.

By understanding and applying these grounding techniques, utility locators can enhance their efficiency and accuracy, ultimately contributing to safer and more efficient construction and maintenance activities.

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