Call Can Prevent Digging a Financial Hole

He was only digging a small hole for a new fence post, but on one stroke his wooden-handled shovel bit through the hard adobe soil and sliced into an underground electric cable. Power to his house--and to half a dozen neighborhood homes--was out for several hours.

The repair bill set the man back $1,000, but at that he was in luck, said Dan Pearson, claims investigations manager for Southern California Edison Co. There was enough juice in the secondary service line to have fried him if he had been using an all-metal shovel.

And he could have avoided all the problems--and the liability for repairing the damage--if he'd called a free service to find out before digging whether and where any underground utility lines crossed his property.

Since 1990, California law has required anyone preparing to excavate--and that includes common homeowner-performed tasks like digging trenches for home sprinkler systems or holes for patio cover supports, fence posts and new shade trees--to call Underground Service Alert at least two days in advance.

The numbers in Orange County are (800) 227-2600 or (800) 422-4133, and they operate from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

Once a call is logged, a representative of the utility-supported nonprofit agency will come out and mark the location of any underground gas, phone, electric or cable television lines on the property.

Making the call relieves the homeowner or contractor of liability for any subsequent damage to underground utilities that weren't marked: not making the call leaves liability with the property owner or contractor.

Pearson said Edison was plagued by "hits" on its underground lines during the building boom of the 1980s and into the early 1990s as homeowners worked industriously on their landscaping. Things have slowed considerably for the electric utility in recent years "because they just aren't building that many new homes anymore, especially in Orange County," Pearson said.

Still, he estimated that several hundred underground cables are accidentally severed in the Southland every year--mostly by contractors using heavy digging equipment, but also by individual homeowners.

A spokeswoman for Southern California Gas Co. said that utility recently counted the number of underground gas-line accidents. The annual average is 2,500 throughout the Southland--about 250 per year in Orange County. About 20% involve homeowners digging trenches for block wall foundations or planting or removing large trees, she said.

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