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I'm planning on digging a trench for underground electrical conduit. I recently called my state "call before you dig" underground locating service. They finished marking the locations of underground utilities. They all overlap, perpendicular, to my proposed conduit path. Does this matter? Does this mean I have to choose a different path? Or do I need to give a certain amount of space? Or just be careful when digging?

underground utility markings

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    I assume these are the service lines running to your house, not some main lines running through as easement on your property? Are you able to confirm this? Apr 8 at 17:11
  • I'm not sure what you mean by "running through as easement", but yes, I think these are the service lines to my house.
    – Andrew
    Apr 8 at 17:16
  • Sorry, that was meant to say "through an easement". Sometimes, there are utility easements (often along the outer edges of a property) which allow utilities to run there over your property. You would not want to put anything there, as the utility can remove it if they ever need to access their infrastructure. As the other answers state, though, you should be OK in this case. Apr 8 at 17:39
  • Can you provide us with the text associated with the yellow & orange marks? It should provide some info on what you should expect to find when you go a-digging... Apr 9 at 0:36
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Crossing existing utilities is no problem; it happens all the time. Just be careful when digging. There is probably a prescribed margin to either side of the marks within which digging must be done with "hand tools only." In some areas the margin is 24 inches to either side (48 inches plus the width of the marks themselves); in other areas it is 18 inches to either side; yet others may choose some other distance.

Even when hand digging a shovel can easily damage the insulation or even cut through direct-buried cable (telephone and CATV are often direct-bury; power might or might not be). Plastic pipes, such as gas pipe or electrical conduit, are much more resilient to impact from a hand-operated shovel.

Soils vary quite a lot. If yours is sandy then hand-digging will be easy. You could even vacuum excavate with the help of a wet-dry "shop vac." Vacuum excavation is considered "hand tools." If your soil is harder, like clay, it's going to be tough going. In this case I'd suggest digging the trench full-depth on both sides of the marks first. You could then make a choice: chip away at the remaining wall of hard soil, or simply bore through it at the height where the new conduit should go. This can be done with running water from a garden hose if the soil isn't too hard, or with a boost from a pressure washer. "Hydro excavation" as this is called is also counted as "hand tools" and is used extensively by professional excavators. Its likelihood of damaging existing buried lines is very low.

There are tricks one can use to improve the DIY hydro excavation.

  1. Use a pressure washer turbo nozzle. It shoots a 0 degree stream but orbits in a circle, carving a cone into the soil. It works much better than a plain 0 degree or fan-type nozzle.
  2. Push a 2"-2.5" sleeve (pipe) into the bore as you go. It "saves your progress" each time you push it in deeper, defending against cave-in. It also eliminates concern of excess erosion of the bore because water and spoils exit through the sleeve. The sleeve must be large enough that spoils, including small stones, can flow past the boring device (pressure washer wand or hose/pipe) to exit the sleeve. Vacuuming with a wet/dry vac can help.
  3. Bore at an uphill angle so that gravity will carry water and spoils back to you.
  4. A pressure washer wand can easily be extended. Big box stores have begun carrying adapters from pressure washer quick-connect to regular pipe thread; a pair of these and one or more arbitrary-length 1/2" threaded pipes joined with couplers works well. Ready-made extension parts are sold by outfitters for the utility hydro-excavation industry.

I've used these techniques to bore about 25 feet under my own driveway. The bore began in clay, but my upward angle was too steep and I ran into the gravel beneath the concrete and then into the concrete itself. With some creativity and persistence I got it to follow the bottom side of the concrete and exit at the far side.

Now I own some real boring equipment and do it on the side semi-professionally. :-)

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    Yes -- +1 for vacuum/hydro-vac techniques Apr 9 at 0:34
  • +1, but a word of warning before you try to bore through using water: the diameter of the resulting hole is going to be uneven and hard to control, sometimes making it hard to backfill it properly when you're done, and it's not going to work well if there are significant stones or other junk in the soil (not unlikely next to a building). You can give it a try, but be prepared that you might have to dig it all out in the end.
    – TooTea
    Apr 9 at 9:55
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    I use PVC pipe attached to the hose. Have several section ready to screw together as the hole gets longer. Usually in my soil, a 1" pipe to water bore with, and a 1.5" or 2" pipe jammed through to make a 'conduit' (not electrical code), particularly if going under a sidewalk so whatever is run can be re-run 10 years from now.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 9 at 14:25
  • The old joke - Yellow Pages entry Boring: see civil engineers flickr.com/photos/brianclegg/2886768421
    – D Duck
    Apr 9 at 21:50
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You can put your new underground line at that location. Where it may get tough is the depth of the trench: if the existing lines are just at 18 or 24”, depending on your run. If you are using UF you need 24” of cover, if conduit 18” or dig under the existing services.

Be cautious, as I have had markings be over a foot off and the lines be shallower than code requirements, hand dig when getting close.

I usually go under but in several cases this was impractical due to bedrock. When this happened, I switched from pvc to rigid metal conduit and had the metal pipe above the 18” deep utilities (water, gas and communications in the same trench). I have done this several times; in one case I had a new inspector that thought it had to be a code violation, but she signed off on it after over an hour of trying to find a violation (it is ok to change conduit types, if underground it’s not likely to be exposed to power so no grounding is necessary and by definition a 10’ stick of pipe can still be used as a grounding electrode). And in your back yard it can be as shallow as 6”, so it really did meet all requirements.

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Some tips here on the types of utilities beneath those marks

Red is usually power, and the power company provides buried wires (not cable) in most cases. It will likely be 2/0 or 1/0 direct bury wire and there should be three of them (two 100+ amp legs and a neutral). Code mandates they be buried 18-24" deep.

Yellow is typically natural gas. Depending on your locale, this could be 18" deep, or it could be as deep as 30" (that's a NY utility). This could be black iron or some other metal.

Orange is often a data utility like cable, phone or fiber. In some cases they have a machine that "stamps" the wire into a shallow trench it carves. Very rarely do I see these deeper than about 6".

Start digging over by the fence for your new line. You'll probably want a hand trowel as you get closer to your lines (even a normal shovel, powered by a foot, can damage these lines to where they need repair). Remember, the lines are approximate and you'll want to expose them so you can dig around them.

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