What Is Direct-Burial Wire or Cable?

A Protective Layer for Underground Electrical Systems

Direct burial cable

The Spruce / Margot Cavin 

Direct-burial cable is a type of cable designed to withstand direct exposure to the soil and moisture and is rated for wet, dry, and damp environments. It does not always need conduit, but it can be run inside the conduit to add additional protection to any electrical system.

What Is Direct-Burial Underground Cable?

Direct-burial cable is a special type of electrical wiring or cable that is designed to be buried in a trench underground. The individual electrical conducting wires inside the cable are encased in a solid thermoplastic sheath that seals out moisture and protects the conducting wires within.

Types of Direct Burial Cables

The most common types of direct-burial cable used in residential projects are underground service entrance (USE) and underground feeder (UF). Type USE cable is usually black and is most often used for buried lines that bring power from the utility's transformer to individual houses. Homeowners rarely deal with USE cable themselves; it is handled by utility professionals.

Type UF cable is usually gray and comes in rolls that look like standard non-metallic (NM) sheathed cable. While standard NM cable is rated only for dry, interior applications, UF cable can be used outdoors as well as indoors. For example, if you want to install a cable between the house and an outdoor lamppost, or to run power out to a garden shed or detached garage, UF cable is the standard choice.

The primary difference between standard NM and underground feeder (UF) cable is in the cable construction. Standard NM cable contains wires that are wrapped with paper and a relatively loose plastic sheath. UF cable has wires that are completely encased in solid plastic. This encasement protects each wire from the others and does not allow moisture or other external elements to travel inside the cable. UF cable is also sunlight-resistant and allowed to be used outside and above-ground, where UV light will be present.

The Rise of Buried Cable

Most homes in older neighborhoods in America have overhead service entrances that bring in power from the utility grid. The disadvantages of running wires overhead include having poles in your yard and the dangers of having an exposed power line that can be touched by ladders or damaged by tree branches or other natural elements.

Fun Fact

Running power lines underground increases safety and reliability, because the cables aren't susceptible to storm damage.

Tips for Installing Direct-Burial Cable

The biggest concern with buried cable is digging. Direct-buried cable is governed by many building and electrical code rules to ensure safe installation. Always check with your local building department to learn about specific requirements in your area and how deep a direct-burial wire can be placed. Here are some basic guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Bury UF cable 18 inches deep or deeper if in PVC conduit or 24 inches or deeper if buried directly, depending on the local code requirements.
  • Call the national Call Before You Dig hotline (sometimes referred to as Miss Utility) at 8-1-1 several days before starting a project. This will alert all utilities with service lines in your area, and a representative will come out and mark the lines on your property so you know where you can and cannot dig.
  • Calculate for voltage drop when running a long distance with underground cable. You may need to use a larger cable to minimize a loss of voltage over long runs.
  • Create a map of your property showing where you installed the underground wiring, and store it in a safe place where it can be referenced for future projects. Wiring may need to be run on an angle from your home, so make sure the map notes permanent reference points so that you can pinpoint the cable location in the future.