Utilities work to protect homeowners through education about careful digging

Published on April 04, 2019 by Liz Carey

© Shutterstock

The utility industry is working to raise awareness in April that homeowners who dig during home improvement projects without knowing the location of underground utilities could be putting themselves and their communities at risk. 

Striking a gas, electric, communications, or water and sewer line can cause injuries, create power outages and lead to costly repairs. 

The Common Ground Alliance, a nationwide organization of more than 1,700 members including Pacific Gas and Electric, Kinder Morgan and TransCanada devoted to protecting underground infrastructure, along with the U.S. Department of Transportation and most governors, observe April as National Safe Digging Month. 

The organization says that nationwide, an underground utility line is damaged once every six minutes by someone who decided to dig during a home improvement project without taking proper precautions by making a free call to an 811 call center available in every state.

Common Ground surveyed nearly 700 homeowners across America and found that more than 40 percent of them who planned to dig this year do not plan to call 811 to determine where underground utility lines may be located. 

Those projects included everything from planting a tree or shrub, building a new patio or deck, building a fence and installing a mailbox.

“Tens of millions of Americans plan to do DIY digging projects this year, but according to our survey, 42 percent of them admit that they will not call 811 beforehand, which puts homeowners and their communities at risk,” Sarah Magruder Lyle, president and CEO of the Common Ground Alliance, said. “Calling 811 a few days before any planned home improvement projects that require digging including common landscaping projects like planting trees and shrubs – is critical to preventing incidents like service outages and serious injuries.”

Atlanta Gas Light, a subsidiary of Southern Company that provides natural gas delivery service to more than 1.6 million customers in Georgia, said homeowners should contact Georgia 811 at least 48 hours prior to starting projects. Once residents make the call, utility companies are alerted and are sent, free of charge, to the homeowner’s property to identify via colored flags or spray paint where lines may be. 

The company said it encourages all homeowners to not only call before they dig and allow utility companies adequate time to mark the property, but also to respect where utility companies put their lines and to excavate carefully. By using hand digging tools in areas close to where marked utilities may be, homeowners can ensure that they don’t damage lines. Additionally, if lines are damaged or removed, they encourage customers to call again to have lines remarked. 

In Houston, CenterPoint Energy joined in calling on customers to call 811 before taking on any digging projects. CenterPoint provides utilities to more than 7 million customers in eight states, including Arkansas, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio and Oklahoma. Failing to know where utility lines are underground could lead to a potentially dangerous situation, the company said. 

“Whether it’s a small project, such as planting shrubs, or a commercial building project, customers should call 811 at least two working days before digging,” Ashley Babcock, director of damage prevention and public awareness for CenterPoint. “By calling 811 to have the underground utility lines in their area marked, homeowners and professionals are making an important decision that can help keep them and their communities safe.” 

CenterPoint recommended customers take several steps if they do strike or rupture a utility line. 

First, the company recommends residents leave the area of any gas leak quickly and to not attempt to start or move any equipment in the area. Residents should also call 911 to report the incident to officials, and then remain in a safe area until the lines are repaired and the area is safe. 

In 2018, Common Ground was recognized for its “Call Before You Dig” campaigns. The National Safety Council awarded Common Ground the Green Cross for Safety Advocate Award. Common Ground submitted an entry in partnership with the American Gas Association and the United States Department of Transportation’s Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. 

Common Ground’s entry for the award focused on the long-term behavioral change across the United States with the launch of 811 in 2007, after the Federal Communications Commission identified the “Call Before You Dig” phone number. Prior to the 811 number, each state had its own pre-excavation notification, which prevented a nationwide effort to educate homeowners about the importance of identifying where buried utilities were before digging.