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Before Digging Anything Else, Dig This!

You’ve seen the stories in the newspaper about the excavator who created a geyser when he hit a buried water line, or the contractor whose errant backhoe cut off phone service to half the town. But it’s not only the heavy equipment that’s a risk of cutting into underground utilities – every time you pick up a shovel, you could be at risk as well.

It’s important to remember that right below your feet there is a network of everything from water lines to TV cables, and some of it may not be as deeply buried or as well protected as you might think. For that reason, most states and local jurisdictions have fairly strict laws making it your responsibility to know what’s under there before you dig, whether you’re a contractor with a backhoe or a homeowner with a shovel. Those same laws can make it your financial responsibility as well should an underground utility be damaged.

Fortunately, most states also offer locating services that will mark out utilities for you. One call is usually all it takes, and the marking is typically done within two business days. As long as the markings are in a public right of way or within a utility easement on private property, there is also typically no charge for this service.


Prior to starting excavation, the usual process is to mark out the proposed areas of digging using white paint. White is the standard color for temporary survey markings, and is used so as not to conflict with the colors used by the utility marking crews.

Once the proposed excavation is marked, the utility locating service will mark out any utilities in the immediate area, using temporary color-coded marking paint sprayed directly on the ground. The standard color-coding system used by most utilities is:

Red: Electric power lines, cables or conduit; lighting cables.

Yellow: Gas, oil, steam, petroleum or other hazardous liquids or gases.

Orange: Communication, cable TV, alarms or other types of signal lines, cables or conduits.

Blue: Water and irrigation lines.

Green: Sewer lines, storm sewer facilities or other drain lines.

Before beginning any excavation, even something as simple as installing a fence or a sprinkler system, be sure and contact your local utility company or building department. They can provide you with the phone number of the local utility locating company, as well as complete information on color coding and locating procedures.


Remember that the utility locating companies will locate and mark only primary public utilities, so it’s up to you to keep track of what else is on your own property. And while the state is not going to come after you for putting your post-hole digger through a sprinkler line, it’s far better to know that sprinkler is under there before you have to go through the hassle of fixing it after you cut it!

The easiest thing to do is to simply keep a log of whatever you bury on your property, from electrical wires and low-voltage lighting cables to water lines and sprinklers. If you do have a septic system, be sure and keep track of exactly where that is as well.

As you excavate, simply take a moment to measure where things are going, as well as anything you unearth as you go. Measure the distance to the excavated area from at least two points on your property, such as from a corner of the house, a street light, the sidewalk or driveway, or other fixed points. Draw a simple map, note the measurements, and also make careful note of exactly what you buried and how deep it is. A photo or two is also a great idea. Write down the date and place all the information in your “locates” file for easy reference in the future.

Utility companies typically do not mark private septic lines and drain fields, so if your home is served by a septic system, be sure to contact your local building department for help with septic locations.