Learn how to stay safe when beginning any digging project, whether you do it yourself or hire a professional
Imagine this scenario. Neon Leon decides to dig a hole to plant some bushes around the pad-mount transformer in his yard. He thinks the green box is ugly. His friend Lightning Liz tells him to call 811 to have the underground utilities located first. He ignores her advice and digs his shovel into the ground. He comes in contact with an underground wire. His torso lights up and he illustrates the negative consequences that can occur around electricity. While this is a scenario from the Electric Junction safety demonstration for schoolchildren, a similar incident could happen in real life.
In the United States, an underground utility is damaged every nine minutes because someone didn’t call before digging. Last year in Oklahoma, 5,246 underground facilities were damaged. Both of these statistics are per the Common Ground Alliance, an organization that promotes the 811 hotline and website for people to contact before digging. Using 811 at least a few days before beginning a digging project allows utilities to mark their facilities.
Don’t pretty up pad-mount transformers
Neon Leon was planting a bush near a transformer in our hypothetical situation. This is a bad idea for several reasons, says Kenny Guffey, director of loss control at the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives.
“The underground transformers are what I would call a military olive-drab-green color; they are not the prettiest device in the world,” he says. “Because of that people sometimes want to put shrubs or flower beds around them to try to hide them. This is highly dangerous for two reasons. One, underground lines with the same voltage as overhead lines are going to be in the ground near the transformer. Two, sometimes those transformers need to be replaced or inspected. When linemen need access to that equipment, they have to remove the greenery.”
Guffey says every electric cooperative in Oklahoma participates in the OKIE811 program. OKIE811 is a non-profit organization that registers owners and operators of underground facilities. He says people should call 811 whenever they dig more than a few inches into the ground because there could be other types of underground facilities in the area.
The damage prevention liaison for OKIE811, Brenda Hoefar, says some other types of facilities underground are water, gas, sewer, fiber and communications. She says it’s important for people to call 811 no more than 10 and at least two business days before starting a digging project. The most important thing she noted is that homeowners should not pull up the flags until their project is complete.
Four steps to safe excavation
Hoefar says there are four steps to safe excavation:
- Contact 811 before you dig;
- Wait the required time;
- Respect the marks;
- Dig with care.
Be Lightning Liz
Guffey warns that newer installations of underground electric cables are usually in a PVC pipe with a red caution tape in the dirt about a foot above them. He says you can’t count on this because older underground may not have the pipe or tape. Erosion and landscaping can cause underground facilities to be closer to the surface than when originally installed.
Don’t be a Neon Leon. Be like Lightning Liz in our opening scenario and call 811 before you install a pool, plant a tree, put up a fence or dig anywhere. A yard project isn’t worth the damage or danger of digging in the wrong place.
JuliAnn Graham, a regular Oklahoma Living contributor, is the communications manager at TCEC.