While you may be eager to get your home improvement project started, don’t put your shovel in the ground just yet. Doing so may be more dangerous and costly than you realize. Before starting any project that requires you to dig underground, you must by law locate gas and utility lines that are underground. Failure to locate gas lines in a yard could result in a damaging explosion or a neighborhood utility outage. Fortunately, finding gas lines in your yard is only a phone call away.
Calling the 811 Hotline
The best way to locate gas and other utility lines that are underground before you dig is by calling 811. When you make a free call to this federally designated number, your address, information on where you’re planning to dig and other information will be sent to any affected utility operators. Depending on the state in which you live, you may also be able to contact 811 online for how to find gas lines in your yard.
You should contact 811 at least two to three days before your planned dig, whether it’s planting trees, installing a mailbox, paving driveways or installing a sprinkler system. Generally, within that time frame, all contacted utilities will send someone to your dig site to mark the locations of buried lines with flags or paint. These marks should be used as a guide when completing your project.
Confirm that all utility operators that may be affected have responded and make needed marks that locate gas lines in your yard before starting your project. The rules around this vary by state, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the rules in your particular state.
Digging Within Marks
When appropriate, a designated utility company will come make physical marks on your property delineating where you cannot dig. Avoid digging or using mechanized equipment near the marks, keeping at least 18 inches away.
If you cannot avoid completing your project near the marks, you should move it to another part of your property if at all possible. If a contractor must complete the project somewhere that requires digging near the marks, they should hand dig or use vacuum excavation.
If you are starting a new project in the proximity of a completed digging project, you should again call 811 to repeat the process to locate gas lines in the yard. Erosion and root growth may have shifted the location of the utility lines, or utility companies may have done work on the lines that shifted their locations since your initial project.
Consequences of Not Locating Underground Gas Lines
You may think it’s no big deal to do a little digging or just one small project without contacting 811, but failing to do so can have major consequences. If you dig and hit one of the millions of utility lines buried underground, you may cause utility service outages, property damage or even injury to you and your family.
The consequences for failing to locate underground gas lines and causing damage vary by state, but can be significantly more expensive than your original project. For instance, in California, you can be fined up to $50,000 and have to pay to repair the damage to the underground utility. In Kentucky, you can be fined up to $4,000 if you failed to call 811 before digging and damage resulted, and in Washington state you can be fined up to $10,000.
If you are simply planning to install a $100 mailbox in the ground, these penalties hardly seem worth it, especially when the process of finding gas lines in your yard is relatively simple. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and make a toll-free call to 811 to ensure both that you are complying with state law and that you can dig without fear of consequences. If you still hit a utility line despite the markers, you can let the affected utility know without risking penalties.
If you are planning to do any home project that requires digging, be sure to call 811 first to stay clear of any utility lines.
- The copper wire method is not foolproof. It merely indicates the presence of an object underground.
Leslie Bloom earned a J.D. from U.C. Davis’ King Hall, with a focus on public interest law. She is a licensed attorney who has done advocacy work for children and women. She holds a B.S. in print journalism, and has more than 20 years of experience writing for a variety of print and online publications, including the Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy.