Every night, there are news programs on TV and they often have on-the-scene reporters to give us a feeling of being where the action is. When they are holding their hats and demonstrating what it’s like to be in a hurricane, we think, “That person’s crazy to do that.” In the news footage of recent hurricanes in Florida, the Virgin Islands, Texas, and Puerto Rico, those on-the-scene reporters helped us get a tiny glimpse of the conditions in the aftermath of Mother Nature’s fury. The reality of existing conditions aided people in other places to plan and react to the needs of those sites. When you listen to the people on the scene, it’s obvious that the reporter has a gift the general public does not possess – first-hand knowledge. 

In much the same way, the survey party chief is the engineer’s on-the-scene reporter. They will spend a half-day to a month surveying a tract of land and gathering information to be used in the planning process. 

I think it probably takes at least five years of field experience before someone knows most of what they are looking for and recognizes what they see. An intelligent apprentice will spend time learning how the world they took for granted functions. Every day of experience is a benefit for themselves and their employer. The experienced field person and construction layout person know far more than an engineer can imagine.

Having worked in land surveying for 46 years (dear Lord, can it really be that long?), I’ve seen quite a lot. When we go to dinner in Philadelphia at a ground floor restaurant with four stories above us, I can’t help thinking about all the utility lines running through the walls. It’s easy to imagine sanitary lines running down the wall behind the commode or kitchen and dropping through the basement, making a turn to drop again to the sewer main outside under the road. Then there are the gas lines, electrical lines, phone lines, running through the walls to breaker boxes on each floor all the way to the top. Every union layout person knows about everything I have mentioned. Not that I can build walls or install electrical and plumbing lines, but I know that they all exist within the floors, walls, and ceilings. 

Below the Surface

This morning, while going over a topographic survey where my apprentice is gathering field topo, she told me about a pipe that seemed to be running along the property line. She didn’t know what it was, so she located it at many points. She’s smart to know it could be important. With the conditions on the site, which I had observed during a visit, I guessed it was an electrical conduit pipe, runing back to a former block building and housing the pool heater and filter. This led to my explaining why they use conduit, and generally, the way they lay out the service to light poles in parking lots and send the electric wires though the pipes from pole-to-pole. This will aid them when locating utility markouts. It’s rather obvious that a light standard must have electricity, but the average Joe would not think about how it gets there, whereas a seasoned party chief knows that is the case and looks for tell-tale signs of red paint as they walk the site during a topographic survey.

So, how does the surveyor’s mind translate life experience to surveying? They know a house needs electricity, so they look for utility poles, red paint, meter boxes, transformers, or manholes with grate covers to let the heat out. Without having to think much about it, the seasoned surveyor knows to locate these items. She also recognizes an electric manhole in the street for what it is. She does not need to think consciously, “Now I need to look for electric manholes.” She just knows to locate them and code them correctly so the office staff will think about their presence. Her mind becomes aware of the many things a designer needs. 

An office complex must have water service, so those features run in the background mental programming of the field surveyor. Water valves, water manholes (in this area, they have a big obvious “W” on top), blue paint, hydrants (and knowing that a hydrant probably has its own valve), plus, the knowledge that the pipe goes from the hydrant to the valve and then a short distance to the “T” in the underground pipe. 

They also recognize the long strips of fresh blacktop running down the pavement and consider what utility sits in the middle of that cut. Then there are the curb boxes for shutoffs to individual units plus the valve to the sprinkler systems. If it’s a rural property, somewhere there is at least one well, and they keep their eyes open until they see it and locate it. They also know when a springhouse is a springhouse and not a root cellar. There is a lot to know in land surveying and the older land surveyors can explain all this and more.

Yellow Paint; Blue Flame

Could there be anything more important to locate than those yellow paint lines? Field people learn to think about each site and consider, “Does it have gas service?” They don’t need to see paint to think about the presence of gas lines. Faint yellow paint in the street is located so the office staff will be sure to make that one call and have it marked freshly. A gas meter by the house will be located and coded so it will be drafted on the plan. If you see a gas meter, it is like, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Hitting a gas line with construction equipment will ruin anyone’s day.

Then there are the sanitary lines. Everyone likes a toilet that flushes and does not clog. Obviously, the sewage doesn’t just go into the basement, so where does it go? The field surveyor’s mind considers this without thinking. Waste goes downhill, so they look at the house, think about where that sewer water goes, think about where downhill is and check there. They know what cleanouts are, their function, and what they look like. They recognize a storm sewer manhole and differentiate it from a sanitary sewer manhole by experience or by what’s written on top. They also know that water and effluent go downhill so they expect a manhole somewhere at a lower elevation. 

I have explained to my apprentices to look for the log depressions running from the curb to the house and locate it as “possible underground utility.” 

On the survey we were at today, the architect only required the area in front of an old farmhouse to have contours and tree locations. The rest of the site had to have impervious areas located. Having seen the lowest cleanout, and the 24-inch diameter area that was freshly dug up, I knew it was a septic tank. It was about 6-feet from the cleanout. Since I want to make the architect happy, I took topo shots downhill of the tank about 100 feet in case they wanted to design a new in-ground sanitary field. I then explained to my apprentice what I had just done as he was getting topo in the middle of the front yard.

So many things to know, and some of them change the flow of our fieldwork to get what the designer needs. I generally do not charge extra for these small things and feel the architects or engineers appreciate not having to send me back out at an extra cost. It’s just good business and generates good will.

Stop, Look, Listen

On a previous day at this same site, the old gentleman who was selling the property pointed out a building and asked if I knew what it was. I said, “Of course. It’s a corn crib.” He was amazed. While in the field today, I pointed it out to my apprentice who thought it was a shed. I explained briefly how corn cribs function and now he knows. The next time he sees one, he will locate it and see that the final plan denotes a “corn crib.”

Are your employees taking time to stop and smell the roses? How about pausing to look over the shoulders of construction workers in the trenches? Would they rather enjoy relaxing in the shade as the bulldozers faithfully move mountains rather than learn what those craftsmen are doing?

I encourage my apprentices to take a break when they see construction activity and make it a learning moment. If they are going from point A to point B and drive by a busy site, they should pull over and take a close look at what’s going on. I suggest they walk over and tell the workers that they would like to watch for a few minutes and learn. They should also express that they have no idea how to do the job they are observing.

On the Mark

Lastly, I would like to mention survey markers. One man I trained in the Midwest saw how we laid out curves with nails in the pavement and painted the big “X” in the roads, drove PK nails (now MAG nails), observed the lath and ribbon, and what it was marking. Later in the week, he remarked he was seeing these markers everywhere. Yes, there is a world only surveyors understand, and marks and markers that make sense only to the experienced eye of a professional.

While vacationing, I cannot help checking out the pins and markers across the country. Even my wife and kids will say, “MAG nail!” or, “Hey, a USGS disk.” We surveyors locate the world and then stake out the world to come, but we also recognize what it takes to make the world turn and are sure to document it on plans and leave a little pink paint or flagging behind. Perhaps those pink marks are the surveyors’ version of “Kilroy Was Here.”

I hope that all the older land surveyors and party chiefs take time to reveal the world to their apprentices. With the experience we share, the younger party chiefs can properly document the world around them and CAD operators properly show the facts. 

When winter winds howl and you shudder to think about walking to your car to go to work, or summer heat makes you appreciate the stagnant air conditioning of the office, be sure to appreciate the field crews, the on-the-scene reporters. They will be where the action is happening, through rough terrain, swamps, the dust of August construction sites, and the deluge of spring rains. And, like the reporter in the hurricane winds, you will find yourself thinking, “They must be crazy to be going out there in weather like this.” So be thankful when they return with the facts, and give them a little praise and the occasional pat on the back. A little appreciation goes a long way.