Underground utilities represent the lifeblood of all sufficiently modern societies. However, many people do not have a good understanding of what underground utilities are. They also do not know the potential dangers inherent in building, excavating, or performing any kind of construction with underground utilities present. Here is a guide that can help you figure it all out.

What Are Underground Utilities?

Underground utilities are the mains and cables located below ground that carry various types of utilities to homes, businesses, and anywhere you find people. Providers of these utilities are often public utility companies, but can also be service providers and even individuals.

Defining Utility

Pretty much anything that can travel through a pipe and into, or out of, a home or other facility is a utility. This can include any or all the following:

  • Electricity
  • Data
  • Gas
  • Oil
  • Water
  • Sewage

If any of these things are around, there is a good chance there is an underground utility main below your feet. You can think of these lines as the veins that carry all the things needed to keep a modern society’s heart beating.

Who owns underground mains?

There is no one single entity that owns and controls all the underground mains that carry utilities.

Public utilities – These are utilities provided by municipalities such as water.
Private utilities – These are utilities typically provided by companies, such as data.

Sometimes, the underground lines are owned and operated by private people or companies. In other cases, private lines share space with public mains. It is even possible for a public utility to rent private space for the purpose of running a main through that space’s underground.

Why You Need to Know About Underground Utility Lines

While many people take advantage of, and benefit from, underground utilities, it is important for everybody to have at least some knowledge of them. It does not matter who you are, if you dig into the ground for any reason, there is a chance you can come into contact with an underground utility line. Some are buried rather deep, but some are also very close to the surface. This is why it is of the utmost importance that you locate underground utilities and they are marked, and occasionally updated.

Consequences of hitting underground utilities

What do you think can happen if you don’t use a underground utility location service and hit an main on accident? The mildest consequence is the temporary loss of a service. However, consequences can be far, far more dire than that.

  • Loss of a specific service for an entire area
  • Gas leaks into the ground or atmosphere
  • Sewage leaks into ground and groundwater
  • Explosions from burst gas lines
  • Polluting the water supply for an area
  • Serious injury and death, such as from electrocution

These are just a few of the possible consequences of damaging an underground utility line. And do not assume these kinds of things can only happen to construction crews with excavators and heavy equipment.

Activities that can lead to damaged underground utility mains

Yes, larger construction projects can lead to damaged lines, but so can smaller, personal projects. Here are just a few small level activities that can turn into a large, messy, and expensive problem for you.

  • Installing a mailbox or ground posts
  • Starting a garden or planting a tree
  • Building a deck, patio, or other outside structure
  • Any kind of digging, even if for play

If none of these possible consequences move you, then there is another thing to consider. Damaged lines can cost you or your business thousands of dollars in damages. Even if you own the line that you damage, it can cost you a lot of money to have it repaired. In some cases, damages can total in the millions of dollars.

As you can see, everybody needs to show some concern when it comes to underground utilities. That is why there are things you can, and should, do to mitigate the risk of accidentally hitting an underground line.

How to Avoid Damaging an Underground Utility Line

Whether you are starting the excavation process, or just planting a rose garden, you should always make sure to locate underground utilities first. There are several ways to go about doing this.

Make sure you have permission

You should never start digging without first knowing if you have permission to do so. Even if you own the property, you may have public utility lines running through the ground or very close by. If you do not own the property, you should contact the property owner and ask if it is okay to do any kind of digging.

Look for coloured markings

Did you ever notice those coloured lines and symbols spray painted onto the streets and other areas? Or maybe you saw coloured flags sticking up in the grass.

Those marks and flags indicate where a line is buried. The colour indicates the type of line buried. Some of the most common colours are as follows:

  • Orange for electricity
  • Yellow for gas
  • Blue for water
  • White for communications

There are other colours for other types of utilities, but if you see any indication there is a line buried, do not dig there. If you must, then you must do it with permission, expertise, and the greatest of care.

Dial Before You Dig

Dial Before You Dig is not just a suggestion; it is a full service denoting exactly what you should do before you start digging. Once it was just a suggestion, but since 2010, it has become the law in NSW.

Dial Before You Dig is a service that allows excavators and other diggers to receive information on buried lines in order to locate underground utilities. That information can come in the form of plans or other documentation that denotes where lines are buried. The service can also provide instructions on how best to dig around those lines.

Do your research & use underground utility location services.

Even using a service like Dial Before You Dig will not expose all possible underground lines. You will still have to figure out exactly where lines are located on a property. There are various ways to go about doing this.
Potholing – Also known as hydro or vacuum. This non-destructive location technology uses water or air to break up the ground and suction it to expose what is underneath.

GPR – Ground-penetrating radar is a non-destructive technology that can detect objects in the ground. It works by sending radio waves into the ground and then noting where those waves bounce back off a buried object.
Concrete x-ray –Much like GPR but provides higher resolution images, making it easier to identify exactly what kind of structure is underground.
Electromagnetic utility locating – This method uses electromagnetic frequencies to locate conductive material, as in from pipes.
Utility location services – You can always hire a service to locate buried utilities for you. There are many of them out there, and they are adept at using many of the available methods to find said utilities.

There are more means and methods to detecting underground utilities. The most important thing is you do what you need to do to avoid accidents.

What If You Accidentally Do Hit an Underground Utility?

Haven’t used a underground utility locating services? If you hit a main while excavating, you should take action immediately. As previously mentioned, a damaged line can cause a tremendous amount of trouble for you, up to and including death. If you hit a line,

  • get away from the area,
  • cordon off the area,
  • assess the situation from a distance,
  • contact the authorities,
  • and contact the local utility company.

What you should do can vary depending on the type of line. You should have an emergency plan in place for any eventuality. Not all types of lines represent hazards, but if you are unsure, err on the side of absolute caution.

Underground Utilities Don’t Have to Be a Pain

Exercise caution and diligence when it comes to underground utilities. Dealing with them properly from the start can save you a lot of trouble later. All the regulations in place concerning digging are there for the safety of you, your crew, the people around you, and even the environment in general.

There is far more at stake than you may have realised. So make sure you take underground utility locating very seriously.