Natural gas is a widely-used energy source, with distribution mains and local service lines running like spiderwebs all over the country. Their underground location keeps them out of the way for most functions. Unlike telephone and electrical wires, buried utilities are not subject to lightning strikes, fallen trees, accidents with ladders, or collisions from cars. However, they do pose a very real danger if people are reckless when digging around them.
No matter how carefully you think you are digging, any tool sharp enough to cut through the soil can cut through gas lines. As a result, a project of any size has the potential to damage gas lines if there is digging involved. For that reason, it is critical to know how to dig safely around pipelines.
The key to avoiding natural gas lines is to know where they are. That’s just common sense. Yet many homeowners and even professional contractors make the mistake of assuming there are no buried lines where they are working, and this can lead to disastrous consequences.
Much of the movement of natural gas is done in large-diameter mains. These transmission lines are buried in maintained rights-of-way, which are kept mowed and may even be fenced in certain areas. There is also plenty of signage to indicate the presence of gas lines.
These markings are not estimates. They are very accurately-placed, so it is very dangerous to dig near them on the assumption that “that sign is probably not in the right place anyway”. The crews who maintain and inspect the lines need to know exactly where they are, so rest assured that markings are in the right place.
Get Smaller Lines Marked
Other lines may not be marked, so it is important to contact the utility and have lines located and marked before you begin to dig. In Alberta, call 1-800-242-3447 to request this service.
No matter which utility provider owns the lines, be sure to give them a few days’ notice so that they have time to come to the site. The Canadian gas market is very busy as cold weather approaches, so we stay very busy at ATCO natural gas in Alberta through the fall months. Our marking teams may need some time to get to your project, so be sure you call well ahead of your expected starting date.
Once the markings are made, respect them. Like those of larger lines, the markings made in these cases will be very accurate. Follow the instructions you are given about how far away to stay from the marked areas. Observing these simple rules will keep you from making contact with a buried line.
It’s also important to recognize the depth of buried lines. Regulations require a minimum level at which lines must be buried, and all our lines are in compliance with these regulations at the time of construction. However, property owners may cause changes to this after lines have been buried. There may have been extra soil added on top of lines, leaving them at a greater depth. The owner could have scraped dirt away, leaving lines closer to the surface.
The point here is that you should never dig over natural gas lines. If you’ve dug over extra-deep lines, you may get the false impression that you can dig at that depth elsewhere too. If the line is shallower than inspected, you could have less margin for error than you realize.
The only safe way to handle this situation is simply not to dig on top of natural gas lines. Just imagine that they are barely under the surface, and you’ll remember to stay a safe distance away.
Another important consideration is the equipment that you are using. Even if you’ve had lines marked and are not planning to dig over the lines, you may experience an equipment mishap that steers you into the wrong area. Many homeowners rent ditchers and other equipment that they have little experience with, and they quickly find they are unable to stop, start, or turn it as accurately as they think they can. The result is a trench or hole that meanders into unsafe areas, rupturing a gas line.
A final word is about preserving the markings. The flags and spray paint marks applied when you have a line marked must be protected. If you need to mow grass before you complete your digging, cut around all the markers. Be sure that you don’t unload materials or equipment on top of markings and make them difficult or impossible to see.
Natural gas is important for countless applications, so there could be lines anywhere you go, even if you don’t use gas on your own property. Before embarking on any construction or landscaping project, take the time to find out exactly where the lines are.