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Backyard digging poses unseen hazards

(MoneyWatch) After a long, hot summer, fall has arrived -- and that means fall yard work is about to begin.

Whether you're digging up plants that were decimated by this year's drought, putting up a fence or readying a hole for a fire pit, it's important to dig carefully to avoid hitting a utility line.

One wrong move could land you in trouble with your local utility, as well as your angry neighbors and their insurance companies.

The folks at Travelers Insurance suggest that all homeowners call 811 before starting a dig. The service can help you identify where underground utility lines run in your yard and help you avoid big problems. This "drastically reduces the chances of hitting an underground utility" according to John Komidar, vice president at Travelers Risk Control.

"The Common Ground Alliance reports that when a call center is notified prior to digging, underground utilities are struck less than one percent of the time," Komidar adds.

It's not just deep digs that put you at risk for causing damage to a utility line or, in the case of natural gas leaks, a life threatening injury. Gas, sewer and telephone lines may be only 18 to 38 inches below ground and could be buried even closer to the surface depending on state requirements. Simple projects like planting a tree or putting in a mail box can easily reach these depths.

In fact, it's so easy to hit a utility line that one is hit every three minutes in the U.S., according to the Common Ground Alliance.

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Still not convinced you need to call an expert? Just think of the money you could potentially lose if something goes wrong. You could incur fines from local regulators and be responsible for repair costs associated with fixing the damaged utility line.

You may also find yourself liable for any neighboring homes or businesses impacted by a utility outage as a result of your digging damage. That could quickly add up to thousands of dollars.

A Travelers spokesperson advises you to contact emergency services, the utility company and your insurance company as soon as possible if you do strike a utility line while digging in your yard. Be sure to document the following:

  • Who was involved in the project at the time of the incident
  • Names and phone numbers of any witnesses
  • 811 ticket number
  • Type of utility line struck
  • Number of utility trucks and company employees that respond to the incident
  • How many hours are spent on the repair

Be sure to take notes on the conversations you have with utility representatives, contractors and emergency responders. Keep the paper trail organized and handy, so that in case you do hit something underground you're ready.

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