Selecting the Best Underground Utility Locating Equipment

When working on any outdoor project involving major construction or excavation identifying and marking where power or cable lines, and pipes carrying water, sewage and gas line (especially gas lines!) is essential with underground utility locating equipment. Accidentally damaging one of these lines can not only be expensive to repair and replace but most importantly it can pose severe risks for your work crew and any nearby structures.

Underground utility locators are a expensive but their protection and reduction of risk helps them pay dividends for many years as well as the incalculable increase of safety for your teams.

We examine the industry’s best underground utility locators so you can make an informed choice on which is best suited for your projects and budget.

two men using tools to locate underground utilities pipes

Contents

Locating Underground Utilities – How Is It Done?

With any major project or excavation, its standard practice to mark utility lines to avoid damage to utility infrastructure. As mentioned above disrupting any utility line can be very expensive, delay the project all together, and cause significant harm to people and buildings.

Typically before any work is performed on site, the utility organization or state will send out a contractor or utility employee to mark the utility lines (check with your local utility company and state as laws vary). Some people may just rely on the external contractor and employee to identify lines but errors do occur and sometimes the accuracy is not as high as you need it.

We therefore we recommend cross checking markings from the utility company or contractor for utility lines before beginning a project with your OWN utility locating equipment to help avoid costly mistakes or even worse harm to your team or structures especially in the event of gas line which can result in an explosion!

How do Underground Utility locators find cable and power lines, and gas and water pipes?

Well first it’s important to understand that there are two types of technologies that utility locators use: active or passive locating.

The active line locators help you identify between the different types of lines using a direct connection or an inductive method. So with active line locators you typically attach it directly to the line or if that is not possible because the line is completely underground, some models will use inductive technology where it induces a frequency into the group that is reflected by the utility.

Passive utility line locators are typically used to locate unknown utility lines and the person operating this type of equipment can use it to survey the area to locate pipes and lines that radiate frequencies. As mentioned above, passive line utility line locators do not help identify what type of line you are scanning so you will not know if its a gas line or power line and so forth – you will only know there is a line or pipe in the ground.

Single Frequency vs. Multiple Frequency Utility Locators

Underground utility locators use either single frequency or multiple frequency ground penetrating radar to work their magic. Single frequency pipeline technology has been around for some time, uses one signal to find pipes and lines, whereas multiple frequency utility locators, as the name implies utilize more than one frequency to help you determine what type of line or pipe is in the ground.

When to use utility locator equipment?

You’ll want to use underground pipe locating equipment when there will be digging or excavation of any site even if its undeveloped as lines or pipes may run through the property. This is performed after the state’s one-call contractor or utility employee has come to mark the lines and serves provide a way to check the markings of the state or utility employee. It’s also important to realize that sometimes markings can be off or now as precise as you need it so this equipment serves to confirm and provide an accurate way to double-check.

What else can you (or cannot) locate or detect with underground utility locators?

Underground utility locating tools have different applications – for instance, if you were trying to locate iron or steel objects that are not located near other objects, than a magnetic locator would be appropriate. A magnetic locator can also track steel property pins and gas valves, septic tanks and steel drums.

A magnetic locator is not as well suited to identify and locate underground utilities lines or cables – a cable and pipe locator is recommended instead for those jobs.

Pipe and cable locator equipment – How does it work?

Pipe and cable locator equipment find these objects by using a transmitter and receiver together to send signals into the ground that bounce onto a cable or pipe, that signal then bounces back up through the ground and is received the tool to help locate the pipe or cable. These are useful as they can help find metal objects that may be underground. Some situations may also benefit from utilizing a pipe tracer as some pipes are not made of metal substances (plastic pipes or tubes for example) if they were buried with a tracer wire.

Tips for Selecting the Best Locator for Metal or Underground Utilities?

Generally, there is not one utility locator that finds every type of underground pipe or cable or metallic object, or non-metallic object. So its best to focus on buying tools that complement each other to ensure you can detect all types of underground utility infrastructure. Beyond that, you’ll want to carefully evaluate the following:

  • Brand and reputation: There are many new entrants in the market that are not time tested, including those by companies that do not have much experience in this area. Because of the potential risks involved, we recommend sticking to time-tested and trusted brands. The risks are just too great to the welfare and safety of your work crew, and it doesn’t make sense to save a few dollars and take on all that risk.
  • Quality: Because of the nature of construction and excavation, the utility locator should be designed to withstand a tough environment. Construction crews are not known for their soft hands and and a typical excavation site will be filled with mud, dust, liquids and so forth. You don’t want to have to replace the tool more often than needed.
  • Technology: The newest technology often yields the best results as advancements in transmitters and radar help provide more accuracy. With that said, its best to avoid anything too new until its been in the market a year, in our opinion.
  • Ease of use: A tool that is easy to operate will mean whoever is using it is less likely to make a mistake which is especially important if you’re trying to identify gas lines! Utility locators with large and easy to read and see screens are important as well.
  • Warranty: A fairly obvious point but make sure warranty is extended and at least a year.
  • Accessories and expandability: Utility locators often have addons you can purchase to extend battery power or extra connector cables and clamps in case you need extras or in case of onsite damage.

Trusted Brands of Underground Utility Locators

Ridgid

Ridgid is an American based manufacturing company that has created tools since 1923. It became a subsidiary of Emerson Electric. Ridgid creates a variety of tools in the HVAC field including with a focus on plumbing tools and pipe accessories. While Ridgid creates a few hundred tools, they are especially well-known for their red pipe wrenches that are used by professionals.

Ridgid creates 11 tools focused on the utility locating segment including line locators and transmitters, and pipe, cable and sonde locators. Accessories such as clamps and power adaptors are also offered.

Ridgid offers a full lifetime warranty on most of its products, If there are any defects in the product and the warranty lasts until the tool is no longer operable due to reasons outside of defects. Warrantied products are repaired or replaced per their warranty policy.

TEMPO

For underground utility locators, TEMPO is best known for its cable and wire locators. It does not have as rich of a history as Ridgid and started out in 1984 as Tempo Research Corporate, which developed a reputation for tones, probes and measuring equipment for communications technicans.

Tempo was later acquired by Textron and added to its telecommunications portfolio. Textron also owned Greelee Electric which makes many tools (see our article on X), and changed its name to Greenlee Communications. Later, both Greenlee Communications and Electric were acquired by Emerson Electric. Most recently Greenlee communications was purchased by a group of private investors who changed the name back to Tempo Communications (full circle!).

Today Tempo Communications offers a variety of broadband tools to help communications technicians diagnose and repair ethernet, DSL and fiber networks among others. They also develop hand tools, tool bags, and location & irrigation tools.

Tempo offers a one year on most of its tools and products which is poor compared to other tool manufacturers for underground utility locators.

Mastech

Mastech is a large global organization founded in 1987 in Hong Kong. They are known for manufacturing multimeters and other tools to help test and measure things including electronics, temperature, organic matter in addition to wire and cable testers. Some of their brands include Power Probe, C-Logic, ONUS, KPS, and PS-Tech.

Mastech is known to produce high quality items for novices and pros alike, with a focus on safety earning high rankings for its efforts to be certified in many international safety standards, as also environmental standards.

Their product lines are focused into industrial, residential and environmental tools. Mastech typically offers a one year limited warranty.

Leica

Leica has been providing measurement and survey tools for over 200 years under the name Leica Geosystems. It is now part of Hexagon, a global company based in Stockholm. Leica is produces many types of tools and solutions across many industries including aerospace, defense, constructions and more.

Leica is known for its precision construction in tools – something very important when it comes to detecting utility lines. Its tools are commonly used in large complex construction projects, such as tunnel building. They have also created entirely new genres of tools including the first aerial photography camera (1925), the first GPS for surveying (1984), first handheld laser distance meter (1993). They hold over 2,000 patents.

Leica typically offers a lifetime warranty on their tools. If there is a defect in the materials or workmanship, they offer to repair or replace it free of charge.

Amprobe

Amprobe has been in business for over 70 years, starting out in Long Island New York. It has a reputation for creating tough test and measurement tools. It’s first major product was called Amprobe which was an inductive clamp it secured a patent for. Amprobe was later acquired by the Damaher corporation based in Washington.

Today it develops over 500 products with many in the test and measurement category. It created the first clamp meter and the first wire tracer so it has a rich history or detecting utility lines. Amprobe takes great pride in creating quality solutions and has many resources to ensure its products perform safety and touts CE and IEC certifications.

Amprobe offers a 1 year warranty on most of its products – check your manual for details.

Armada

Armada is a newer entrant to the area of underground utility locating equipment. It has been in business since 2004 and has served the irrigation industry as its focus with various location and test tools. It is based in Michigan and has been growing steadily every year and expanded into other markets to provide tools for electricians, cable TV, and construction.

Of interest for you is their cable, valve and wire locators which have a reputation for being decent quality at reasonable prices albeit with not the golden reputation of the more established manufacturers.

Armada typically offers a warranty of 1 year on most of its products from material defects due to its workmanship that are free from abuse.

NOYAFA

NOYAFA is a Chinese based company focused on test and measurement solutions and was started in 2006. They are quickly growing and have expanded to multimeters, cable and voltage testers and many other categories. Their website claims over $92M in global sales.

In relation to underground utility locators they create several underground wire locators.

Their typical warranty is 1 year. More information can be found on their warranty page.

Kolsol

Kolsol is another Chinese based company that sells underground wire locators, network cable testers and automotive tools. It appears to have been in business since 2012 but this is not confirmed as their website does not have much information about the company history.

Their warranty policy is a bit confusing with different timelines depending on the issue with the longest coverage being upto one year. You can read more on their warranty policy page.

Best Utility Locators

RIDGID 19238 NaviTrack Scout Locator, Underground Pipe Locator and Underground Cable Location Device & 21898 SeekTech ST-305 Line Transmitter

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Description:

RIGID is a premier brand in this space with a well developed reputation for creating very high quality tools that will meet the highest demands. This reputation comes at a cost as Ridgid tools are priced accordingly. In exchange, you will not only get a high quality tool that lasts and is tough, but some of the most advanced capabilities and benefits.

If your frequently working on projects that demand accuracy and and a wide array of underground utilities to locate, the investment is definitely worth it. The RIDGID 19238 is a multi-directional locator that utilizes advanced technology to help you see the signal at all times. It offers the following capabilities:

  • Verify the utility’s position with a micro-mapping display to mark distinctive poles around the target
  • Automatically calculates and displays the depth of the pipe, line sonde when you hover over it
  • Meets various FCC standards
  • Locate SeeSnake camera inspections, sondes and energized lines occasionally
  • A compact and lightweight transmitter to help locate lines, underground cables and other utilities easily with upto 5 watts of power with 3 adjustable settings for power throttling

What does it locate: utility lines, sondes, beacons, sewer location, drain, flushable transmitter, line detection, camera (find SeeSnake or other video inspection equipment)

Standout capabilities:

  • Locate from any direction
  • Helps eliminates false peaks
  • Automatic depth
  • Two Multi-directional antennas
  • Fully featured mapping display
  • Automatic gain/sensitivity
  • Distortion Indication

Warranty: Full lifetime warranty

What current customers are saying about it:

Pros:Cons:
High quality buildThe tool is expensive and reserved for experts
Accurate utility sensor
Pleased with investment
Well suited for large projects
Educational DVD helpful to learn how to use the utility locator and transmitter
Makes jobs easier and faster
A must for anyone doing plumbing or drain work
Dependable
Simple to use

Tempo Communications 501 Tracker II Underground Cable Locator – Locate Underground Wires, Cables, Pipes & Conduit

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Description:

Tempo is another quality manufacturer that specialize technician hand tools including wire and cable locators. This particular model locates most common underground utilities including the path and depth of buried cable, services wires, metallic pie or conduit and also locates the end of a cut cable. It also can be used in walls and floors.

It’s design looks a bit outdated but don’t let it fool you, it is a reliable tool with very good ratings online (over 200 ratings). The transmitter output and receiver and adjustable to increase its accuracy while searching for the utilities, and they their range is impressive to, with up to 4,000 feet! (Almost a mile) and 7 feet underground.

Unlike other wire locators and tracers this tool works more like a metal detector, where it creates a noise based on how “hot” or near you are to the pipe or wire and therefore doesn’t use the “null” signal method of letting you know when you are near a wire or pipe.

Like many tools, if the cable does not have a tracer wire (as in the case of some fiber optic cables) you will not be able to locate the wire.

It offers the following capabilities:

  • Locate wiring in walls and flooring
  • Identifies junction boxes relays and transformers
  • Traces wires in PVC (nonmetallic pipes)
  • Can be used on energized circuits
  • Localize power and lightning panels
  • Works on telecom circuits

Tempo says other models for less but they seem to work less effectively based on our experiences and user reviews.

Pros:Cons:
Includes transmitter, carrying case, inductive coupler, receiver, ground stake and direct inductive coupler and inductive antenna1 year warranty is a bit short for this price
Great for crews focused on irrigation Requires some learning/training
Accuracy with depth trackingOutdated design
Inductive clamp makes locating electrical lines very easy and is includedBuild quality seems cheap for this price

Mastech Wire & Pipe Tracker & Locator Ms6818

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Description:

This Mastech utility locator is an economical alternative to price brands with a fairly robust feature set. It can be used to find open or shorts cable in the wall or earth, fuses, safeguards, sockets or junction box. It can also impressively identify the voltage of the cable.

It also features adjustable transmitter power ranges like its more expensive competitors. The tool is housed in an easy to carry size similar to a large smart phone. Details on its power transmission were not available but the tool includes a receiver, transmitter, test leads and probes, clamps, a ground rod, and a manual.

Reviews of current customers are mostly positive with some negative reviews here are there. Persons critical of the tool think that this model is not much better than cheaper alternatives and doesn’t deliver the same accuracy or build quality as the more expensive tools. One purchaser found the tool completely not working and was refused a refund. Another purchase added it does not come with batteries, which we do not think is a big deal.

Pros:Cons:
Good value given price point and capabilitiesAccuracy of locating varies depending on what you are trying to find and depth
Large screen helpful for locating pipes and wiresA few purchasers received defective units and refunds were not provided
Three sensitivity levels availableThe device has limited power output which may limits its ability to find items deep underground
Good for homeowners or non-professionalsUses batteries quickly
Helps find sprinkler valves and wire breaks
Auto mode helps find pipe or cable quickly (with less accuracy)

Leica 6014157 DD130 Underground Locator Ext Frequency Kit

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Description:

This professional Leica underground locator kit is a complex package of everything you need to finding underground utilities with the confidence that you are doing so accurately. Lecia is a very well trusted brand by professionals (see their brand description above). This model is improved over their prior model (the DD120) with more frequencies to increase range and accuracy.

This kit includes a locator, high powered transmitter and carrying bag. It can detect pipes, wires and cables as far down as 33 feet with its various operating modes.

We really like its automatic pinpointing, health checks and alerts – pinpointing means there is no need on your behalf to manually adjust the sensitivity of the locator – which means a child could be trained to use the tool, and alerts can let you know if there is a pipe or cable just below you to avoid damaging a utility – a potentially life saving feature. The health check makes sure the tool is working right to avoid false readings, another potential life saving feature.

It is also well suited for construction sites with a IP54 dust/water rating to make sure it keeps working no matter where you are using it.

The rechargeable li-on battery powers the transmitter and 6 alkaline batters power the locator.

As this is an expensive locator, it is well suited to professionals or companies that need a reliable, trustworthy tool that can do it all. Cheaper alternatives exist, but they may not be as good at detecting all types of cables or pipes or be as easy to use. We think the warranty is acceptable but could be longer given the price.

Pros:Cons:
Owners love the automatic setting (pinpointing) which makes it easy to locate underground utilitiesSome users comment the instructions are not detailed
AccuracyExpensive
3 year warranty
Detects everything well – no “blind” spots
Health check mode checks the tool each time to ensure it is functioning correctly

Amprobe UAT-505 Underground Utility Locator Kit

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Description:

Amprobe is another brand focused on professional tools. This midgrade locator kit has been recently released in March of 2021 and is designed to withstand harsh environments like Leica and RIDGID brands. It can easily and accurately locate energized and de-energized wires, cables and pipes.

It is rated to find utilities as low as 100 feet in the ground although some owners claim it can go further. Like other models in this pricing range it features multiple modes to trace pipes and cables.

One of its standout features is it great display that is high contrast and has an automatic backlight for easy viewing at all times. It has a semi-automatic gain control for fast signal location and control.

This kit includes everything (including batteries!) – receiver, transmitter, test leads, and a carrying case.

Pros:Cons:
Built quality – rugged designExpensive
Premium brand known for quality products and accuracyNewer model means it has had less testing in the real world
100ft depth measurement capability
Display is among the best in this category, especially useful for low light or varying conditions
Newer model (2021)

Armada Pro900 Advanced Digital Underground Locator

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Description:

The Pro900 is Armada’s flagship wire, valve and locator solution. It is fully featured and a favorite with professional contractors. Like similar solutions in its class, it utilize three frequencies to track metallic cabling, CATV, sprinkler, telephone, electrical, and lighting wires.

It can transmit solid or impermanent signals making it easy to use. It has a reputation for crystal clear reception aided by a KOSS stereo headset to make sure you can locate utilities easily. Armada claims and it users agree that there is no noise distortion while tracking – you only hear your signal. Many lesser quality locators pick up interference making it harder to track cables and wires.

The Pro900 also features indictive mode capabilities, and a new IC3 inductive clamp and inductive antenna modes for better accuracy and faster tracking.

One interesting feature is the ability to track power cables without a transmitter using the 50/60Hz passive locating mode, without disconnecting or connecting underground cables to the locator.

The kit includes the digital transmitter controls, ground stake, connect leads, antenna, inductive clamp, headset, digital receiver wand, batteries and a hard plastic case.

The warranty on this model is 12 months. Somewhat standard for this price range but could be better!

Owners mention that this was the only model to help them find sprinkler valves and wiring. Many owners also agree with Armada’s claim about the audio quality and how it blocks interference.

Pros:Cons:
Highly rated for locating wiresModerately priced
Audio quality when locating is quite high and crispReleased in 2016
Highly accurateScreen could be larger
Armada has a solid reputation
Newer model (2021)

NOYAFA Underground Cable Tester Locator Wire Tracker Detector

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Description:

NOYAFA is a newer brand that is focused on the enthusiast market – their tools are not typically used by professionals but serve a purpose for those who do not need all the bells and whistles or want a backup utility locator/wire tester. With that said, for the price, its hard to not give it a consideration.

The NOYAFA cable locator promises to find open or shorted cables in walls or the ground, finds fuses and safeguard, socket or junction box and open or short conduit in flooring.

It utilizes six transmission frequencies to locate wiring or cables and has a decent size LCD screen to navigate the strength of the signal/how close you are to what it is you are tracking. It can also be use to measure voltage and as a flashlight.

It is rated to find cables as deep as about five feet, so it is not as high powered as the other models here but it is substantially cheaper. If you need an affordable device to find wiring in your home or yard this might do the trick. If you are doing a major construction project we strongly recommend utilizing a more robust model especially if there are gas lines or anything that may pose danger if damaged.

Pros:Cons:
Decent all around wire locator for home/non-professional useMay not detect wiring buried to deep
Very affordableAccuracy is not the best
One year warranty is good for this price rangeWill require some time to learn how to use it properly as the instructions are not as clearly written as they could be
Screen is easy to readWill not detect sewer or water pipes
Rechargeable battery

KOLSOL F02 Underground Cable Locator, Wire Tracer

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Description:

As mentioned Above KOLSOL is a newer brand aimed at homeowners and non-professionals who need a way to trace underground cables and wires in expensively. This locator is ideal for tracing dog fence cables or irrigation wires within your background or front yard. This can also be used for pipes but only if there a few feet deep – the manufacturer advises it is capable of detecting pipes 2-3 feet deep.

The unit is very affordable but lacks a LCD screen or a type of display to help you understand where the wire or pipe your tracing. Instead you listen to the differences of the sound of the locator to understand where breaks are in the line. Connector cables are also used to connect to electrical lines that are used in tandem with the transmitter.

If you need an economical utility locator (this is among the cheapest), and are not working with gas lines, we think this could be a good starter locator. But some may find it challenging to learn how to use as it lacks a screen.

Pros:Cons:
One of the cheapest utility locators availableLimited depth locating range or distance
Detects a wide variety of underground utilities – wires, cables, pipesLack of display or screen
Well rated by customersRequires some learning curve
Not likely to be useful in locating natural gas lines which are buried deeper sometimes

Best Underground Utility Locating Equipment

Regardless if you are a professional or homeowner/novice, underground utility locators can save you tons of time and make challenging projects more easy. Most importantly though, they can help ensure safer projects by avoiding electrical or natural gasoline disturbances. For businesses completing projects faster is very valuable so these are must have tools for any projects involving digging or excavating.

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