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How To Locate and Track an Underground Wire, Cable, or Pipeline

In a digging project, if you strike something underground, be it wire, cable, or pipeline, it could be dangerous and costly. However, such mishaps are preventable in the first place with proper planning and preparation. Yes! It is feasible to locate different underground wires, cables, or pipelines.

There is an extensive range of methods to locate and track underground wires. Depending upon the material from which the utility line is made, you can select the best method for getting the most accurate mapping. So, here we have curated the most common methods for detecting underground utilities.

The Four Most Common Methods to Detect Underground Utility

1. Electromagnetic utility locator

It is a popular method to locate underground utilities. The utility locating equipment works like this:

  • Firstly, the equipment generates electromagnetic radiofrequency.
  • Secondly, the generated radiofrequency is applied to the ground.
  • Finally, the locator detects subsurface utility that contains conductive materials on their receivers.

It is the most common and the most accurate method. It is used to detect a wide range of underground utility materials such as:

  • electric
  • cable
  • propane
  • gas
  • sewer
  • Storm
  • water
  • irrigation lines
  • telephone

For instance, Noyafa NF-816L Underground Wire Locator is a highly affordable and easy-to-use device that acts as an excellent helper in locating wires. Using this device, you can easily and fastly trace and locate underground or in-wall wires.

wire locator

However, the significant limitation of using an electromagnetic utility locator is that it can’t detect underground utility materials such as:

  • unmarked plastic,
  • asbestos,
  • concrete,
  • terra-cotta,
  • non-ductile pipes

2. Ground Penetrating Radar

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) is another commonly used method that uses high-frequency pulses to locate subsurface utilities. The GPR utility locator technology works like this:

  • Firstly, the high-frequency radio waves are generated from the GPR,
  • Secondly, the radio waves are emitted toward the ground,
  • Next, the subsurfaces deflect the radio waves back to the operator,
  • Finally, the GPR displays the underground utility.

The Ground-penetrating radar is commonly used to locate underground utilities such as:

  • buried pipes,
  • tanks
  • utility holes
  • cables
  • other buried objects

Moreover, this specialized technology is efficient enough to locate almost any underground utilities which cannot be located by the regular electromagnetic utility locators.

However, the operation of GPR and decoding the results requires training and experience.

Additionally, the GPR technique has got some limitations, such as:

Soil types like shale, clayey, or saline have high conductivity, which limits the effect of GPR on penetrating the ground.

  • GPR antennas with high frequencies of range 300 to 1000 plus MHz can penetrate only a small distance
  • Also, to successfully locate a utility using GPR, the utility must be an inch in diameter to be easily located by this equipment.

Lastly, GPR effectiveness is determined by several other factors, including:

  • Soil density
  • accessibility of the environment
  • crowding of surrounding utilities

3. Vacuum Excavation or Potholing

The other technique to safely and fastly locate underground utilities is by using vacuum excavation. The process of locating underground utilities using this technique is as follows:

  • High-pressure air is used to break through the soil surface
  • High-pressure air is vacuumed in a tank
  • Finally, the underground utility is located

This method works best in difficult soil conditions. This technique is popularly known by several names like:

  • potholing,
  • hydro-digging,
  • hydro-trenching, or
  • soft digging.

4. Dowsing

The final method on our list is dowsing. However, some of the highly experienced and trained locators have extensively used and are still using this technique to locate underground utilities and water. The dowsing method works like this:

Dowsing rods that can easily be made from coat hangers are used to locate active underground pipelines.

However, this method isn’t appropriate for locating the active pipelines if they are in greater depths. Still, it is considered one of the dependable and accurate methods to locate underground utilities and water.

While some claim intuition is the sole driving force behind the working of this technique as it doesn’t involve any science. However, no matter what people say or believe, dowsing remains a popular method used since the middle ages to locate underground utilities.


Undoubtedly proper planning and preparation can prevent several dangers and mishaps in a digging project. The extensive range of underground utility locators, state-of-the-art techniques, intuition, and coat hangers makes locating and tracking an underground utility, wire, cable, or pipeline easier and faster.

So, get your hands on the right tools and start your digging project with confidence and safety.

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