If you’re performing any kind of outdoor work, you probably know the rule: “Call before you dig”. This isn’t just common sense; in most jurisdictions, it’s the law. Calling ahead will get utility companies to mark their wires and pipes across your property. This is all well and good as far as it goes. But what do you do when you want to find your own wires or pipes? Typically, your utility company won’t have any information on where these are. This can pose problems not only if you’re going to dig a swimming pool or garden bed. It’s also problematic if you simply want to find the wire or pipe to work on it. So what do you do?
The solution is to use an underground cable, pipe, & wire locator. Today, we’ll be looking at three choices, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages. First, we’ll be looking at the Ridgid Underground Utility Locator. This tool is designed to detect virtually any underground conductive material, and to help you find it. Next, we’ll look at the TEMPO Communications 501 Tracker II. This is a more basic tool, designed for helping you to trace a wire or conductive pipe from one end. Finally, we’ll look at the Mastech Wire Tracker. This is a more reasonably-priced tool, designed for homeowners to track a wire. Then we’ll wrap up, and tell you what we learned. Let’s get started!
Ridgid Underground Utility Locator
Ridgid is generally known for their power tools, which come with a lifetime guarantee. But what’s less well-known is that Ridgid produces a variety of industrial tools as well. For example, they produce some of the best gas leak detectors on the market. And make no mistake, the Ridgid Underground Utility Locator is an industrial-grade tool, with a price point to match.
The total weight of the unit is 3.97 pounds, so it’s a bit heavy to hold in one hand. But the weight is due to the fact that this is an all-inclusive unit. Most detectors of this type have a 2-part design, with a transmitter and a receiver. The advantage of this design is that it’s cheap. The downside is that you need to have access to at least one end of the wire or pipe. With the Ridgid Underground Utility locator, you can find any buried conductive material, without needing to hook up a transmitter.
The Ridgid Underground Utility Locator has 3 separate antennas in 2 different lobes, which are offset at 120 degrees. In addition, there are 2 gradient antennas in their own lobes, which makes a total of 8 antennas. This means you can pick up a signal at any orientation or angle. All of the sensors are located on a wand, which is attached to a large yellow control unit and handle. This design makes it easy to operate the controls with your thumb while you hold the unit.
At the top of the control unit, you’ll see a large LCD screen. This screen displays the exact location and orientation of anything it detects. It also displays the distance to the object, as well as an arrow pointing to it. If you’re trying to find an underground wire or pipe, nothing beats this kind of clear, visual guide. In addition to a visual display, you also get an audible alert when the locator senses an object. Similar to a metal detector, it beeps louder and faster as the object gets closer. You can turn the volume up or down with a button on the control panel.
The Ridgid Underground Utility Locator has a collapsible design, and includes a carrying case. The case measures 24 inches wide, 18.5 inches deep, and 9.5 inches thick. When it’s not in use, just fold up the locator and throw it in your truck or your garage. In addition to the carrying case, the Ridgid Underground Utility Locator also includes a few extras. You get an owner’s manual, an instructional DVD, and 3 marking chips to keep track of previous discoveries. You also get 4 C-cell batteries, which are required for operation.
As you might expect from a premium-priced unit, the Ridgid Underground Utility Locator has several additional functions. There are a few different modes, which can be used for different scenarios. The line tracer uses both an active and a passive mode. In active mode, you can look for specific frequencies, ranging from 10 Hz to 35 kHz. This allows you to track just about any active wire in existence. In passive mode, you’re just looking for conductive material. The downside is that you’ll ping off any buried metal. The upside is that you can also find any buried material, even if it’s a dead wire or inaccessible pipe. It also means you can find buried wires you may not be specifically looking for.
In Sonde Mode, the Ridgid Underground Utility locator can track pipe locators attached to a drain snake. Run the snake down the pipe, and the Underground Utility Locator will help you find it. Similar to the active search mode, it can track a variety of frequencies. You can track any camera snake sonde beacon, with a frequency between 10 Hz and 35,000 kHz. Once again, this will cover just about any sonde beacon on the market. There’s also a continual depth tracker for sonde beacons. As you run the snake in and out of the pipe, you’ll get real-time data on the pipe depth.
TEMPO Communications 501 Tracker II
The TEMPO Communications 501 Tracker II has a more traditional design than the Ridgid Underground Utility Locator. It consists of two separate units, a transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter sends a signal down a wire or conductive pipe, and the receiver picks it up. This makes the 501 Tracker II simple and intuitive to use, without a lot of bells and whistles. That said, it has an obvious downside: you need to have access to one end of the pipe or wire. This means you won’t be able to use it to find lines or pipes that you’re not aware of. On the other hand, it means it’s easy to find a break in a buried wire. Simply follow the line until the signal dies.
The overall weight of the unit is 7.7 pounds, including both the transmitter and the receiver. However, the receiver is less than half of this total, making it relatively easy to carry. It consists of a long wand with a small black receiver on the end, and a small control panel at the top. The control panel has a speaker, which gives you audible feedback similar to a metal detector. The closer you are to the wire or pipe, the louder and faster the beeping will be. You also have a small visual display, which tells you the depth of the wire or pipe you’re tracking.
In addition to the transmitter and receiver, you get a couple of attachment options. For wires, there’s an inductive antenna. Just use an alligator clip to attach it to one end of the wire, and you’re ready to go. For pipes, you’ll need to clamp the antenna directly to the outside of the pipe. TEMPO Communications includes a round pipe clamp for this purpose. Just wrap the clamp around the pipe, put the antenna inside it, and it will run the current through the pipe.
Not only do you get the antenna and clamp, you also get a 9-volt battery for the receiver. This is useful to get started. However, for some baffling reason, TEMPO Communications does not include any batteries for the transmitter. In order to actually use the unit, you’re going to need 8 AAA batteries to power the transmitters. That said, you do get a rugged resin carrying case. It’s 34.3 inches long, 9.3 inches deep, and 4.2 inches thick. This size makes it easy to store, whether in a truck bed or a storage shed.
The TEMPO Communications 501 Tracker II comes at a moderate price. It’s affordable for contractors, and not out of reach for most homeowners. That said, it comes with commensurately fewer features than the Ridgid Underground Utility Locator. But it still has a couple of features that are worth mentioning.
To begin with, both the transmitter output and receiver sensitivity are fully adjustable. Want to use less power to save on batteries? You can do it. Want to crank up the power to locate a hard-to-find wire? Go for it. The same goes for the receiver. Lower sensitivity and higher power can be helpful if you’re searching for one wire in a crowded area. In addition, the transmitter has a range of up to 4,000 feet of length and up to 7 feet of depth. This lets you detect virtually any wire you need to find, even on a very large property.
Mastech Wire Tracker
The Mastech Wire Tracker is the most affordable option on our list. It consists of two lightweight, handheld units, a transmitter and receiver, with a total weight of 1.55 pounds. The transmitter includes a pair of test leads, which you clamp onto a pipe or cable with the included alligator clips. It also includes a grounding rod, which makes it easy to safely use under a variety of circumstances. In addition, the transmitter has a built-in flashlight. This won’t help you trace a wire, but it might help you find one in a dark basement with no power.
The receiver is a simple handheld unit, with an antenna on the end and no wand to speak of. It’s a fairly simple device, and doesn’t track depth or location, just signal strength. That said, you still get both a visual and audible alert on signal strength. With the touch of a button, you can raise or lower the sensitivity, or adjust the volume of the speaker. One thing that disappointed us is that there are no batteries included. To get started, you’re going to need 6 AAA and 1 9-volt battery. Then again, the Mastech Wire Tracker is very affordable. At this price, you can afford to buy a handful of batteries.
The Mastech Wire Tracker doesn’t have any extra features to speak of. As we said, it’s a fairly basic unit, designed for homeowners and not professionals. That said, it’s still useful for a variety of purposes. For example, you can find broken cables or short-circuits with ease. You can also track cables, find blown circuits, or find a buried junction box. The downside here is that it’s pretty much useless for finding or tracking pipes. For that, you’ll need to spend a little more money on a more full-featured unit.
So, which one of these underground cable, pipe, and wire locators is the best? It depends on what you need. If you’re looking for the all-around best choice, the obvious answer is the Ridgid Underground Utility Locator. This device can track just about everything, from live wires to dead, from accessible pipes to inaccessible. On the other hand, it comes with a very steep price tag. It could be a good investment for a contractor, but it’s not a great value for the average homeowner.
The TEMPO Communications 501 Tracker II is the mid-priced option. Unlike the Ridgid Underground Utility Locator, it’s priced so the average homeowner can afford it. The downside is that it’s not suitable for finding dead wires, or finding pipes with no current running through them. On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to use, and it’s particularly useful for finding a break in a wire.
Finally, the Mastech Wire Tracker does just what its name implies: it tracks wires. It’s not going to help you track a pipe or find a wire that you’re not aware of. But it’s reasonably priced, well within the range of any home improvement project. If you’re a homeowner just trying to track a wire, it’s a solid choice.