Inspecting the Nation’s Underground Infrastructure

GPRS’s Video Pipe Inspection division covers the entire country, providing customers vivid visuals to help identify their underground infrastructure problems

Inspecting the Nation’s Underground Infrastructure

Adam Geer, a field service tech with GPRS, prepares to launch a robotic crawler from Envirosight during an inspection job on the University of Toledo campus in Ohio.

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The Video Pipe Inspection division of GPRS sees things most of us never see. That’s because, across the country, its project managers are looking through the lenses of cameras crawling or being pushed through pipes that are out of sight and underground. 

VPI is a service that GPRS, headquartered in Toledo, Ohio, rolled out four years ago to complement its core utility locating, concrete scanning and subsurface mapping services. From coast to coast, VPI is — to cite the company’s slogan — visualizing the built world, one pipe at a time, and so far, finding no end to pipes needing a look.


Kyle Humphreys left the telecommunications field to join GPRS four years ago as the company’s first VPI project manager. Working from his native Orange County in Southern California, Humphreys saw an opportunity to be part of a rapidly growing company and inaugurate a new service line.

Quickly finding his footing in the industry, he was promoted to VPI area manager in the western United States and today, at age 35, is the VPI division’s national manager. The speed of Humphreys’ ascent reflects the company’s rapid pace of expansion. From one person — company founder Matt Aston — in 2001, GPRS has about 700 employees today.

Thirty-five VPI project managers serve customers with concerns about the interior of their pipelines. They are scattered across the country, giving stakeholders and contractors in all 50 states visual updates on the condition of their pipes. 

Humphreys says VPI clients are evenly split between utility contractors and county/city departments.

“The majority of our jobs are inspection of sewer and storm sewer systems,” he says.

Culprits discovered in the pipes are the usual suspects, regardless of where in the country the inspections occur. Roots and rootballs. Corroded and collapsed walls. Accretion of foreign material in low spots or junctions. Engineering faults.

For example, there was the sanitary line that emptied into a manhole in a storm sewer. VPI’s camera work not only discovered the spot where the errant spillage entered the storm pipe, the manhole itself was a discovery because it had been paved over and long forgotten.

Another example: A storm sewer line was known to change direction, but the municipal department responsible for the line didn’t know where it happened. The VPI crew sent a crawler camera into the line, found the point of the pipe’s realignment, as well as a lateral line the department didn’t know existed. Failing sections of the pipe were pinpointed.

A third example: A shopping center parking lot developed a sinkhole, which was suspected to be the fault of a failed storm sewer. The VPI team sent a camera crawling through the sewer toward the location of the collapse, confirming that deteriorated pipe had caused the sinkage. It then inspected the downstream section of the pipe in search of the earth and fragments of asphalt deposited in the hole. The debris was pinpointed and a sewer blockage averted.

“We pride ourselves on having happy customers,” Humphreys says.


Those working in the video inspection industry can have varying degrees of expertise — but not at GPRS. Each VPI project manager is certified by the National Association of Sewer Service Cos. NASSCO sets standards for assessing infrastructure and VPI managers meet the standard on three fronts — pipelines, lateral pipes and manholes.

Humphreys had a hand in instituting the NASSCO certification of VPI project managers.

“I laid the groundwork for it,” he says. “I was looking for some way to differentiate ourselves from the competition. We wanted to make sure each project manager is qualified.”

In addition, GPRS has a comprehensive in-house training program. Each project manager completes a month-long training at The GPRS Academy in Toledo, Ohio. The training center has buried infrastructure that replicates just about anything crews will find on a real project. Finally, a newly trained manager is paired with an experienced one in the field for a test period. Managers and crews periodically return to Toledo for fresh training.

The VPI division’s 35 project managers are situated across the United States, which means some manage projects in more than one state. The management network is orderly but flexible, reflecting the company’s national footprint as well as its ability to move manpower, shifting crews to where they are needed.

At the top of the network is Humphreys, who continues to live in and work out of Southern California instead of Toledo. He is a leader in motion.

“I am constantly traveling, mostly by air,” he says.

Humphreys’ travel takes him to one state or another so he can be on hand when a project is kicking off. He’ll drop in on major clients to burnish the relationships. Trade shows are must-visits. And, of course, he periodically flies east to Toledo to company headquarters.

Also in the VPI management chain are project coordinators, who answer calls from pipeline stakeholders needing an inspection. The eastern half of the country is coordinated from Toledo, the western half from Phoenix, Arizona. The coordinators in turn get in touch with local area managers for assigning the work to project managers based on proximity and urgency. 

“The way we position our crews, we don’t have to travel too far for a job,” Humphreys says. “Local area managers handle that. Our clients know they can call us anywhere in the country and we will respond locally.”

The offices for project managers and crews are mostly mobile, according to Humphreys. Specifically, the project managers work from large Mercedes vans outfitted with desks and file cabinets. A company on the move in more ways than one.


Of the various reasons for sending a camera into a pipeline, perhaps the most important one is to confirm that a utility line has not been cross-bored. 

Industry estimates of the number of utility lines that have been bored through other utility lines is in the range of hundreds of thousands. Waterlines punching through storm sewers. Natural gas lines running through sewer lines. With nearly 4 million miles of pipelines and private or public sewers in the soil beneath our feet, along with many miles more of fiber optic lines, bumping into one another underground is not a rarity.

When it comes to cross bores, Humphreys says there is not a pattern that VPI techs have discerned in their inspections. All kinds of utility lines have been found to intersect one another “and all of them are dangerous. Some even are deadly.” Consequently, the VPI division specializes to some extent in finding cross bores.

“It is one of our big pushes,” Humphreys says. “We are doing a large amount of cross-bore inspections at the moment and finding quite a number of them.”


The mainstay pieces of camera equipment VPI relies on are Envirosight ROVVER X robotic and lateral-launch units. The Envirosight SAT II, a camera the manufacturer touts as a faster way to probe possible cross-bore situations, is the latest model in the VPI toolbox.

“It is capable of traveling about a thousand feet in the mainline and 150 feet on a lateral launch. I’m amazed by the technology,” Humphreys says.

Smaller push cameras are RIDGID models. 

Inspection jobs can take hours or months to complete, depending on the size and difficulty of the probe. Humphreys says VPI jobs have ranged from a thousand linear feet or less to more than 200,000 linear feet. If a blockage is found during an inspection or a general cleaning of a line is needed, the company turns to one of its pipe-cleaning industry partners for the work.

VPI offers electronic maps of the inspected pipe using a proprietary system called SiteMap, powered by GPRS. The pipeline data is not only recorded and delivered to customers, it can also be incorporated into a larger site plan so that both above-ground and below-ground data are presented with complete perspective.

“There is a lack of such maps out there now, and a mixture of clients are wanting them,” Humphreys says.

This coordination of locating, pipe inspection, 3D laser scanning and leak detection has branded VPI and the entire GPRS organization as “a one-stop shop,” Humphreys says. “You may need to locate a line, then inspect it and pinpoint possible leaks in it and we can do all of that and more. If a customer has an underground issue, they know we are the subsurface experts.”


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