The weather is beginning to warm up, and for most of us, that means one thing – getting out and doing outdoor projects.

But before putting a shovel into the ground, it’s worth knowing what’s going on underneath the surface. If you haven’t heard, April is National Safe Digging Month (NSDM). The event started out as a way to help Common Ground Alliance members promote safe digging practices in their communities, and now highlights the familiar 811 number many homeowners and professional excavators know today.

There are millions of miles of underground utilities crisscrossing the United States, and many of them aren’t that far beneath our feet. These cables, wires, and pipes cover many applications, including:

  • Gas and oil delivery
  • Water
  • Electrical
  • Telecommunication Services
  • Sewer
  • Irrigation
  • Pet Fencing
  • Cable TV

As Americans begin tackling spring and summer projects, the risk of damaging underground utilities increases. These risks range from a mild inconvenience due to damaged pet fencing to neighborhood power outages, injuries, and even death due to damaged electrical or gas lines.

Knowing where underground utilities are hiding is vital for homeowners who would like to install a new mailbox, plant a tree, or bury a pet fence. By calling 811, operators reduce the risk of unnecessary health and safety issues while preventing some of the estimated $30 billion in societal costs those issues were attributed to in 2019.

The Dangers of Underground Utilities

It’s what you don’t see that is typically the most dangerous.

Utility lines and cables aren’t buried that far beneath the surface, ranging from only a few inches to a couple of feet. The easiest way to prevent the threat of damaging underground utility lines is to contact 811 before any work is done. This process can be done by calling 811 or making a request online and only requires a little bit of basic information. Once a locate request has been submitted, utility companies must respond within a few days and mark the area with utility locators if there are any.

But what happens if a marking request isn’t made? Common Ground Alliance estimates about one-third of surveyed homeowners experienced a utility disruption during the pandemic, thanks to a surge in outdoor projects. In addition, about 40% of active diggers who didn’t call 811 before digging said they didn’t choose to because they didn’t think they were digging deep enough to cause damage.

Unfortunately, a few inches can make a big difference. Pet fencing can be as little as 3-5 inches below the surface, and other underground utilities may be sitting just a couple of feet down. When a homeowner or professional excavator starts digging without checking to see what’s below their feet, these lines can become disturbed, damaged, and dangerous.

Why Tracer Wire Makes a Big Difference

Utility companies rely on tracer wire to find buried lines. Tracer wire is often laid alongside or atop utility lines and conducts a current. This current helps track where particular lines are, so they won’t be disturbed during construction or other work.

When companies come back to lay utility marks, the tracer wire helps the process move quickly and without guesswork compared to other methods. It is also less expensive than other forms of locating buried utilities.

Tracer wire comes in different colors that denote what type of service line they’re associated with. Although their colors differ, the safety they provide is universal. For more information about tracer wire colors and what they mean, check out this helpful blog post and infographic.

As pipeline construction continues to improve with better materials and methods, including the use of polyethylene tubing, tracer wire will become even more important. PVC tubing cannot be located using traditional tracing methods, making them tougher to find. By employing a total tracer wire solution, it’s possible to easily find these lines so they aren’t damaged during excavation or other digging.

Call Before You Dig

It is everyone’s responsibility, including homeowners, professional excavators, utilities, and manufacturers, to work together to prevent accidents. Anytime there are plans to dig, call 811 first and have the area clearly marked before starting work.

Utility companies have a similar responsibility and must understand the importance of using quality tracer wire. As our Kris-Tech team says, tracer wire is an inexpensive insurance policy that works for the life of the utility itself. Using the right tracer wire for the right application limits dangers and inconveniences.

Finally, taking a few minutes to create a ticket through your state’s 811 shouldn’t be seen as a delay. The couple of days it takes for the utility companies to come out and mark the area may be the difference between a smooth project or striking a natural gas line.

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