How do I call to mark utilities before I dig?

You’ve heard the commercials insisting that you absolutely must call to mark utilities before you dig, every dig, no matter what. If you’re hiring a contractor, he or she will call in the utility locate. For your own projects around the house, though, do YOU have to call? And if so, how does it work?

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Why you need to call to mark utilities before you dig

If you ask around, people may come up with these numbers “they heard somewhere” about how deep the different utilities have to be buried. Electric? 3-4 feet. Gas? Two feet. You know what? Those numbers are utter bull.

A few factors are at play with utility lines being shallower than expected. Maybe erosion or regrading has happened since they were installed and there’s a foot less soil over the lines. Or maybe the lines were just never installed at the appropriate depth. I’ve seen gas lines between 6 and 9 inches down. I’ve seen cable laid ON THE GROUND and sod laid over top of it. And one of my fellow crew guys hit a sort-of buried electric line way back in the day, scared the heck out of all of us, and melted the spade bit on the jackhammer he was using.

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Calling before you dig protects you in two ways. First, it reduces the likelihood of injuring yourself and others or causing property damage by marking out where the lines are so you can avoid them. Second, if a line wasn’t marked, or was in a different location than where it was marked, and you hit it, you’re more than likely not going to be held responsible by the utility for the damage. If you don’t call for a mark and you hit something, you’re on the hook for the repair. That can be really expensive. Imagine you hit a fiber optic line. There’s no splicing that back together, wrapping it in electrical tape, and reburying it. Expect some zeroes on the end of that.

What happens when I call for a utility locate?

First of all, you can┬ácall 811 for a locate in most areas. If that doesn’t work, a quick Google search OR a call to your utility provider can get you what you need.

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Now, when you call in they’re going to ask a bunch of questions if you’re a first time caller. Your name, your contact info, all that good stuff. Once they know who you are they’ll want to know more about the work you’re doing for the homeowner and where. They’ll ask for the address where the work will be performed, what type of work you’re doing (ie, “planting trees and shrubs” or “building a patio”), and where on the property you want them to mark. Unless it’s a really big property (multiple acres) I just have them mark the whole thing. As an installer (homeowner or pro), you may decide to transplant something to the other side of the property. As a homeowner, it’s also just nice to know what all is buried under your yard.

Other questions will include closest cross streets, whether you’ll be boring or blasting, and whether or not you’ve pre-marked the site with white paint. What’s important to remember is that if you’re marking a site where a utility locate is needed, white paint is your safest option. There are no utilities they mark that get white paint. A lot of people buy orange paint because it stands out really well, but the locators use orange for phone, cable, and fiber optic lines. If you mark the site with a paint other than white prior to getting it marked, I’ve had locators refuse to mark anything out. White paint, people.

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The last thing the operator will do is give you your ticket number and the date by which the utilities are required to respond. If you start work before this date you may not be safe, because different people mark the different utilities. You may see cable and gas marked, but if the power company hasn’t come out yet you’re still digging blind. Once you have your ticket number, write it down in a safe place. Should you hit a line that wasn’t marked, you’ll need that number.

When you start digging remember to respect the marks. Each utility will have a recommended distance you should stay away from the marks. Remember that the marks make no claim about depth, so even if you’re hand digging right over the marks and you cut a line, you may be considered at fault.

What won’t Miss Utility/Digsafe mark?

As part of their spiel, the operator will tell you “private utilities will not be marked.” What does that mean? It means you’re on your own for the following:

  • septic lines
  • irrigation lines
  • water lines
  • any buried electric AFTER the meter
  • any buried gas AFTER the meter
  • gas lines to/from a propane tank
  • sewer lines
  • basically anything buried that’s not in the control of the utilities the operator lists for you

You can hire a private locator, on your own dime, for most of these. This is also why when I do work that includes burying lines, I try to get some reference measurements and take lots of pictures.

What if I hit something?

If you hit something, stop right away and notify the affected utility. If you hit a gas line or a power line, call 911 after you’ve retreated to a safe distance.

Miss Utility, or whatever it’s called where you are, is a free service provided by the utilities. Be safe and any time you’re digging, call to mark utilities for a locate!

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