Why Call 811 Before You Dig?

by Melanie Baravik
June 12, 2018

Being in the construction business, you’ve probably heard this one before: before you start digging anywhere in the U.S., call 811 to make sure you don’t hit an underground utility line. That can result in gas leaks, power outages and expensive repairs — avoid those penalties and call 811 before you dig.

Why call 811?

In 2005, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) designated 811 as the nationwide call-before-you-dig hotline with a two-year deadline for implementation. When you call 811, you’re rerouted to the local call center closest to you. Some states allow you to submit your dig request online — this map can give you some more information based on which state you live in.

The Call 811 Before You Dig campaign began in 2007, an effort by the Common Ground Alliance (CGA) to prevent damage to underground utility lines. Utility lines can be very thin and easy to damage, especially with mechanized equipment. What’s more, lines may be buried only a few inches underground. That means even if you’re just doing a simple home improvement project, like putting in a new mailbox, you can damage those lines. And when you’re a contractor working on a big construction project with heavy equipment and lots of excavating, it’s even more likely that the lines might get hit.

For that reason, calling 811 is the law in every state. Utility operators will come out to your work site and use color-coded markings to show where utility lines are located underground. Call two to three business days (varies by state) before work starts and wait until every utility operator has marked their lines before starting. When you call, talk to the call center rep about how the confirmation process works in your state so you don’t begin before every affected utility operator has responded.

Once the lines are marked, be sure to “respect the marks.” When you call 811, you have a certain amount of time during which you can work; this depends on your state — some mandate a set number of days during which your notification is valid and others have looser guidelines. In Texas, there’s no set expiration date, but when the markings begin to fade or if you haven’t started work 14 days after notification, you’ll need to call 811 again and get new markings. In Maine, markings expire every 60 days or after 30 days if work has not yet begun. It’s your responsibility to respect and maintain utility line marks.

Digging responsibly

Notifying the state and getting utility lines marked isn’t the end of your responsibility when it comes to digging safely. You’re still obligated to dig with care — many states prohibit the use of machinery, or sometimes digging at all, within a set range of the utility lines, generally 18-24 inches. Maintaining the marks is also an important part of safe digging; you can always call 811 to get your jobsite remarked. In fact, if your project takes longer than a few days, chances are you will need to call 811 again after the markings expire or if they’re worn away by weather or otherwise disturbed.

Changes to 811 laws

Though every state has 811 laws, those laws vary — and some are undergoing changes. Beginning on July 14, the state of Kentucky will be assessing fines if damage to utility lines was caused by ignoring the law and not calling 811. In a bill signed on May 25, Colorado introduced a system of enforcement for the 811 program. Prior to the bill’s passage, the state did not have legal repercussions for not calling 811 besides civil penalties if a damaged party were to bring a suit against the person who caused the damage. Fines under Colorado’s new law range from $250 to $75,000. A California bill clarifying the amount of time contractors and homeowners must wait after calling 811 — two business days, not including the day you call — took effect in 2017.

No matter your state, getting familiar with its digging laws ensures you cover all your bases. For example, in Missouri, you need to call 811 at least three and at most ten business days before starting work. In Washington state, you need to outline the work area with white paint so utility operators can see where work will be taking place. Whatever the laws in your state, avoid damaging utility lines and getting fined — call 811 before you dig.

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