MIDLAND, MI – Every hour, someone in Michigan damages a buried utility line by careless digging, causing service interruptions and sometimes even injury or death. Fortunately, there is a way to avoid these accidents by calling MISS DIG. The early summer months in Michigan are always a welcome relief after a harsh winter. The nights are pleasantly cool, the days are bright and warm, and the landscape everywhere blooms with – little colored flags? From a distance, those dots of color gently swaying in the breeze could be mistaken for tulips, but they serve a much more serious and important purpose.
They are staking flags placed there by utility companies to mark the location of underground utility lines. Every hour, someone in Michigan damages a buried utility line through careless digging, causing service interruptions and sometimes even injury or death. Those markers are there to keep that from happening and should never be tampered with or moved.
Costly and potentially dangerous incidents can be avoided with a simple phone call to the MISS DIG System, a free service that coordinates with Michigan utilities to mark the approximate locations of underground lines and pipes. Unfortunately, this news still has not reached many home gardening and landscaping enthusiasts.
According to industry sources, an increasing percentage of dig-in damages come from landscaping projects. Most damage prevention experts agree that part of the problem is the mistaken assumption by many homeowners that utility lines are buried far below the surface.
“We are noticing a rise in the number of damages due to landscaping projects,” said Darryl Ellington, damage prevention process manager for DTE Energy. “Many people might think ‘I’m not going that deep,’ but they can misjudge very easily.”
Michigan law requires that an area be staked and lines exposed by hand before any digging with power equipment occurs. The law applies to everyone, from large construction companies putting up high rises to homeowners involved in do-it-yourself projects.
Cutting through service lines can be dangerous. “It’s not very hard to ignite that gas – a metal shovel head hitting a rock can spark,” explained John Roberts, a damage prevention leader for Consumers Energy. “All new residential services now have plastic lines,” he added. “If cut by accident, the static electricity in the plastic can also ignite the gas.”
Captain Doug Van Wormer of the Bridgeport Township Fire Department in Saginaw County is familiar with broken gas lines. The most recent incident took place last summer when a homeowner attempted to remove a tree stump from his property by pulling it out with a chain attached to his pick-up truck. The homeowner severed an inch-wide natural gas line as he dislodged the stump because the roots of the tree had become entangled with the pipe.
According to Van Wormer, Bridgeport Township firefighters had to evacuate nearby homes and close off an adjacent road for 90 minutes until Consumers Energy workers were able to fix the leak. The homeowner had not called MISS DIG to have his lines located before starting the project.
Cutting through service lines can damage your wallet as well. According to Dave Savoy, a Consumers Energy claims manager, dig-in incidents involving their utility lines cause about $750,000 of damage every year. Mishaps have been caused by everything from using power augers to installing sprinkler systems. “A claim can run a couple thousand dollars per incident,” he said. “If you’re digging without first staking and hand-exposing, you can be responsible for the cost of repairs.”
The costs for damaging an underground line can be more than monetary. When emergency response teams are occupied with avoidable incidents like broken utility lines, it can hamper their ability to respond to other calls. “A lot of fire departments rely on part-time personnel because of budget constraints,” Van Wormer explained. “When we’re tied up on a utility call, it puts people at risk if there is another emergency.”
Van Wormer’s advice to homeowners with landscape projects? “It’s always better to be safe. Make the call to MISS DIG – it’s free and it protects you and others.”
Even professional landscapers like Cliff Both, owner of Authentic Lawn & Tree in Cedar, Michigan, can misjudge the danger of digging in an area that has not been properly staked. Early in his career, Both knew to avoid utility lines, but was unfamiliar with MISS DIG. One of his first jobs involved the installation of a small pond on a homeowner’s property. He found the location of the gas line going into the house, and assumed it ran straight and away from where he would dig. What he did not know was that the pipe was routed around a large tree nearby and actually lay directly beneath the area intended for the pond.
“The ground was real rocky and sparks went flying every time I put the shovel in,” recalled Both. “I hit this gas line and heard a hiss – the noise was so loud – and then I passed out.” When Both regained consciousness, he called 911. They alerted the gas company, which came out and repaired the line. “One of their guys gave me this card and said ‘Call MISS DIG next time’ and I have ever since,” continued Both. “I got lucky. With all those sparks flying ... it could have been really bad.”
As part of their efforts to spread the word about safe digging, a coalition of Michigan utilities and MISS DIG sponsor Raise The Flags, a public education campaign that has helped significantly reduce overall damages to underground utilities in the state since its introduction five years ago. (40 percent for the gas division of Consumers Energy; 26 percent and 19 percent respectively for the electric and gas divisions of DTE.) The program is supported by an annual communications campaign that has included billboard advertising along major highways, newspaper and magazine articles, print advertising in trade publications, and public service announcements on television and radio stations throughout the state.
From utility providers to emergency response teams to professional landscapers, the message is the same: Better safe than sorry. Call MISS DIG before you dig. “Our goal is to work with the public and educate them on what they need to do for their own safety and the safety of others,” explained Kathleen Fournier, CEO and executive director of MISS DIG. “The call is free, the service is free and, in the end, it will save you time, money and maybe even your life.”
Homeowners can request free staking through MISS DIG by phoning 1-800-482-7171 or online at www.missdig.org. You must allow three business days for staking to be completed. The MISS DIG System is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for emergency and non-emergency requests.
Dig Safely Guidelines:
Contact MISS DIG by phone at 1-800-482-7171 or online at www.missdig.org. It’s fast. It’s totally free. And it’s the law.
Wait until the flags are raised. You must wait at least three business days to give local utilities time to do their work.
Expose utility lines by hand digging. Dig by hand to expose underground utility lines before using power equipment.
Respect the flags. Be aware of underground facilities, even if you’re not working near them.
What Do the Flag Colors Mean?
Orange Telephone; Cable TV
Yellow Gas and Oil
Green Storm Drains
Blue Water Systems
Brown Sewer Systems
A reminder to parents!
The colorful flags used to mark underground utility lines can be very attractive to young children. Remind them not to remove the utility flag markings. If utility flags are accidentally moved, do not attempt to place the flags back in the ground. Never assume you remember where the flags were located. Call the MISS DIG System at 1-800-482-7171 and request that your yard be marked again.