Using your state’s utility locating system could save money, infrastructure and lives.

About five years ago, a surveyor in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, nicked a plastic gas line with an iron pin. At the time, nothing happened. But the following winter, a snowplow hit that same pin and a nearby house blew up.

The surveyor had not called his province’s “one call number” before setting the pin—and the consequences proved catastrophic. Fortunately, occurrences of surveyors causing damage to underground infrastructure are rare.

“I know it happens, but the damages (so far) have been of a nature that they have not made a big enough story for it to be widely told,” says Curt Sumner, executive director of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM).

John Scrivner, an accident and claims investigator for Avista Corporation of Spokane, Wash., which owns electric and gas utilities in eastern Washington state and northern Idaho, has fielded such tremendous cases. “I investigated cases involving surveyors pounding their survey stakes into the ground without first calling for locates,” he says. “They damaged both high-voltage electric distribution lines and high-pressure gas lines. These accidents could have been catastrophic.”

In February 2003, the National Utility Locating Contractors Association (NULCA) sent a survey to primary members asking if they had encountered problems with surveyors hitting public or private utility lines.

“Overall, we found there was not a problem (among surveyors),” says Mike Bell, immediate past president of NULCA. “But that doesn’t mean surveyors shouldn’t use their state’s one call system. These systems are mandated—they’re the law. It’s in everyone’s best interest to call before [doing] any kind of digging, even if it’s to set a pin or a monument.”

The Whos, Whats and Whys of One Call Systems

What exactly is a one call system? Literally, it’s a telephone hotline—often an 800 number—designed to initiate the process of providing no-cost utility marking in the name of damage prevention. The service is for contractors, homeowners and anyone else who disturbs the earth, including surveyors.

Definitions of what it means to “disturb the earth” vary from state to state. In Virginia, for example, to disturb the earth—to excavate—means any operation in which earth, rock or other material in the ground is moved, removed or otherwise displaced by means of any tools, equipment or explosives. Excavation includes grading, trenching, digging, ditching, dredging, drilling, augering, tunneling, scraping, cable or pipe plowing and driving, wrecking, razing, rendering, moving or removing any structure or mass of material.1

In other words, anyone disturbing the earth even a few inches, especially those using mechanized equipment to do so, should use his or her state’s one call system to determine where utilities are located.

“Many people are under the assumption that utilities are buried at 36 inches or greater, but this is not always the case,” Bell says.

Construction activities, grading changes, settling of the earth and poor installation practices can often leave a utility much shallower than 3 feet. One utility company in Virginia reported its infrastructure to be as shallow as just 1 foot under the ground.

“My own personal feeling is that even real estate agents using augers to dig holes for ‘For Sale’ signs should call,” Bell says.

This photo shows a survey traverse point that was set without using a one call system. The utilities were marked after the pin was set. The traverse point, a 2-foot iron pin, is the yellow cap in front of the wooden guard stake. The three orange lines indicate a fiber-optic cable directly below the traverse point.

Minnesota’s Gopher State One Call

Minnesota’s one call system, known as “Gopher State One Call,” grew out of a response to a pipeline accident in 1986. Minnesota law now requires anyone who engages in any type of excavation with motorized equipment to provide advance notice of at least two working days to Gopher State One Call. The utility locating service is free to callers, according to its website,

Gopher State One Call is unique in a number of ways. It is one of very few statewide one call centers in the country that not only covers a large geographic area but also requires utility owners and anyone who has underground facilities in the road right of way to belong to the system. The Gopher State One Call has received overwhelming acceptance since formally launching operations in 1988. The center handled 780,000 communications in its first year and topped 1 million in its second. Today, Gopher State One Call handles more than 5 million communications annually.

When a contractor, surveyor or homeowner calls Gopher, the answering attendant asks the caller a series of questions, including contact information, exact digging location and how long the digging is expected to take place.

“Being prepared to make the call will save the caller time and it can increase the accuracy of the locate from the utility company,” says Gopher’s General Manager Tonya Bethke.

The attendant enters the information about the digging site into a computer, applying that information to an online mapping system. This mapping system indicates what facilities need to be notified of the excavation. Once the facilities are determined, the attendant releases all information to the affected facilities and the applicable utility owners then mark the lines. The caller must wait two working days before beginning excavation to allow the applicable utility owners time to mark the site. Once the 48-hour wait period is over, digging must begin within 96 hours—waiting longer voids the original ticket to dig.

Gopher warns diggers that they must be aware that markings are estimates of the exact location of the underground facility. Locators have a 2-foot buffer zone where diggers must hand dig to expose that facility for positive location. If an underground facility gets hit or damaged, 911 must be called if the digger has hit a flammable, toxic or corrosive gas or liquid, or endangers life, health or property. Also, the utility owners must be notified of damage, no matter how minor.

The state continues to invest heavily in state-of-the-art one call technology and is enhancing its computer mapping system to stay on the cutting edge of one call advancements. Two full-time Gopher One Call representatives travel the state educating nearly 3,000 contractors and excavators annually about the importance of using the one call system, according to Michelle Stange, public relations coordinator.

Virginia’s “Miss Utility”

“Miss Utility” is the one call system for Virginia. In 1995, two nonprofit associations of utility companies formed: Virginia Underground Utility Protection Service Inc. and Northern Virginia Utility Protection Service Inc. These associations recently formed a limited liability company, Virginia Utility Protection Service (VUPS) LLC, for the purpose of operating a nonprofit one call center. VUPS began operations last July for most of Virginia and will begin serving northern Virginia on July 1st of this year, according to Dave Price, director of communications for VUPS ( The northern Virginia association currently uses a private vendor to operate its one call system.

Like Gopher, Virginia’s one call systems notify subscribing underground utility owners of a caller’s proposed excavation plans. The service is provided free to callers by member utility companies.

The Virginia Underground Utility Damage Prevention Act requires that Miss Utility be called 48 hours in advance of the planned work to allow time for marking, that the marks be respected and protected, and that excavation is completed carefully. The Virginia system provides a “positive response” to let callers know whether the utilities notified have completed the marking process.

Privately Owned Facilities

A surveyor must often set a pin, stake, or monument on private property. Private utilities can be found on military bases and college campuses, in industrial areas and mobile home parks, on the properties of single-family and multi-family homes, at shopping centers and sometimes in the road right of way.

Privately owned utilities also generally include those utilities that are installed behind or after the meter. If overhead distribution lines serve the property and the power is then distributed on the property by underground service facilities, those service facilities may be considered private. If the homeowner’s electric meter is located on the property line, then that electric line from the meter to the house is considered privately owned and may not be able to be located by a public one call system.

Other private facilities may include:

  • Private water systems

  • Data communication lines

  • Underground sprinkler systems

  • Other gas or propane lines (such as for gas grills and pool heaters)

Unless the property owner participates as a member of his or her state’s one call system, private or customer owned facilities generally are not marked or notified. Surveyors with questions about whether a facility in an excavation area is considered private or not are strongly encouraged to first contact the state’s one call system and then, if necessary, the applicable local utility offices. Private locating firms or engineering firms with utility marking and mapping capabilities should be contacted if private utilities are involved.

Liability and the Law

Because there is no assurance that buried facilities will be deeper than the pins being driven, calling in an excavation notice can prevent time and energy lost fighting damage claims even when a notice is not required, according to Walt Kelly, a damage prevention consultant.

Should an accident occur when digging, being “ignorant” or “unaware” of the law may not exempt surveyors and others who did not use their state’s one call system.

In Virginia, a survey crew damaged a 2-inch gas main by setting a property corner pin. The crew had not called Miss Utility’s one call system in advance, and the surveying company was fined $500. In another location in Virginia, a gas line was damaged in the same way, resulting in a civil penalty of $300 to the surveying firm, with $100 suspended upon completion of a safety training course.

In Connecticut, civil penalties for failing to use the state’s “Call Before You Dig” system are based on the severity of the resulting incident, according to Bill Petersen, center manager. “We look at whether someone was hurt or killed, if there was a significant utility outage, and if there is a past history of non-compliance,” Petersen said.

“First-time ‘offenders’ who don’t use the one call system and cause minor damage must attend a one call safety course.”

Petersen said he realizes a lot of surveyors and excavators are sensitive to the issue of fines and liability. “In some cases, even if they’ve used the one call system, and an accident still occurs, it may not be (the surveyor’s) fault because the utility owner may have mismarked its own lines. Five years ago, a phone company was fined $43,000 and an electric company $46,000 for mismarking. The law is enforced fairly,” Petersen says.

Washington and Idaho, like many states, also have statutes that allow for recovery of damages if a surveyor or excavator fails to call for locates in advance, according to Scrivner, who now independently consults for insurance carriers, law firms and utilities. “I’ve aggressively pursued cases in order to help utilities recover costs as well as for the benefit of public safety,” Scrivner says.

Ticket Tips

If you have a large area planned for surveying work, it’s a good idea to break down your request for tickets into manageable chunks. For example, instead of calling in requests for 200 tickets in one day, plan ahead and break it down to 20 per day over the course of 10 days. Better yet, get the stakeholders (applicable utility owners) involved in a planning meeting at least a month before work begins.

Kelly, who has called in 12,000 excavation notices in 16 states, offers these additional tips that may make giving notice less time-consuming and help to assure getting marks where and when you need them. These tips may be beyond the strict requirements of the law, but they may pay big dividends in terms of time saved and liability reduced.

•Use the “fax-a-locate” or online ticket entry instead of calling the one call center. Benefits include no waiting on hold and fewer transcription errors. In addition, you get a copy of the ticket as it was sent out, including a list of the operator codes of the facility operators who received your notice.

  • Because locators sometimes put survey tickets at a lower priority than “real” excavation notices, you can raise the priority by putting a comment in the remarks section of the notice that you will be driving pins up to 18, 24 or more inches deep. You also could include GPS coordinates. More utilities and locators are discovering the benefits of GPS.

  • Make locators’ lives a little easier by “white-lining” (see below) the area you need marked instead of asking them to “mark the entire lot.” In some states, the law requires white-lining.

  • Identify non-members of the one call system and get the names of their locators and their fax numbers. Fax them a copy of the notice you gave the center.

  • Obtain the fax numbers for the locators at each “terminal code” on your ticket. Each terminal code is an office of a member of the notification system, and there may be several different offices for the same utility.

  • Consider faxing recipients of your one call ticket and the non-members who might have facilities in your work area a short cover letter with your contact information and a simple map or sketch of your work area. Locators love a map! Be sure to put the ticket number on the letter and sketch.

  • Realize that it may take more than one call to get the job done.

Know Your Colors

Individual utility companies are responsible for marking their underground lines. Some utility companies contract the work to underground utility locating companies.

Underground utilities near a proposed excavation site typically are marked with paint and/or flags on the ground. Surveyors mark proposed areas of excavation with white paint, a process called “white-lining.”

Utilities and underground utility locating companies are supposed to follow the American Public Works Association (APWA) Uniform Color Code when marking or flagging utilities:

  • White – proposed excavation (frequently used by surveyors)

  • Pink – temporary survey markings (frequently used by surveyors)

  • Red – Electric power lines, cables, conduit and lighting cables

  • Yellow – gas, oil, steam, petroleum or gaseous materials

  • Orange – communication, alarm or signal lines, cable or conduit

  • Blue – potable water

  • Purple – reclaimed water, irrigation and slurry lines

  • Green – sewers and drain lines

Call Before You Dig

It’s a simple rule to remember—and it’s the law. Calling before digging can save surveyors from finger pointing, fines, bad publicity and angry bosses. More important, calling before digging can save money, infrastructure and lives.

Important Links

To view the overview brochure about a study of one call systems, sponsored by the Office of Pipeline Safety of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Research and Special Programs Administration, go tohttp://www. Brocuhure_CmnGrd__101499Final.pdf.

To visit the Office of Pipeline Safety website, go to www.cycla. com/opsiswc/.

For more information about one call systems and digging safely, visit the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) website at

CGA offers a toll-free national referral number to other states’ one call numbers (1-888-258-0808) and a website ( that lists phone numbers of and Web links to each state’s one call system.

To view the American Public Works Association’s Uniform Color Code, go to<