Even if it doesn’t look like it from the surface, the underground world of your yard is likely a lot more complicated than you realize. Next time you are considering a backyard construction project, this should be one of your very first steps: checking on underground utilities.
A thorough investigation with professional CCTV inspection services is one way to go, or you can rely on the free, central utility services in your area. However you approach it, you must plan before you dig.
What are the Risks
Besides getting you in trouble with the utility companies if you damage their lines, there are some serious potential risks that come with digging unprepared. Though electrical cables are well-protected, if you are digging with machinery, they can easily be cut. That creates a very dangerous shock hazard, not to mention you can cause a black-out in your area. And then there may be natural gas lines. Break one of those and you run the risk of fire and even explosion should the gas ignite.
Those are probably the biggest and most dangerous of the risks, but you can’t forget the possibility of a flood from a broken water main or sewage pipe either. Utilities like phone, Internet or television cables don’t pose much in the way of safety threats. You may cause serious disruptions in your neighborhood if you damage them though.
So Call First
The best plan to safely dig is to do your complete research before shovel hits the ground. Any plans to dig deeper than around a foot should be checked out first. You can either go with a central utility service (usually known as Dig Safely or Call Before You Dig) that can verify your location with all local utilities at no cost, or you can hire your own service.
The Call Before You Dig service is free and is often required by law anyway to ensure that you don’t dig without checking. It is convenient since it’s a single phone call to check on all utilities and it costs nothing. For example, you just call 811 in New York to get this done.
In some areas, all they do is check with utility maps and verify remotely that no lines or mains are under that area of your lot (you’ll need to specify where you plan on digging to be accurate). They may send out contractors to flag or mark the lines for you.
But if you want something more thorough, where they actually use technology to examine the ground, then you’ll need something more. Rather than rely on existing maps or documentation, this gives you a real and present picture of what may be in your way when you dig. Don’t forget, there may be more down there than just utility lines. Old foundations or construction remnants, obsolete pipes that aren’t recorded anywhere, forgotten septic tanks or even just unexpected rock formations.
Just be aware that even if you do choose to hire your own service, the law probably requires that you call the municipal number as well so that they have a record of your diligence.
Image: Steven Damron