Anytime you dig into the ground without first verifying the location of underground utility lines, you risk damaging these lines and interrupting services or worse. Digging blind puts you, your property and anyone nearby at risk, whether you’re a homeowner or the owner of a business. Before you start any digging projects on your residential or commercial property, follow utility locating best practices by calling the experts before breaking ground. Be sure to call both public utility locators and private utility locators to cover all your bases.

Underground Utility Line Dangers

Any project, whether large or small, that requires digging and excavating carries the risk of hitting some type of utility lines buried below the surface. Accidentally hitting buried lines can be extremely dangerous and cause significant damage, including property or utility damage, service interruptions, remediation expenses and serious injury or death. Damage to subsurface lines frequently happens because the person working on the digging project wasn’t aware of the risk, but utility lines are literally everywhere.

Power lines, natural gas lines and sewer and water lines are the most obvious buried utilities that come to mind, but there are also various telecommunication lines, such as telephone, internet and fiber-optic lines, adding to the complex network hiding below the surface. Even if you think you know where all your lines are located, they can move over time. 

Best Practices of the CGA

The Common Ground Alliance is rooted in the Best Practices Guide, which is a report based on the original Common Ground Study by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Since the CGA’s establishment, the Best Practices Guide has been utilized as the most trusted resource for underground utility damage prevention. The goal of the CGA is to improve the safety of workers, protect underground utility infrastructure and ensure public safety during excavation activities around areas where there are existing subsurface utilities.

Following the American Public Works Association guidelines, a color-coding system for utility markings is used to locate and identify underground utility facilities. Permanent aboveground and belowground markers are beneficial to underground utility owners/operators and to first responders needing to identify underground utility lines during incidents. However, they aren’t meant to take the place of utility location services used to identify public or private utility lines.

Public vs Private Utility Lines

Public utilities are installed by utility companies to service large areas. These lines are owned and maintained by the public utility company, even if the lines are on private property. Public utilities typically include natural gas, electric, water and sewer services. The utility company is responsible for maintaining the lines running from the street to the service meter. However, the lines going from the meter to your home or business are considered private, and the homeowner or business owner is responsible for the repair and upkeep of these lines.

Most properties also have numerous other unmarked private utility lines, such as electrical lines for a detached garage or exterior lighting, septic pipes, propane lines, sprinkler systems and other irrigation lines, gas lines to heated pools, internet cables, etc. All these lines must be located and marked to avoid any hidden dangers. Property owners, including home or business owners, churches, schools and municipalities, are responsible for any damage to utilities within their property. This includes gas mains or electrical feeders running through parking lots or to fire stations, hospitals or other critical facilities.

Call Before You Dig Services

You’re probably familiar with the “Call Before You Dig” advertisements for public utility locating services. This campaign promotes the importance of underground utility locating before you start digging. The 811 national call center connects you with local one-call locating services, available in states across the nation, and lets you request a public utility search for free. Technicians come to your site, locate public utilities using electromagnetic equipment and mark the lines running from the street to the service meters using flags and/or paint to prevent you from damaging public utility lines.

While these free public utility locating services should be the first call you make, they have limitations. Most importantly, they’re only going to locate public lines. They may not be able to locate all the underground utilities in the areas you need marked if the locations are on private property or outside public utility boundaries. The second call you need to make is to a reputable private utility locating service to get your private utility lines marked. Private utility locating companies literally pick up where 811 leaves off.

Private Underground Utility Locating

Private subsurface utility locators find and mark all types of buried utility lines on private, commercial, residential and municipal property. They don’t rely on utility maps because these are often outdated, incomplete, inaccurate or simply missing. Instead, private locators use a variety of specialized utility locating equipment, such as ground-penetrating radar (GPR), electromagnetic equipment, electronic or radio frequency pipe and cable locating tools and hydro vacuum excavation equipment. These companies can locate both current and abandoned lines, and if they’re also excavators, they can unbury lines for inspection, repair or replacement.