(Photo by Donna Kallner)

When you live in a rural area, you get used to weather-related power outages. We also get outages when motorists hit pad-mounted transformer boxes, when the cumulative effects of age and weather cause failures, and when people accidentally cut lines while digging.

My husband and I have come uncomfortably close to hitting buried lines while digging. Twice. The first time, we were digging for a small water feature. The second time, we were digging a post hole to fence in our garden. Both of those near-misses involved lines that were buried during our tenure on this property. We thought we knew exactly where they were, and we weren’t off by much. Both times we spotted buried lines before cutting them, but it was close. 

The consequences of cutting buried utility lines can be high. That’s not just in the cost of repairs and fines, which can be thousands of dollars and may not be covered by homeowners insurance. There’s also the risk of injury. One estimate suggests that when injury results from a utility strike there’s a one-in-five chance it will be fatal. I’m guessing the chances are higher in rural areas since it generally takes longer for an ambulance to arrive on the scene and transport a patient to a hospital.

In other words, we’ve been very lucky. Twice. The first experience apparently wasn’t enough to get through to us. The second time we got the message loud and clear. We no longer make assumptions about the location or depth of underground lines. Instead, we call Diggers Hotline to get lines marked before digging.

Every state has an equivalent service you can call to mark the location of buried utility lines. You can find your state’s info online or call 811. After you place your request, workers come to mark the approximate location of buried utilities.

Wisconsin law requires notifying Diggers Hotline before you excavate, grade, trench, dig, drill, augur, tunnel, scrape, plow cable, or pipe. There are some exceptions. For example, in some states, you may not have to call before rototilling an existing garden bed. But it’s safer to call than to assume.

That’s partly because some lines are not buried as deeply as you might think. In my area, the impact of long-ago glaciers is still evident, and it’s common to find bedrock and large boulders with just a little soil on top. When they travel over areas that can’t be dug any deeper, utility lines may be very close to the surface. 

Furthermore, locating underground lines is not an exact science. Since the actual location can vary from the position of the marks, there’s a buffer zone on each side. Within that zone, mechanized digging may not be allowed. Digging by hand should, in theory, make it easier for you to spot lines that aren’t quite where you expect them and stop before cutting them.

Recently, we had to have a buried electrical line excavated. Luckily, it wasn’t our fault so we didn’t have to pay for it. Or dig it ourselves.

What happened was this: Bill came in from his shop and said half the building had electricity and half was out. Weird. He had tried throwing breakers, with no success. Our home (on the same property, but with a separate electrical service) had power. No neighbors were on Facebook asking whose power was out. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

I was ready to blame red squirrels or other rodents, and nervous that their mischief could cause a fire. You just don’t forget the sight of red squirrel roasting in an arc of electricity at a power pole. That time, our lights flickered and dimmed, so we went looking for the cause. The surge had tripped the breaker at the line out by the road, but there was still a “candle” burning. Electrical disruptions caused by squirrels are common enough to justify my assumption of their guilt this time. So Bill cut power to the whole building at the service panel and started to examine the wiring. 

When he didn’t find any damage within the building, he phoned a friend. That friend said right away, “You have a bad lag. Call the power company – they’ll have to fix it. “

The first guy the power company sent out to investigate confirmed that. Then he had to order a digging crew. And before they could dig?

That’s right: Another crew had to mark the lines. And they marked for both services on our property. Which is how I now know we placed precast concrete steps squarely on top of the lines to the service into the house. I’m hoping we never have a bad lag there. And I would guess this repair crew was relieved they didn’t have to move a brush pile in the path where lines run to Bill’s shop.

This time, the problem was conveniently located near the end of our driveway. The repair crew had to scrape off a nice patch of lupines, wild roses, and cranesbill to get to the splice where wire coming from the pole connected to the wire going to the building. They thought water had gotten to that splice, causing it to fail. They had it fixed in about an hour. They even pulled up the flags they used to mark some of the lines before they left.

The spray paint used to mark other lines will be around longer. They left bold paint lines around the cedar post where we had our last near miss. We deserved that, and I’m glad they didn’t have to dig through our rhubarb and asparagus, or the climbing rose planted next to that post.

It’s worth remembering that the presence of an existing fence or mailbox post doesn’t mean that area is clear of utilities. Just in case, though, I think I’m going to saw off that cedar post at ground level. We removed the fencing years ago when we switched to container gardening. Years from now, when the paint is long gone, I wouldn’t want a future owner to see that post and think it must be okay to dig there without first calling 811.

Because roughly half of the general public doesn’t know there’s a number to call before digging. Some think 811 is just for professional excavators and not also for people digging with hand tools. Or that small projects like installing a mailbox or planting a tree wouldn’t require marking lines. Some may not call 811 because they don’t want their whole lawn marked, not knowing you can limit the scope of marking by outlining the specific area where you plan to dig with white paint or white flags. And some are just so impatient to get started on a project that they aren’t willing to wait a few days for lines to be marked.

I can dig that: Patience isn’t exactly my strong suit, either. But if you’re not lucky and cut a line, the timeline for getting that project done just gets longer.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin. 

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.