Digging safe: How close can you get to utility markers?

You’re ready to start your renovation, building or planting project. You’ve contacted Dig Safe.  Utility companies have arrived to put marking flags or “locates” in place — indicating your “no digging” zones.

Now what?

It’s safe to start digging, but it’s still important to be careful. Buried utility lines can be deep or shallow, straight or meandering, so it’s best to go slowly.

For example, telephone, cable television, electric and natural gas lines may be very close to the surface — and they’re not necessarily installed in a perfectly straight line. It’s best to dig a few test holes, and make sure they are at least a foot away from the markers. Sometimes, you will have to expose those lines by hand to ensure you can find and follow the line.

In some cases, especially with fibreoptic cables, utilities may require that an inspector is actually on site as excavation begins. But they’ll let you know if that’s necessary.

In the case of electrical lines, the same thing may apply. Disturbing such a line poses considerable danger, so some electrical utilities may also require direct supervision. You may also be required to hand-expose the area a full metre away from the locate flags.

Excavating Around Pipelines

Pipelines that carry oil, gas and refined products are a special situation. For provincially regulated pipelines, the area within 30 metres is considered a controlled area, while the same right of way for a federally regulated pipeline is considered a safety zone. Pipeline operators must be notified of any intent to dig within that zone. Sometimes, written permission from the pipeline company is necessary.

If permission is granted, you can’t use mechanical excavation equipment within five metres of a provincially regulated pipeline until and unless the pipeline has been hand-exposed and is clearly visible. The clearance is three metres for a federally regulated pipeline. You can learn more about provincial and federal regulators here.

Utility Rights of Way

In many municipalities, shallow utilities have been installed underground in rights of way across residential properties. Homeowners are generally unaware of the existence of a utility right of way on their properties. That restricts what you can build or plant, so it’s vital to check certificates of title for these rights of way.

Rules around excavation are not necessarily the same in every municipality, region or province. However, there are plenty of resources, such as this Ontario site, that can help you determine how and where to dig, even after you’ve clicked or called.

It’s Dig Safe Month. Save yourself time, energy, worry and possibly even fines by calling or clicking before your project begins.