December 15, 2010
Editor’s note: The following letter was written in response to Terry Murphy’s column, The Underground World, which began its publication schedule in Horticulture Review in the November 2010 issue.

Terry, your article in the November issue of Horticulture Review on the underground world was interesting. As someone who has worked in landscaping for over 20 years, I am still learning about the requirements and work one must do to obtain the necessary locates.  

In the last 20 years, I can remember hitting three gas lines and one larger phone line (100 pair) along with numerous individual phone and cable lines. In one case, the gas line was only four inches below the turf and the result was that the local utility was fined by TSSA for substandard installation. We had obtained locates and were not digging in this area, simply removing a pile of soil that was on the lawn.

The other two gas lines were hit from not having called in locates. They were ¾-inch services to the home. The first one was hit in the first year of my starting and cost us $200 to repair. At that time there were no investigations. The second was some years ago and cost us $500 to repair, along with a small accident investigation fee from the TSSA.

As you mentioned in the article, things have become much more expensive. Our current system of calling in locates prior to starting work, reviewing them to be sure all is in order, and going over them with crews working on site has greatly improved our track record.  One way to cover the time required for the work involved is to add in a small fee to each estimate; $300 is a good starting point.

However, even with this systematic approach, I find that things do not always go smoothly. I do not recall when, but a number of years ago Rogers and Bell stopped coming out to do locates, unless a major line is located on the property. This means that the phone or cable line going to a residence or a small commercial service is not located. Instead, a clearance certificate is given allowing the contractor to work. If a line is damaged during work, then the company will repair the service at no cost. This, however, does not make for a happy customer when their service can be disconnected for several days before repair. It may also be a service to the neighbour’s house that is affected, as these lines can easily cross property lines and run in very confusing ways.

We try to locate the line prior to working, but in many cases, three or more lines can be found as old ones are not removed if damaged. To add further problems, some neighbourhoods have had the main service switched from the rear yard to the front, leaving obsolete wires at every residence. In a case at my own residence, while edging the garden, I cut my phone line that was only buried one inch below the turf. I am not sure if damaging a Bell or cable wire is considered a hit, if they are not even being located.

We also recently came across a wire for street lighting while doing landscaping in the rear yard. In Ottawa, this service is not covered by Ontario One Call, but rather we must call a separate service company that marks the lines on behalf of the city. I had not thought to call for locates for street lighting, as we were working in the rear yard and nowhere near the road. However, in this case the wire ran along the side property line from rear to front. Apparently the service wires can cross anywhere rather than just following the road. We did not damage the wire, so no costs were incurred, but it could easily have been several thousand dollars.

In trying to reduce hits, one must have all utilities mandated to be part of a service like Ontario One Call. This will eliminate the need for contractors to call three or four different services that we must currently contact to ensure that no services are accidently left off.  Also, it is a good idea to have the entire property marked, even if working only in a specific area of the yard. One may be asked during work to do some additional items, which were not in an area located. This can add substantial delay to completion of the project and one may consider taking a risk to get the work done.  

It is also important to ask for both public and private property to be located. This was added a number of years back to reduce work for the companies doing locates. However, it is difficult to know where the road allowance may end and the owner’s property begins. Personally, I feel that this should not be a condition of locates. They should go back to the previous system of marking everything without one needing to ask.

Water stand pipes are another frequent problem, as they can be buried, sometimes over one foot deep. We have a supply of parts given to us by the city to use if the damage is minor, but if it is more serious, the city will come out to repair. This can add delay to the job.  In one case, the city found the valve to be non-functional (not due to our work, just too due to age) and had to dig up the yard to replace it.  This took three to four weeks to get done, resulting in an unhappy homeowner.

When working on larger projects, markings can disappear due to work and weather. I find the system of having re-locates done after 30 days being considered as new locates, a real pain. This means calling in again to get everything done, even if you just want the gas line relocated. Having to pull off a job is very expensive and should not be caused by having to wait for things to get relocated. It also delays things and consequently causes us to take risks; we should not be doing to get the job done on time.  

Our firm works on three to five jobs at the same time. Trying to figure out start dates for locates is always a problem. If called in too early, the markings can be difficult to see. If called in too late, we cannot start the job. This summer in Ottawa, we had a huge backlog problem causing some contractors to stop working. Locates must be done within a standard time — five days is reasonable, but it used to take three. Frequently, only paint is used and after a couple of lawn cuts, things disappear. Flags should be a standard. Proper distances should also be shown on the plan, to find faded markings, but the distance is not always shown.

Last, but not least, is the tendency of some personnel doing markings to paint everything in sight. Proper training is critical. I had a commercial site located and the parking lot was lit-up like a Christmas tree. Needless to say, the owner was not happy.  

I look forward to your work in this area to reduce hits and make our businesses easier to run.
Marc Arnold
Rockcliffe Landscaping