The “Funny Looking” Locator that Found the “Unlocatable Fiber”

When my longtime client, Schonstedt Instruments, introduced utility locators to their line of location products, they needed a series of case studies, product announcements, and press releases to get the word out. This one appeared in Utility Products magazine, and a version appeared in another utility magazine as well—multiple placement can work out well.

The “Funny Looking” Locator that Found the “Unlocatable Fiber”

Utility Products articleBuck’s Communications is a multifaceted utility contracting corporation based out of High Point, North Carolina. Like any firm that works with utilities – like any firm that ever breaks ground on any project – Buck’s has to be very good at the pesky but vital art of locating underground pipe, cable and fiber. “Our underground crews locate an array of obstacles that plague the underground world.” says Brian Buchanan, Vice President of Buck’s Communications, “We own and operate all of the big name locators on a daily basis.”

Put another way, Buck’s is highly motivated to find and use state of the art equipment when it comes to underground utility locating. Mistakes are always costly and occasionally deadly. But there was one locator that Buchanan hadn’t taken a close look at—Schonstedt Instrument Company’s TraceMaster, released in 2000. Why not? It was “funny looking”. Buchanan had seen the TraceMaster at a few trade shows and it wasn’t just the looks that put him off. In the utility industry, Schonstedt was something of an unknown quantity.

Founded in 1953 by Erick O. Schonstedt, Schonstedt Instrument Company is the undisputed champion of practical magnetometers and gradiometers. Their magnetic locators are so dominant in land surveying that ‘Schonstedt’ has become a nickname for any locator, regardless of make. And, for 25 years, Schonstedt also produced the MAC-51Bx, an all purpose magnetic and dual-frequency pipe and cable locator that still has loyal users.

In 1999 Schonstedt was emerging from a difficult reorganization following Erick Schonstedt’s death. The company decide to renew their focus on the utility industry, hoping to come up with a pipe and cable locator that was as technically excellent as their survey locators. To that end, Schonstedt beefed up its research and development department and in 1999, in Las Vegas, brought together utility location contractors from around the country to talk about their jobs and what they’d like to see in a ‘dream’ locator. Their requests could be boiled down to one basic idea: pipe and cable locators were several years ‘behind’ other electronics being used by contractors. They had short battery lives, were typically complex with complicated interfaces, required constant recalibration, and were bulky with poor ergonomics. Compared to such everyday items as cell phones and calculators, utility locators were rather crude. Clearly an opportunity existed; Schonstedt engineers rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

But Brian Buchanan didn’t know or care about any of that; to him, the TraceMaster was just an eccentric looking device from a company he didn’t know much about. But, at a trade show, a conversation with a colleague convinced him to at least take a closer look and listen to a pitch from Schonstedt’s representative, Roger Wood.

“Like all sales reps, Roger was very convincing when talking about his locator’s accuracy; what made him different was his eagerness to get out in the field and prove it. We took him up on his offer.”

A few days later Wood met with Buchanan and a few other Buck’s Communications representatives who took him to several different sites, hoping to find the TraceMaster’s weak points. But there was a problem, according to Buchanan; “We couldn’t find any weak points!” He adds, “The locator was accurate and very user friendly. We were impressed.”

The feature that really sets the TraceMaster apart—it’s protected by patent—is the radio link between the transmitter and the receiver (the operator end). The radio link does several important things. It allows the user to switch search frequencies without walking back to the transmitter. It’s one of those simple innovations that make you wonder how you ever got along without them. Easy switching between frequencies means that the optimal setup can always be applied, even as conditions change. And since the transmitter doesn’t have to broadcast multiple frequencies, battery life is much longer—up to 60 hours of intermittent use. The radio link also means that the user can continuously monitor signal strength, which means working with more confidence.

There were other things that Buchanan liked. Though the TraceMaster is sophisticated and sensitive, it’s easy to operate. Just two buttons and two knobs control all features. Says Buchanan, “We train all our locating employees in house to be sure that we’re locating as accurately as possible. The TraceMaster has proven to be extremely user-friendly compared to some of the other locators on the market.”

Even the ‘funny looks’ turned out to be a good thing. The TraceMaster looks like a big question mark. The handle and controls are at the top, meaning that it can be held with a natural, comfortable grip and that all four controls can be ‘thumbed’ as needed. The exceptional ergonomics reduce wrist strain and leaves a hand free to carry flags or paint, a shovel, or other tools.

So did Wood have a sale? Not quite yet; “We were impressed with the new locator, but didn’t see a need for it at the time.”

But just as Wood was leaving, a call came in from one of Buck’s Communication’s field crews. Two counties over, a large count fiber was hiding itself remarkably well; four different locators had been tried with no success. Buchanan turned to Wood with a challenge—could he find the ‘unlocatable fiber’? The challenge was accepted, and an hour later the crew’s foreman called with good news; the TraceMaster had performed flawlessly and work could proceed.

Needless to say, Buchanan placed a multiple order that very day, and says that his next locator will also be a TraceMaster. In daily use since then, Schonstedt’s new locator has proved itself over and over. “We primarily locate communication lines, but have also had great success with water, gas and power. It also seems to perform well on the pesky concentric neutral power lines.”

Brian Buchanan is glad he took a second look at the Tracemaster. He’s glad he gave a listen to a company he didn’t know very well. And he’s really glad that his company is now regularly locating ‘unlocatable’ lines.


Angus W. Stocking

Angus W. Stocking, L.S., is a licensed land surveyor who now prepares information marketing content for the infrastructure industry.


Angus W. Stocking, L.S.
P.O. Box 872
Paonia CO 81428
270.363.0033 office