When Do You Need to Call Dig Safe?

Deane Biermeier
Written by Deane Biermeier
Updated February 7, 2022
Two story house with swimming pool in the backyard
Photo: JohnnyGreig / E+ / Getty Images

Highlights

  • Call-Before-You-Dig hotlines exist through each region of the United States.

  • 811 provides the information you need to know so you can safely dig—or not dig.

  • After your call, your property will be scheduled for an underground utility survey which will provide details about where you can dig.

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Sometimes, you have to dig. Whether you’re planning a landscaping project, adding a deck, building a garden, or pursuing any number of other backyard design ideas, you’ll likely make some holes. If your project requires digging of any kind, you’ll need to know about underground utility marking services.   

What Is Call-Before-You-Dig? 

Call-Before-You-Dig, also known as 811, is the national collection of underground utility marking service programs. Every state, with a few exceptions, has an 811 program that anyone digging into the ground must contact to have underground equipment located and marked by various utility companies before they start the work.

Why Should I Call 811? 

There are three important reasons to contact Call-Before-You-Dig before digging.

  1. Knowing where potentially dangerous underground utility services lie greatly reduces the chances of causing severe injury, or worse, by hitting them with heavy digging equipment.

  2. The party responsible for causing damage to underground utility equipment can be held financially responsible for repairing or replacing them. 

  3. In every state and region, the law requires contacting 811 before digging work starts on any project.

How Do I Contact Them? 

Most states have their own Call-Before-You-Dig clearinghouse. Several Northeastern states have combined their efforts to operate as Dig Safe. There are a few ways to contact them, all of which work just as well as the others:

  • Dial 811 from your phone. Calling this number works anywhere in the Country.

  • Find your state’s 811 information website and fill out an online request.

  • Call your state’s or region’s Call-Before-You-Dig hotline number.

When Should I Call 811? 

Several days to a week before you begin your project is the best time to contact them. 

Even if you only plan to dig a shallow hole or plant a tree or shrub, keep in mind that, although most modern utilities usually sit at least 18 inches below ground level, that’s not always the case. Older equipment may not have been subject to modern building codes. Assume that any utility equipment could lie just inches below the surface.  

Is My Contractor Going to Call Them?

In most cases, your hired contractor will contact 811 before starting your project and handle all the details. If you suspect that your contractor hasn’t called when they should have, talk about it with your project supervisor right away.

What Happens If I Don’t Call 811 Before Digging? 

Neglecting to contact 811 before digging starts on your project could result in hefty fines. $10,000 fines are not unheard of. Worse yet, you risk your safety by not making the call. 

When Shouldn’t I Call 811?

You can dig without calling 811 in a few situations, but they vary by state. If in doubt, it’s always safer to call and check every time. Common exceptions can include:

  • Rototilling an existing garden 

  • Emergency excavation

  • Some road and municipal work

What to Expect When You Call

Woman working in home office holding phone
Photo: MoMo Productions / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Whether you contact Call-Before-You-Dig by phone or on their website, the process is the same every time. Here’s what to expect, in order of events.

  • You’ll answer several questions about your project and where it’s taking place.

  • The representative will likely ask you to mark specific locations on the property before the locators begin to arrive.

  • You’ll receive an estimated completion time.

  • Over the next few days, one or several utility representatives will survey the location. 

  • Each utility representative will mark the location of their underground equipment using a combination of flags, spray paint, or other marking devices.

  • A representative will place a mark indicating that no utilities are present.

  • You may check the status of progress after the estimated completion time.

  • After confirmation of completion, you can start digging.

Questions You’ll Be Asked

Before calling, you can prepare by having this information available:

  • Job permit number if applicable

  • Type of project

  • Location address and cross-street information

  • Where on the property the digging will take place

When Can I Start Digging? 

You’ll receive an estimated completion time when you place your request; usually 48 to 72 hours to get the job done. Some states require you to call them to confirm completion before digging, while others allow you to begin after the estimated time has passed.

After all the utility companies or representatives have completed their surveys and have indicated the locations of present hazards or have indicated that none are present, you can begin digging. In states that require confirmation of completion, or if you’re unsure if confirmation is needed, give them a call to make sure before starting work.

I Called Last Time, Do I Have to Call Again?

The locating job expires after less than a month. Sometimes it’s as few as 14 days before you need to call them back for an extension or another locate service if the job isn’t complete. Even if you’re certain that nothing has changed underground since your last project, you’re still required to call each time you dig. 

What Do the Markings Mean? 

After all the utility companies have located their service equipment, your yard may look it’s overrun by tiny flags. Or, there may be very little that looks different. This is what you’re looking at:

  • The markings may include flags, spray-painted lines, outlines, or other marks.

  • Each utility uses a different flag color.

  • The flags represent that there’s a specific utility directly below it. There may be a series of flags in a row.

  • Alternatively (or in addition) to flags, spray paint on the ground will indicate a length of buried pipe or wire.

  • Each utility type must leave some marking. If there is no utility of a certain type, they’ll leave an indicator, usually a flag, that confirms that none of their equipment is in the area.  

What Did the Utility Service Locate?

Every local utility service that exists in your area will be located. 

  • Electrical

  • Gas 

  • Water

  • Sewer

  • Cable

  • Fiber optics

  • Phone

What Do Their Findings Mean? 

Now that a representative has identified all the utilities in the area and their locations marked, you can make a digging plan.

  • Call-Before-You-Dig services don’t indicate any utility’s depth, so always exercise caution when digging near a marked location.

  • Digging with heavy equipment can only be done in areas with no flagged utilities nearby.

  • Light-duty machines can dig up to 24 inches away from a flag or paint marking.

  • Digging with hand tools only must be done within 24 inches of any utilities.

Safety

  • In the case of underground electrical lines, the rule is to stay at least 10 feet away from them with all digging tools. However, for safety, we recommend reconsidering the project or hiring a professional to take over the project if electrical lines are nearby.

What If I Don’t Feel Safe Doing the Digging?

After all of the utilities have been accounted for, you’ll know what’s below you. If there’s nothing there, feel free to dig, but only in the surveyed area. If a representative located a utility where you’re digging, use proper caution. 

If for any reason you’re having second thoughts about your safety during the project, professional excavators near you are available to do the dirty work, and if the DIY option doesn’t excite you, a local landscaping company can help.

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