Why You Must Dial 811 Before You Dig

shovels and pitchforks on grass for a digging project

Reading time: 3 minutes

While replacing a mailbox post or starting a garden may seem like innocuous tasks, they can lead to incredible danger.

“I remembered seeing a news story about a DIYer who hit a natural gas line,” says vipHomeLink Founder and CEO Alfred Bentley, “and I never wanted that to be me!”

When Alfred wanted to dig up tree stumps in his yard, he first called 811. Created by A Common Ground Alliance Initiative, 811 “Call Before You Dig” helps homeowners identify underground utility lines and create safe dig sites. This service is free, and homeowners are required by law to call before starting a project.

We reached out to PSE&G, who responds to about 220 dig-related incidents each year, to learn how to create a safe excavation site in your yard. (Please note: These incidents did not have a markout called in before excavating.)

Start by dialing 811 before you dig

a person stands outside on a dirt path while looking at his phone
It’s the law.

“Anytime you’re dealing with excavation, you want to make sure you call, regardless of whether or not you know where the lines are,” says Michael Dougherty, Process Analyst – Damage Prevention for PSE&G. “There’s things you may not have known existed until that point.”

The call center informs your local utility companies that you have plans to dig, and after three business days (excluding holidays and weekends), utility companies will visit the site and respond via email of their work performed. This can include marking your property (with paints or flags) where underground facilities are present.

a utility company worker surveying a home for gas and water lines after 811 was called
Your local utility companies will come out to survey your property.

Once the utility services have been flagged, the markings are valid for 45 business days assuming digging has begun within 10 days of calling 811. You should hand dig before exposing the underground utility within 24″ of the marks.

Before starting, you will need to make sure all the necessary utility lines are properly marked.

“You’ll get the email notification from 811,” says Dougherty. “When I put in the ticket, I received one telling me who arrived, who marked, and who didn’t have to mark, and then anyone that may not participate. Some municipalities don’t have any facilities around my house, so they didn’t participate.”

Always dial 811 before you dig.

Additional home digging safety tips

two gardeners filling in dirt near a retaining wall after dialing 811
Be ready to start your project.

When breaking ground, you should have a plan in place to complete the project.

“Make sure you have a time limit that exists and that you have a plan, so you’re ready to complete the project,” says Dougherty. “Know when the ticket is up and also know that you’re doing everything to the law, not just for digging but also for building codes.”

If you don’t complete your project within the allotted days, the utility companies will need to come back to your property to mark the areas again.

You should also take general safety precautions, such as walking the area, looking for potential hazards, and finding a safe place to stand and put the excess soil. Always be mindful of the holes.

a gardener shoveling dirt into a truck
Have a safe place to put excess dirt.

Notes Dougherty, “Keep in mind what types of hazards you have around your property during this excavation, whether you’re landscaping or doing a larger project, like installing a swimming pool. The hazards are different.”

PSE&G stresses safety throughout all aspects of the marking and digging process.

“It’s a matter of how you remain safe,” says Dougherty. “You want to make sure you know who is coming to your property. Check for IDs since PSE&G may need to physically go inside your home.”

Since the utility adapters are inside, the most accurate way to complete the markup is to see the hookup, which runs all the way out to the street.

Getting the word out

a tree and a shrub sitting in their respective holes getting ready to be buried
Help others stay safe during digging projects.

While Alfred saw the news broadcast about a DIY mistake and learned about 811, many homeowners don’t know they must dial 811 before they dig or that it’s required by law.

Says Dougherty, “It is something we have to communicate to the neighbors when we see them out and about. Any time you’re dealing with the excavation, regardless of whether or not you think you know where the lines are, you always want to make sure to call. It’s an extra safeguard to make sure nothing was installed that you may not know existed.”

Get more safe digging and gardening tips in the Do’s and Don’ts of Starting a Garden

Homeownership simplified

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vipHomeLink can help!

Now that you’re moving into a new home, vipHomeLink can help you take care of it! Our home management app sends you personalized reminders for home maintenance and tailored recommendations for home improvement. The app’s vipTIPs give you expert advice at your fingertips (like dial 811 before you dig!) and help you know what to do and when to do around the home. Plus, our app also sends you weather notifications, so you can ready your home for whatever Mother Nature can throw at it!

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Originally published on June 26, 2020; updated on May 28, 2021

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