How to Locate Underground Utilities

When performing any project involving digging underground it is a good idea to understand how to find and locate utility lines underground to avoid damaging a pipe or severing a electrical cable or wire.

This can speed projects and avoid serious damage to utility lines or structures and reduce the risk of injuries or death. You are responsible for damages – some of which can be large and very costly!

The first thing to consider is what active utilities might be in/on the property. An office building or home likely has public utility lines such as electrical cables, gas, sewer, and other types of pipe.

For residential properties a homeowner’s memory or own records is/are NOT a reliable source of information to begin with. There may be many buried lines on their own property they are not familiar with.

There are also sometimes public and private utilities so we discuss below some basic steps to find hidden pipes, lines and cables before digging on the job site.


Steps to Safely Locate Underground Utility Lines

The first step is to locate the utility companies that serve the area where you will be digging. This can typically be done by visiting the website of your local municipality or town.

As mentioned above private and public utilities exist. Consider speaking to a town building inspector or code enforcement for what companies service the area.

Request a Utility Line Mark Out

After you have determined which utility companies serve the area, you need to contact them and request a mark out of their underground facilities.

Utility companies should be helpful in locating lines of their services or company.

Cross-Check the Utility Company Locating Report With Utility Locators & Ground Penetrating Radar

Company technicians are generally reliable and accurate in helping to locate underground utilities but not always!

Since your ultimately responsible for any damage, we recommend purchasing an underground utility locator or locating equipment to determine where underground infrastructure such as sewer lines, electrical cables and tracer wire are located including their depth. There are many pipe and wire locators to be sure to check out our article on the best underground utility locator equipment.

The quality of underground utility locators varies, some provide more data than others and some are useful for locating more utilities than others. For example, some may only be useful for finding sprinkler systems and not gas lines deeply buried in the ground.

If you are a professional or representing an organization that frequently is involved in the excavation of earth, especially more than a few feet, we strongly recommend the best locating equipment you can afford to safely locate equipment.

How to Safely Dig and Avoid Damage or Disruption to Utility Services

When you have determined the location of the underground utility lines, you need to take steps to avoid damaging them.

It’s important to understand how deep the utilities are buried and what type of soil is covering them as this will help determine the necessary steps to avoid damaging the utility line while performing your work. This can be done by:

  • Hand digging around the area where you believe the line is located
  • Use of a vacuum excavator which uses high-powered suction to remove loose soil without damaging buried utilities
  • Use of a hydrovac excavator which uses high-pressure water to break up hard soil and then remove the debris with suction.

After the locate is completed you must continue to practice caution as lines may still be vulnerable and gas lines can be damaged by heavy equipment and will not need much more force to create a serious incident.

If your excavation project team includes newly hired staff, make sure they are trained properly on how to dig around utilities and are educated on equipment such as a utility locator to ensure they are following all safety guidelines before you dig on location within the property. Professionals will often have trainees work on “dummy” pipes and lines.

Wrapping it Up: How to Locate Underground Utility Lines

By taking the time to locate underground utility lines before beginning any excavation project, you can avoid damage to the lines and the potential for costly repairs. Additionally, you will be helping to keep yourself and your crew safe from harm.

Lastly, investing in a high quality utility locator with ground penetrating radar can save you lots of time, freeing up time for other jobs without the need for paid technicians for all jobs.

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