How to Control the Cost of Undergrounding Utilities

How to Control the Cost of Undergrounding Utilities

Undergrounding utilities can enhance the aesthetic appeal of communities while improving the reliability and safety of services vital to residents’ wellbeing.

However, some municipal managers and utility providers say that the process of undergrounding has become prohibitively expensive.

That’s the case in San Francisco, California, where officials say rising costs have effectively killed the longstanding goal of burying all the city’s utility lines.

Exposed subsurface utilities in a trench.
While undergrounding utilities can enhance the aesthetic appeal of a community while also improving the reliability and safety of services vital to residents’ wellbeing, some municipal managers say it is becoming prohibitively expensive.

According to a recent report by the local ABC affiliate, ABC 7, the city has placed nearly half of its utility lines underground. Utility provider Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) says there’s no money left to continue the process. While the company’s customers have long paid into a program intended to fund the undergrounding of all the city’s overhead lines, the report states that numerous factors have resulted in the expenditure of that fund pool with roughly 470 miles of lines still left hanging in the air.

According to the independent Master Workplan Study obtained by ABC 7, “a lack of proper planning, overruns and schedule delays resulted in cost overruns,” and “There was never an understanding of who was leading the project, PG&E or the City and County of San Francisco.”

Additionally, the report states that it would cost between $50 and $100 million to underground the remaining overhead utility lines in San Francisco. And the project would take about 50 years to complete.

Not all cities that have abandoned their plans to underground utilities are doing so as openly as San Francisco. In Palo Alto, the city put a quiet end to its longstanding quest to move all its overhead utilities underground.

“Thanks to a combination of high costs, recently established environmental goals and a mid-1990s shift toward ‘pad mounted’ equipment, the [Palo Alto] Utilities Department has effectively stopped undergrounding utilities in residential neighborhoods and has little appetite for resuming the practice,” wrote Gennady Sheyner and Christine Lee of Palo Alto Online.

Sheyner & Lee continued, “Palo Alto’s shift away from undergrounding occurred with surprisingly little public debate. The council, which routinely spends hours debating issues like shadow impacts, building setbacks, the noise impacts of electric appliances and whether accessory dwelling units should be allowed to have underground garages, hasn’t had a substantive discussion about the city’s strategy for moving electrical equipment underground in well over a decade.”

Exposed subsurface utility lines.
The infrastructure under our feet is vast and complex – and running a new line through this labyrinth is costly and time consuming.

Why is Undergrounding Utility Lines so Expensive?

According to a Government Technology article, installing a new underground distribution line across most of PG&E’s territory cost about $1.16 million per mile as of 2017. That was more than twice the price of a new overhead line at the time – and those numbers have only gotten worse with the rising cost of construction materials.

The process of undergrounding utilities often requires the excavation of roadways and/or sidewalks – and there’s a cost to replacing those destroyed surface features.

Once groundbreaking has commenced, it’s no easy task to weave a new utility through the already complex network of buried lines present in a busy city such as San Francisco. And complex jobs like this typically carry higher labor costs for the contractors conducting the work – which will be reflected in what they charge a municipality or utility owner.

If these contractors are relying on outdated or incomplete documentation to help them navigate these underground infrastructure labyrinths, subsurface damage is almost inevitable.

Two GPRS Project Managers use electromagnetic (EM) locators.
Through the utilization of technology such as electromagnetic (EM) locating, GPRS Project Managers can accurately map out the subsurface infrastructure on your project site.

How GPRS Helps Control the Cost of Your Undergrounding Project

The process of undergrounding utilities must be done as efficiently as possible for the practice to have a future.

Subsurface damage, however, can derail the budget and schedule of these and any other type of excavation project – not to mention endanger the lives of those performing the work and any community members living or working near the project site.

GPRS is a private utility locating and mapping company that offers a comprehensive suite of subsurface damage prevention services designed to make excavation as safe as possible and keep your projects on time and within budget.

Our SIM and NASSCO-certified Project Managers (PMs) harness an array of non-destructive technologies to locate and map underground infrastructure.

It starts with ground penetrating radar (GPR), the technology from which we derive our name. GPR scanners emit radio waves into the ground or concrete, revealing metallic and non-metallic objects. The resulting interactions between the radio waves and the buried objects are displayed on a readout as a series of hyperbolas varying in size and shape. Our PMs are specially trained to interpret GPR scan results and provide you with the accurate location of all buried infrastructure on your project site.

To compliment the findings of GPR, our PMs also utilize electromagnetic (EM) locators. These devices don’t detect the buried utilities themselves; instead, they locate the electromagnetic signals emanating from metallic pipes and electrical conduit.

These signals can be created by the EM locator’s transmitter applying current to the pipe, from current flow in a live electrical cable, or because of a conductive pipe acting as an antenna and re-radiating signals from stray electrical fields and communications transmissions.

A construction worker stands in front of a dump truck while looking at a tablet.
SiteMap® (patent pending), powered by GPRS, puts the field-verified data collected by our Project Managers in the palm of your hand, 24/7, so you can plan, design, manage, dig, and ultimately build better.

Vital Infrastructure Data at Your Fingertips

Even the most accurate utility mapping data is useless if it’s not easily accessible throughout the lifecycle of your project.

That’s why GPRS created SiteMap® (patent pending), our cloud-based infrastructure mapping software solution that gives you complete control of the field-verified data collected by our SIM and NASSCO-certified Project Managers, 24/7, from any computer, tablet, or smartphone.

SiteMap® provides you with accurate existing condition documentation to protect your assets & people, whether you’re undergrounding utilities in a busy urban environment or performing routine maintenance around a college campus. And when you hire GPRS to perform a utility locate for you, we give you a complimentary SiteMap® Personal subscription so you can instantly access and utilize the data we collect.

GPRS’ SiteMap® team members are currently scheduling live, personal SiteMap® demos. Click below to schedule yours and see how SiteMap® can help you plan, design, manage, dig, and build better today!

Through the use of GPR and EM locating, GPRS Project Managers deliver 99.8%+ accurate utility locating services that allow you to dig safely, allowing you to Intelligently Visualize The Built World® while staying on time and on budget.

What can we help you visualize? Click below to schedule a service or request a quote today!

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do communities choose to underground utilities?

Communities choose to underground utilities for several reasons, including improved aesthetic appeal, increased reliability, reduced maintenance costs, enhanced safety by eliminating downed power lines, and increased property values.

What are the challenges of undergrounding utilities?

The challenges include higher upfront costs, longer installation times, potential disruption to the environment and existing infrastructure during installation, and more complex repair and maintenance processes.

How much does it cost to underground utilities?

The cost of undergrounding utilities can vary widely depending on factors such as the type of utility, the terrain, the length of the lines, and local labor and material costs. Generally, it is more expensive than overhead installation, with costs ranging from a few thousand dollars per property to tens of thousands or more.

How long does it take to underground utilities?

The timeline for undergrounding utilities can vary from a few months to several years, depending on the scale of the project, the complexity of the terrain, and the level of coordination required among utility providers and government agencies.

Are underground utilities more reliable than overhead utilities?

Yes, underground utilities are generally more reliable because they are less susceptible to weather-related damage, such as storms and high winds, and are less likely to be affected by falling trees or vehicle accidents.

Who pays for the undergrounding of utilities?

The cost of undergrounding utilities is typically shared among various stakeholders, including utility companies, local governments, and property owners. In some cases, special assessments or funding programs may be available to offset the costs.

How are underground utilities maintained?

Underground utilities require periodic inspection and maintenance to ensure their continued functionality. This can involve using specialized equipment to access and repair underground lines, which can be more challenging and expensive than maintaining overhead lines.