How To Find Utility Lines In Your Yard

How To Find Utility Lines In Your Yard

Even though underground utility lines are out of sight, you shouldn’t keep them out of mind. The underground lines that supply energy and water to your home can wreak havoc if damaged.

Luckily, you can locate underground utilities in your yard before starting lawn projects, saving yourself from injury, fines, and damage to your home.

This article will provide instructions for safe and responsible digging. We’ll also discuss the necessary steps to take before beginning any excavation project. 

What Are Utility Lines?

Utility lines are underground structures that supply services to homes and businesses.

Examples of underground utilities are:

  • Telephone lines
  • Internet and cable lines
  • Sewer and water service lines
  • Electrical and natural gas lines
  • Traffic signal lines

We’re accustomed to the utilities that make our lives easier and more efficient. You pay for utilities every month but may forget they’re there – especially since many of the structures that provide them are buried underground around your house.

However, utility lines may be only a few inches below your lawn, making it relatively easy to cause harm. You could face serious repercussions if you dig into your yard and hit a line.

The following section will discuss how to locate buried utility lines before you start digging.

What to Do Before Digging in Your Yard

You should always call 811 – the national “call-before-you-dig” phone number – before beginning any excavation project in your yard.

What is 811?

811 is the Federal Communications Commission’s national utility location hotline. 

Before digging, you should always call this number or visit your state’s 811 website to place a utility line locator request. The center will send out a utility locator to determine and mark the location of underground lines so that you don’t dig into them.

When you call or submit an online request, you’ll need to provide the following information:

  • Address of the digging site
  • County and nearest cross street
  • Type of project you’re completing
  • The exact location of the project on your property

Once you’ve submitted your information online or by phone, you’ll get a ticket number and guidelines for the next steps. Utility companies will respond to your request by a deadline, and you’ll confirm with the 811 center that all companies have answered before you start digging.

Call the 811 hotline a few business days before you begin your project. Check your state’s 811 website for your area’s specific requirements.

Why It’s Important To Call Before You Dig

The 811 website advises homeowners and contractors to call before they dig – even for seemingly small projects.

In some cases, digging before calling 811 violates state law. For example, North Carolina law “requires that three full days before every excavation, the person responsible must place a notification request to NC 811.” 

Placing a locator request may seem like a hassle, but it’s critical in ensuring you don’t damage private or public utility lines. Fortunately, requesting a line location service is free.

So, why is requesting a utility line location necessary?

Many utility lines are buried only a few inches deep, so you could accidentally hit them while planting a shrub or installing a fence. Hitting a utility line can cause loss of power for your home or entire neighborhood. You could also incur fines or get seriously injured.

The Colorado 811 website explains what can happen if you dig before determining utility location and cause line damage:

Utility Line Damage and Consequences
Sewer Sewer line damage can release harmful toxins like methane. Methane gas is an explosion risk and can cause difficulty breathing. 
Water Hitting a water line can cause severe flooding. 
Plumbing Damage to underground plumbing lines can result in unpleasant sounds and the release of sewer odors.
Cable and electrical Damaging an electrical line can interrupt the utility service to entire neighborhoods. Outages can extend across communities that operate on a shared power grid. In the worst-case scenario, you risk electrocution and personal injury.
Gas and oil Causing a gas or oil line leak can be fatal for all homeowners on the same line. Gas leaks exposed to fire or sparks can ignite fast-spreading fires or explosions.

Identifying Different Utility Lines

Common Utility Line Color Codes

Utility line markings are color-coded to help you differentiate between services. 

Once you’ve submitted a locator request, your local utility company will send out a service provider to mark the buried lines on your property with color-coded flags.

The American Public Works Association (APWA) has assigned the following color codes to utility line markings:

Color Utility Line
Red Lighting cables, conduits, and electrical power lines
Orange Communication, alarm signal, and fiber optic lines
Yellow Gas, oil, steam, and petroleum lines
Green Drains and sewer lines
Blue Potable (drinkable) water lines
Purple Reclaimed water, slurry, and irrigation lines
White Pre-marking lines for proposed excavation sites
Pink Temporary survey markings

Marked Vs. Unmarked Lines

Even though the locator has filled your yard with colored flags, you still might not be in the clear. 

Utility companies will only mark public utility lines in your yard. 

Private facilities are utilities like septic tanks, sprinkler systems, and propane tanks that you or former homeowners have installed. The utility company doesn’t own these service lines and isn’t responsible for marking them.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety offers tips for safely locating private facility lines before digging: 

  • Contact previous property owners to determine if they installed private underground facilities before you moved in.
  • Assess the digging site for items like unmarked gas meters, electrical meters, and in-ground sprinkler heads.
  • Contact your city sewer provider and have them indicate the spot where the sewer line enters your property.
  • Consider devices like outdoor lights and grills that have unmarked power sources.
  • Hire a private utility locating service to inspect your property for unmarked lines in your excavation project area.

Can You Locate Utility Lines by Yourself?

You can also estimate the rough location of buried lines by assessing the placement of water meters or sewer potholes on the street beside your yard. 

However, if you’re determined to find the exact location of utility lines yourself, you can do so with underground utility locator tools. These instruments detect underground pipes, cables, and buried markers by sending electromagnetic frequencies into the ground. 

Utility line locators typically cost $1,500-$3,000, depending on your selected model. You’d most likely be better off hiring a contractor to do the job, especially if you’re completing a one-time digging project.

Regardless, state law may require you to call 811 before digging. So, your best bet is to have a utility provider check your yard no matter what.

How to Safely Dig Around Utility Lines

You’ve notified 811 of your project, and a utility company has located and marked the lines buried in your yard. However, you still aren’t ready to start excavation. 

According to National Grid, “you must first hand dig around the line to expose it and verify its exact location and depth” before you get into heavy digging.

National Grid provides some safe hand digging techniques for working around the marked utility lines in your yard. 

  • Use a rounded shovel. Sharp tools like pickaxes can puncture utility lines.
  • Begin the project by gently digging around the sides of marked lines.
  • Dig with caution; you never know if markings are entirely accurate.
  • Don’t pry on the utility line to move soil. Avoid forcefully digging or stomping on the shovel to make it move.
  • Dig down until you reach the actual line to know its exact placement.

Once you’ve completed your digging project, backfill the area using the following techniques:

  • Before filling in the dirt you removed, check the exposed utility lines for signs of damage.
  • Use gloved hands or a blunt-edged shovel to fill in the earth under utility lines.
  • Remove rocks or pieces of concrete from the soil before placing dirt around lines. Sharp objects can cause punctures.
  • Report any damage to your utility provider. Even minor scrapes or dents can lead to breaks in the future.

Final Thoughts

Now that you’ve learned about best practices for digging, you can safely complete your next home improvement project

Although it’s possible to locate buried utilities on your own, we highly encourage you to contact your state’s 811 phone number before digging in your yard. An experienced locator will assess your project area and flag underground lines, preventing you from puncturing them and causing severe damage. 

Not only is calling before digging required by law, but it’s also the best way to avoid harming the lines that supply essential services to your home and neighborhood.

 

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