What's the "Dig Safe" Phone Number?

Play It Safe: Call Before You Dig

Image: shovel plunged into the earth.
Have a project that involves digging? Call the Dig Safe phone number first. David Beaulieu

Maybe you have heard of the "Dig Safe" phone number and associated service and have wondered:

  1. What phone number you must dial, exactly, to connect with the service.
  2. What the service is all about.
  3. Why it is an important service to take advantage of.

I answer these questions below.

What Is the Dig Safe Phone Number?

So what is the Dig Safe phone number? You just dial 811 -- that is right, 811, not 911. Here is an easy way to remember it: you dial 811 first to avoid having to dial 911 later.

Dialing 811 is, first and foremost, an issue of yard safety, but it is also more than that (as I explain below).

I mentioned this service in an earlier FAQ on landscape plans, but the information bears repeating. The gist of it is that this is the phone number you should call before plunging that shovel into new ground for any of your DIY landscaping projects (this includes something as simple as transplanting a shrub). By dialing this number, you might avoid severing an underground utility cable while digging, so consider it an important part of your planning for any project. 

Now that you have the gist of it, let's dig a little deeper (if you will pardon the pun).

How Does It Work?

"Dig Safe" is a regional name (New England). Nationally (in the U.S.), the program is known as "Call Before You Dig." Marie Iannotti, our Gardening Expert, notes that the Common Ground Alliance was the driving force behind the creation of the Call Before You Dig service.

 

Once you place your call, operators route your request to local utilities, prompting workers to come out and mark the utility lines on your property -- so that you will know where not to dig. The last thing you want to find at the end of your shovel is an electrical cable, a misfortune that could yield any or all of the following results:

  1. Injury -- and even death -- from electrical shock
  2. Hefty repair bills
  3. Loss of power (perhaps for your neighbors, as well) until the cable is fixed
  4. And -- adding insult to injury -- possibly even a fine.

Of course, there might be more lurking down there underground than just electrical cables, including lines for:

  1. Gas
  2. Oil
  3. Cable TV, telephone
  4. Water and sewer

The beauty of this system is that it allows you to call just one number, so you do not have the excuse that it's inconvenient. Think of 811 as the "middle man." In this case, that is a good thing to have, because it means you do not have to place separate calls to the electric company, gas company, etc. The service is free, to boot.

What Happens After You Call

When you dial 811, you will be asked some simple questions designed to aid the utility companies in finding you and marking the lines. You may be encouraged to mark the area where you propose to dig ahead of time (for example, you can insert small stakes into the ground). This way, the utility companies can focus on marking the locations of the underground lines that are "in the line of fire," so to speak.

After you place a call in Massachusetts (to use my home state as an example), it will take the utility workers three days to show up and mark the locations of utility lines, according to the Dig Safe website.

In other regions, it may take as long as ten days. The markers (flags and spray paint) used by the utility companies are color-coded, so that you will know precisely what is lying beneath your feet. For example, Dig Safe uses red for electric, yellow for gas.

Simply having the utility lines marked, though, is not enough. You still need to know how far to stay away from the markers when digging. This distance can vary, depending on:

  1. Whether you're digging with power equipment or by hand.
  2. The specific utility line in question (for example, telephone versus gas).

Request this information when you place the call to 811. If you are still in doubt, bring up the matter when the utility companies arrive to mark the lines.

With such a convenient system in place, failing to call the Dig Safe phone number before digging clearly has the potential to be one of the dumbest landscaping mistakes you can make.