Potholing Utilities for Damage Prevention & Effective Subsurface Investigation

The practical considerations involved in starting or continuing a construction project without first ascertaining what obstacles might be hidden under the ground can be substantial. While there are technologies available to perform searches for utility lines, water or sewer pipes and other underground structures, there exists a quick, accurate and relatively inexpensive method for visually confirming the presence of underground construction obstacles. It is called utility potholing.

Preventing Damage

All non-trivial construction and the majority of building repair, expansion, or inspection activities involve some level of excavation. The foundation of any building must be inspected before any new construction can take place. Any land set aside for new work could be crisscrossed with all kinds of public facilities. 

Without some method of avoiding those obstacles, a construction crew could not only do tremendous damage to the lines themselves but could put the surrounding neighborhoods and populations in danger by cutting off electricity or water. They could even put themselves in danger if they hit a gas line or an underground fuel storage tank.

Surgery for Construction Contractors

Vacuum excavation is similar to a medical technique called arthroscopy. In medicine, doctors often need to repair ligament or tendon damage in a joint. Instead of conventional surgery, however, they make a tiny incision and insert a camera and light so they can see inside the joint. 

Vacuum excavation has the same objective. A construction crew needs to see beneath the ground so that they make a tiny incision using a non-destructive process. This method is called vacuum excavation and allows them to perform a visual inspection and avoid any possibility of damage.

The Alternative

What happens if a backhoe hits a gas line? Most construction crews don’t want to imagine it, and for a good reason. Electrical lines, diesel engines, sparks, and natural gas leaks combine to produce unfortunate results. 

The same goes for a water line or a sewage line. Interruption of a water utility can be catastrophic for public services like hospitals. Electricity outages can cost supermarkets incredible amounts of money in lost product. Sewage breaks can tie up traffic and create health hazards for days.  The minuscule time and money savings of bypassing the potholing process and moving forward with a risky and potentially life-threatening construction project is never worth it. 

While it is possible to approximate the location of utility lines using various technologies other than potholing, the truth is nothing beats first-hand visual inspection, and nothing beats the time savings of using a proven process with no drawbacks. Why guess when it is possible to know for certain? Why take a chance when a first-hand look answers all the questions? 

Modern construction is impressive. The ability to see beneath the earth and avoid costly and dangerous obstacles is one of its greatest accomplishments. It is in every contractor and construction team’s best interests to take advantage of those technologies whenever possible.

Why Utility Potholing Is Essential for A Successful Construction Project

It’s long been said that if humans could see all that is under the ocean, they’d never leave the shore. The same is true of nearly any developed property, whether you are starting a new structure, repairing a building or adding to an existing site. You’re going to want to look into a process called “utility potholing.”

Potholing is a construction method where a small hole is placed in the ground through a process called vacuum excavation. Once the hole is deep enough, it is possible for a construction or inspection crew to confirm the presence of utility lines visually, and water or sewer pipes. Once located, the crew will be in a position to make certain the existing lines won’t conflict with either above or below-ground construction plans.

The equipment used to create the excavations through the potholing process are self-contained units designed to avoid damaging underground infrastructure. Here’s why utility potholing is essential for a successful construction project. 

Safe Zones

To avoid the possibility of damage to lines and subsequent site damage, flooding or service outages in the surrounding community, construction crews are not permitted to dig in safe zones, which are the areas within a few feet of either side of any previously located utility line.

Though it is possible to approximate the location of utilities and underground facilities using digital equipment and ground-penetrating RADAR, it is far more precise and far less risky if the construction crew can visually ascertain the location and alignment of any lines that might pose a hazard to the construction project.

Scheduling and Costs

Leaving aside the potential of damage and service interruptions in the event a dig might sever an underground line, the resulting delays and potential sanctions experienced by a contractor or construction crew can be both costly and harmful to the construction crew itself. Time is money, and many construction projects are operating on thin margins in the best of circumstances. The minimal time savings of bypassing prudent potholing isn’t comparable to the practically unlimited liability issues involved in damaging a public utility.  It’s always better to be on the safe side if only to protect the other residents in the neighborhood.  


What if it were possible to simply vacuum soil out of the ground at a precise location? If no tools are penetrating the ground, they can’t damage anything built underground either. If a vacuum can store the removed soil, it can also replace that soil, meaning there is no lasting effect on the site. The vacuum excavation process, therefore, delivers a non-destructive way to inspect the subterranean environment without any of the above-noted risks.  

If a process is safer, less expensive, leaves no permanent evidence it was ever performed, and can obtain better and more accurate information about ways to avoid damaging a site or public property, it stands to reason it is something that should be considered any time there is a potential for the presence of utility lines at a construction site.

How to Reduce Trenching and Excavation Safety Hazards


The work involved in exposing underground utilities can be intricate in nature. There is a lack of vision, due to the infrastructure being underneath the ground, meaning that accurately locating the target piping or cabling is difficult. This problem makes it incredibly important to gather as much intelligence as you can on the area in which you are working.

Finding underground schematics for the area is one of the first things that should be done when preparing to start work on a new site. The responsible contracting company that installed the infrastructure will have created detailing documentation for workers to use when performing repairs on the piping and cabling laid beneath the ground. You can use this information to speed along your utility potholing process.

Trenching for Repairs

Trenching is something that can be avoided by using vacuum excavation contractors. However, in some instances, it may be necessary to dig a trench to access the subsurface infrastructure. The proper definition of a trench, defined by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, is a narrow excavation beneath the ground that is deeper than it is wide while being no wider than 15 feet.

It is crucial to have a competent person perform a survey of the area, aiming to find out the types of soil and rocks in the ground, as well as inspecting your protective systems and conducting regular site inspections. This person will be required by law to inspect trenches at the start of each shift, as well as following a rainstorm.

It is essential to decipher the type of ground materials you are working with, as this can affect the precautions you need to take before starting work. Some important factors that should be taken into account include the soil classification, water content of the soil, use of heavy digging equipment, depth of cut and other changes which can be caused by weather and climate. According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, or OSHA website, there is a range of safety precautions that need to be taken when trenching. The most common threat when trenching is the risk of collapse, which can result from the surrounding ground materials being too weak to hold up machinery and other items.

Generally, unless the excavation is performed in entirely solid rock, you will need to have a trench protection system in place. The first is called Sloping, which involves cutting the trench wall back at an inclined angle to ensure that debris does not fall into the trench. The second method is called Shoring and requires more work, such as the installation of support, items such as an aluminum hydraulic to prevent soil movement and cave-ins. The third and final method is Shielding, which protects workers by using trench boxes or other types of support that avoid soil cave-ins.

Overall, trenching and excavation are some of the most hazardous construction operations that you can undertake. This danger is why it is critical to take the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of workers on-site.

Expose Underground Utilities with Vacuum Excavation


Underground utilities are particularly susceptible to damage, especially when worked upon in more traditional ways such as manual digging and using a backhoe.

Manual Digging is the most labor-intensive method of exposing underground utilities, requiring significant worker numbers to accomplish the job. This kind of work can also take days to complete, requiring both the removal and replacement of soil, meaning that projects can fall behind schedule. Another significant risk encountered when manually digging is that hand tools can come into contact with electrical wiring beneath the surface, which can pose a significant threat to human life, causing either severe injury or even death. Due to these reasons, other modern methods have become more commonly used.

A backhoe requires the use of machinery in order to dig up the ground and expose buried underground utilities. This piece of machinery has a large bucket which digs into the ground, in much the same way as a hand shovel. Additionally, due to the larger size of these machines, this means that the job can be completed more quickly. The problem with this method, much like with hand digging, is the lack of vision that the machine operator has underground. This lack of visual information means that underground cabling can be damaged during the excavation process, incurring significant costs and project delays while repairs are made to the existing infrastructure.

These older methods of potholing utilities have been replaced by a quicker, more cost-effective method called Vacuum Excavation.

What is Vacuum Excavation?

As the name suggests, vacuum excavation involves the removal of ground materials through suction. This method of excavation can be done in two different ways.

The first type of vacuum excavator uses water; highly-pressurized water is used to dislodge and remove soil. A vacuum is then applied over the area to suck up and store debris. Water excavation can be useful in situations where the ground would otherwise be too hard to simply vacuum. The high-pressure water helps to increase the moisture of the soil and make it easier to break up. Water vacuum excavation is suitable as it is non-destructive and allows for more accurate excavation of underground utilities.

The second method is simply air vacuum excavation. This method is suited to areas with loose soil and ground materials, which are quickly drawn up through an intake nozzle into a dry debris container. From here, you can unearth the underground utilities that you need to work on without causing any damage, similarly to the water excavation process. Once the work has been completed, a driver will dump the dry soil back into the hole you’ve created.

Overall, both of these methods are hugely useful at increasing safety on the worksite. Hand Digging is labor and time intensive, but it is also dangerous as workers can come into contact with live electrical wiring. The same can occur when using a backhoe. This danger is why you will now commonly find a Vacuum Excavator being used to expose underground utilities.

Professional Excavation Advice in Exposing Buried Utilities


Great care should always be taken when attempting to expose buried utilities. There are a number of dangers that can be hazardous to workers underground, with electrical cabling having the potential to kill. They can often look very similar to other piping, meaning workers can unknowingly make contact with the live cabling and sustain serious damage.

Instead, when potholing utilities, you should always plan ahead to ensure your own and other peoples safety.

Safety Tips

There are a variety of things that can happen when underground cabling gets damaged. People can receive an electric shock, which is deadly in most cases when they make contact with the cable. There can also be an arc discharge, caused by the electrical breakdown of gases which results in a prolonged electrical discharge. This discharge can result in severe burns even though people may be wearing protective clothing.

In order to avoid this damage, you should first plan ahead before starting any work. You should make an effort to check for any equipment owned by third-party organizations, as this will give you clues as to who may own the cabling beneath the ground you are working on. It would then be a good idea to contact the owner to get detailed plans showing the location of cabling beneath the ground. This will uncover vital information that can help to avoid damaging existing infrastructures, which can incur a significant cost in monetary terms, as well as time delays.

Even after obtaining detailed plans, it is also good practice to employ cable locating devices. Plans will give you an approximate location for cabling, but locators will help to pinpoint cables. Once this is done, you can then begin digging into the ground to expose your buried utilities.

Excavating Safely

When excavating, you should be mindful of the cabling beneath you.

It is vital that you use insulated hand tools when digging near electrical cabling, in order to mitigate the chance of electric shock. If you are using a vacuum excavator, you won’t have to worry about this risk.

Any vacuum excavation contractors performing Hydrovac excavation should be mindful of their machinery’s location. There have been times where people have accidentally moved the boom into overhead powerlines, causing electric shocks. This highlights the importance of spatial awareness when operating this machinery. It is incredibly important that workers do not become complacent and always remain aware of the imminent danger surrounding them.

It is recommended that when operating machinery in close proximity to overhead powerlines, you keep a minimum of 3 meters away from the live cable, with an optimal distance of 7 meters to ensure safety.

One of the biggest benefits of utility potholing and vacuum excavation over hand digging is the reduced chance of damaging the line. Excavators have the ability to significantly reduce the pressure at which they dig, meaning you can uncover existing cabling without causing any damage. There is one safe method of digging where you dig down next to the location of the cabling and then horizontally move closer to expose the cable. This can be much safer than digging straight down, where you could potentially hit the cable with the dig wand.


In summary, there are many ways that you can ensure safety when attempting to expose buried utilities.

It is always best to find out who owns the cabling in the area you plan to dig. They will have existing documentation detailing the approximate locations of cables in the area. You can then pinpoint the locations with locator devices and dig safely. Everyone should remain mindful of the dangers electricity poses to human life, checking that machinery is sufficiently far away from live power lines too.

If you want to find out more about exposing buried utilities and excavation, you can visit Util-locate.com.

Potholing Utilities for a Cost Efficient and Safer Excavation


Potholing for utilities is a method that construction site workers can use to obtain a wealth of visual information regarding piping and other subsurface construction. Utility potholing has increasing importance in the construction industry, as a method that can help to make excavation safer and more cost effective to do.

In the past, it was commonplace for contractors to use a backhoe. This piece of equipment is highly recognizable to the general population as a typical piece of machinery you would find on a construction site. However, it does not have the precision or maneuverability of more modern excavation machinery, meaning it has the potential to cause immense damage to existing subsurface infrastructure.

Increased Safety using Vacuum Excavation

Nowadays, you are much more likely to find a vacuum excavator being used. These highly portable pieces of machinery use either air or water in order to displace soil. Since the air and water are only vacuuming at low pressures, this means that other utilities in the ground will not be damaged, which makes vacuum excavation the preferred method compared to using a backhoe.

Vacuum excavation also has a wealth of other benefits compared to using a backhoe. When excavating, a backhoe will displace a considerably larger amount of soil compared to a vacuum excavator. This soil will need to be stored somewhere whilst the construction work is being completed, creating obstacles in the form of dumping grounds. A vacuum excavator simply stores the displaced soil inside the machinery, meaning there is no need for a dumping ground. There is also increased tidying up required with a backhoe, as you have to replace all of the soil you have dug up.

Increased cost efficiency using Vacuum Excavation

The next important benefit of using vacuum excavation, compared to a backhoeing and manual labor, is the reduction in costs.

Manual digging is an outdated method of excavating that requires a significant number of man-hours to accomplish the same thing as backhoeing and vacuum excavation. Individual workmen would spend time digging with shovels, for what could be days at a time using this method. In comparison, vacuum excavation would be much quicker while also causing much less disruption to the ground. Once work is complete, workmen would also have to refill the holes they had made, doubling the time taken. It would cost significantly more overall, alongside taking longer, to hire workmen versus using a vacuum excavator.

The cost implications for backhoeing are slightly different from the previous. This piece of machinery can be a great tool when displacing ground is clear of subsurface infrastructure. It can accomplish what multiple workmen would do in hours, in mere minutes. When used in an area containing subsurface infrastructure, the damage that can be caused by the metal bucket on a backhoe hitting existing piping and cabling could be disastrous. This would most likely result in the project being put on hold, whilst repairs to the infrastructure are completed by those who caused the damage. As you can see, the risks of using a backhoe are very real, meaning it is a good idea to consider using a vacuum excavator instead when potholing utilities.


In summary, vacuum excavation is a new and improved method of potholing utilities.

The use of low-pressure water and air by this system means that existing subsurface infrastructure is less likely to get damaged, versus other methods such as backhoeing and manual digging. The cost savings and improvement to site safety can also be immense through this mitigation of risk. You can find out more information regarding vacuum excavation and potholing utilities by visiting Util-locate.com.