DIGGING IN MINEFIELDS - PT 2

August 5, 2012: When you call 811, they dispatch a local utility locating contractor to mark the public utilities. The “public” part of public utilities is typically the service line that runs into the meter or junction box on your property. Gas, electric, cable TV, telephone – these usually have boxes or meters on your house and the utility locator will paint the underground locations running from the street through your yard to those locations – but not beyond.

There are a whole host of other things underground that are not marked: water lines, sewer lines, storm sewer lines, electric or gas lines installed by the owner, irrigation pipe, irrigation valve wiring, landscape lighting wire, septic tanks, and drain lines. To locate these you must hire a utility locate contractor. It’s not a free service, and, even then, they can usually only locate utilities with metal in them, such as steel pipe or copper wire. Plastic materials such as PVC irrigation pipe or ABS drain pipe, cannot be picked up on their locators. I often have to locate a PVC water service line into a house to attach an irrigation system to it. If I can’t put the point of connection near the water meter, where I’ve got a good chance of finding it, then I must dig guestimated holes in the yard hoping to discover it. I once engaged the services of an amateur dowser (water witcher) to find a water pipe. I can’t say I was impressed as I found the pipe only after the third hole I dug.

Locators mark the location of pipe with different color paints. The typical color scheme is as follows:
Orange: Cable TV, Communication (telephone, internet) cable
Red: Electric
Yellow: Gas
Blue: Water
Green: Sewage

A defined paint line on the ground does not mean the utility is buried directly underneath. Locators have a 2 foot leeway either side of the actual location to where the mark may be. The other factor that is not identified in the marking is how deep the utility is. It would be nice if all utilities had a minimum depth that was required by uniform code. In reality, public utilities come in varying depths that is governed by differing codes, construction practices, and what happens after installation, like grade changes. Depth also varies dramatically (they get much shallower)as the utilities near your house. Electric and gas lines tend to be the deepest (2-4’). I once nicked an electric line with a shovel . It was the last shovelful of the day and I didn’t even notice it . When I came back the next day to finish the hole I noticed a charred area at the bottom of the hole where the electricity had been arcing into the ground. I thank god for fiberglass shovel handles.

The worse culprits for being shallow laid are the comm. wires (TV, telephone, internet). I have encountered them as shallow as an inch below grade. The most nerve racking part of installing an irrigation system is when your irrigation pipes must cross or come within 2’ of a marked utility. It means you must find that buried pipe or wire, but you must find it very gently. Ever play the board game Operation? It’s a lot like that except with greater consequences. All it takes is nicking the outer jacket of a fiber optic phone cable and it has to be repaired. I’ve often had to painstakingly dig with a trowel to find the buried treasure, which deeply cuts into production.

As I mentioned before there can be a host of non-public (owner installed) utilities that are not marked and are seldom even governed by any codes. In this category I most frequently encounter irrigation pipe. Trade acceptable practices dictate that irrigation lines be buried 12-18” deep minimum. But I have found many systems that are from 2-3” deep to exposed on the surface. The simple act of planting a shrub can cause an hour repair job. Along with irrigation pipe comes the wiring that controls the irrigation valves which often runs in the same trench as the pipe. Good installers will tape the wire to the underside of the pipe before burial, so that anyone excavating later will encounter the pipe before they encounter the wire. All it takes, again, is a nick in the wire insulation and that wire will short out and your valve won’t work. Finding that short later on in the ground can take hours to chase down.

If dealing with buried public utilities and non-public ones weren’t enough, to add insult to injury, there is the blight of subterranean trash. This scourge on the earth typical takes place in the construction of new buildings. Carpenters, plumbers, electricians, masons (IMHO, the worse offenders) and other trades people on site, including landscapers, are often tempted and often succumb to burying their unwanted construction debris on site. This leaves me, the irrigation/nightlighting installer/repairer to encounter this later in my excavation efforts. I’ve encounter entire buried sacks of lime and mortar (them masons!), 8 foot 2 x 4’s, tar buckets and paint cans, pieces of pipe, an antique round bottomed ginger ale bottle, but the worst is encountering scrap wire. When I’m digging and my shovel pulls up a strand of wire, my heart sickens, my pulse races, the hard-wired fight or flight instinct kicks in. Do I run? Do I find out what this wire is attached to? Do I inquire from the homeowner whether they still have phone service? I am proud to say I’ve never run, nor buried the wire back up and feigned ignorance, but when I find that the wire was some piece of scrap tossed in hole or trench I want to fight. I want to have that scrap wire tested for DNA and have that matched with a list of known debris buriers, so that I may confront them with their deed. Construction people: Please, out of mutual trade respect and world peace, don’t bury your crap on the site! Someone will find it and someone will curse you.

I know there are more harrowing professions than mine. Soldiering, firefighting, bomb disposal, mine clearing, teaching - all carry greater consequences. I would submit, however, that harrowism (that's actually not a word) is a matter of perspective. As I lay beside the trench probing for a wire or pipe with my trowel, you can't tell me the pressure isn't on. One awkward slip of the shovel and my customer is without internet or water for days. Day in, day out, it can be a tough thing to live with.

F & P