“Do no harm” is the central creed to the Hippocratic Oath for doctors and nurses, and it’s a pretty good motto to follow when you’re working in digging and excavation as well.
Few things are more important when you set out to dig than making sure that you aren’t going to do any lasting harm to the structural integrity of the site, and that includes hitting a gas pipeline.
In fact, few outcomes can be more disastrous than accidentally striking a gas pipeline in the course of digging or doing other work. You could trigger everything from a massive gas leak, which could poison others, to an explosion, which could wound or kill countless more.
These are all incredibly drastic situations, but thankfully, with a little care and understanding of how deep gas lines are typically set, where they usually are, how you can identify them, and other essential information, you can dig with confidence without fear of hitting a gas line.
How Deep Are Gas Lines?
The answer to this question is bound to depend on where you are actually located.
For example, according to California’s regulations, all lines must be buried at a depth of at least 18 inches beneath the ground.
By contrast, Rockland and Orange, a company who operates in New York and New Jersey, offers a handbook in which it states that lines are to be buried at least 24 inches below ground and given plenty of cover.
What’s more, there is plenty of variation on how deep gas lines are by country as well. According to the Health and Safety Executive in the UK, gas lines are to be buried at 750 millimeters (or roughly 28 inches) “in a road or verge,” at 600 millimeters (23 inches) “in a footpath,” at 375 millimeters (14 inches) “in private ground,” and 450 millimeters (16 inches) “in footpaths and highways.”
That variation between different locations hints at another vital point, namely, that different urban and domestic areas have different rules for how deep gas lines must be.
You should thus check the regulations for the country and state in which you live to find out just how deep gas lines are overall and where you are planning to dig in particular.
Why Those Depths?
Looking at the UK examples, it isn’t hard to see a pattern. Areas where there is either more traffic – such as roads, highways, and footpaths – tend to feature gas lines that are buried much deeper than those on private property.
US gas lines are typically similar insofar as the closer you get to private property, the shallower the gas lines tend to be.
This makes perfect sense. The more people you have in an area, and the greater amount of traffic or work there is there, the greater the chances of someone accidentally striking the gas line.
A shallow-buried gas line could be set off by severe car crashes that breach the surface of the road, for example, hence why roads and footpaths have them buried so deeply beneath ground.
A serious crash might take a few inches of asphalt and concrete out of the street or road, but that’s nowhere near deep enough to breach the depth of a couple feet or more at which these types of gas lines are typically buried. That way, even an accident cannot set off a leak or explosion.
It therefore takes specialized drilling tools to get down to that depth, and these are typically wielded by those with the experience necessary to use them properly and not damage the gas line.
Where Are Gas Lines Located?
This is naturally going to vary depending on your location, but we can see some trends in where they are laid out in public spheres. Gas lines tend to be prevalent in areas where the utility is most needed, namely public spaces and urban areas.
In addition, 811 numbers in the United States are dedicated to enquiries about where gas lines are and other pertinent information necessary to know before contractors, repair crews, or private individuals begin to dig.
Ideally, you should call at least three business days ahead of when you plan to start digging to give the hotline enough time to respond and, if necessary, perform checks on your area to make sure that everything is okay for you to dig.
In addition to these public hotlines, there are also plenty of private services that are dedicated to helping construction teams as well as private individuals dig safely.
These companies often use something called a ground penetrating radar, which sends signals through the ground which then bounce off buried materials, resulting in readings.
GPRs are a great way to get a readout of what lies beneath your feet, allowing operators to determine both the relative depth of any gas, electrical, or other lines and valves, all without being invasive or damaging the property.
Managers who operate these machines undergo a fair amount of training and are highly specialized in their field, making them some of the best authorities you can contact outside of those official 811 hotlines for information on gas lines in your area.
The readouts themselves are typically accurate to within 6 inches, so you’ll need to account for that to ensure that you are not drilling too close to a suspected pipe line.
Finally, gas lines are often demarcated by colored flags and letters. If you see one of these, do not dig – there is likely a gas line right beneath your feet.
What Happens If You Hit a Gas Line?
As mentioned before, the outcome of hitting a gas line can be as severe as a leak or even a full-on explosion depending on the nature of the line, what strikes it, how, and where on the line the breach occurs.
Those are obviously many variables, and understandably so. As established, drilling near gas lines is a very delicate operation and one that requires the utmost care and precision, lest the consequences be dire.
If you do hit a gas line, it needs to be reported immediately.
In the UK, the number for immediate gas line emergency reports is 0800 111 999.
In the US, you will need to call your state’s gas line hotline.
Both hitting a gas line and failing to report it can be costly as well as dangerous. Fines can cost anywhere from $4,000 in Kentucky to $10,000 in Washington state to $50,000 in California plus the cost of repairing the damage done to the area.
How Can I Dig Safely Around Gas Lines?
The short answer is by knowing where they are and what you’re doing. As mentioned above, there are phone lines you can call that can help identify public gas lines in the area to make sure you don’t hit any.
Paying heed to what these bodies recommend can also help ensure that you do not accidentally hit a gas line.
The Health and Safety Executive, for example, lays out several recommendations for safe digging around gas lines.
For starters, you’ll want to make sure that you have the full layout of the gas lines before you start digging. The worst thing you can do is dig blindly with reckless abandon and no regard for what may be laying just a few inches beneath your feet.
The Health and Safety Executive recommends receiving the plans for the gas pipe layout in your area from the pipeline operator. As noted above, some people also try and map out the area via GPRs or other services.
Either way, you need to make sure that you have a full layout on hand before you start your project.
Certain pipes also operate at greater pressure than others, and thus may be more sensitive. Even if you do not hit the pipe with the drill or other equipment, falling debris may damage or even breach the lines in the case of such lines.
You thus need to make sure that you not only know where the pipes are, but what they are carrying and what state they are in.
The Health and Safety Executive recommends that for pipes that operate at least two bar-worth of pressure that you contact the pipeline operator for more information before beginning.
If you are working with multiple people on this project, it is essential that everyone knows where the pipes are. Share the plans given to you with them and make sure they are fully briefed on whatever safety precautions are necessary.
Then there is the question of how you dig in the first place. This can make a big difference not only in how close your drill comes to the pipelines, but how fast and efficient the drilling process is overall.
The Health and Safety Executive recommends that mechanically-powered excavation machines not be used within at least 500 milliliters of a pipe to give the space a wide berth.
These kinds of tools are not the best for the kind of nuanced digging that is required when the difference between success and catastrophe may literally be just a few inches.
Instead, it is recommended that these types of excavations be performed with hand tools. This can allow you to start and stop digging more easily and it can allow you far greater control while digging.
The situation is similar in Canada, with the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association noting that the 30 meter radius where pipelines are is considered to be a “controlled area,” meaning that you must notify the operator of the pipeline should you choose to start digging there.
In some situations, a simple phone call is not enough, and written confirmation that you have permission to dig there is necessary.
Even if you get that permission, however, you still cannot employ mechanical means of excavation within at least a five meter radius of a “provincially regulated pipeline.” Here, you’ll likely need even more clearance from the province or Canadian government itself until such time as the pipeline is “hand-exposed” and is thus visible.
The US, UK, and other countries will likewise have their own regulations regarding whom you must contact for either private- or state-operated pipelines. Whatever the situation is in your area, make sure you have the correct degree of permission for both where and how you wish to dig from the pipeline operators.
Finally, there are means of drilling that can make a tangible difference in the process. Among the biggest game changers here are horizontal drilling techniques as endorsed by OSHA. This technique is just what it sounds like – a means of drilling into the surface in question which excavates horizontally rather than vertically.
The safety benefits here should be readily apparent. By drilling this way, you eliminate the risk of drilling straight down and hitting a pipeline.
Instead, you go through horizontally at an angle, checking your progress very carefully as you go, and making sure that you are the correct distance from the pipeline while doing so.
This method thus gives you more leeway to operate without fear of hitting something.
As always, OSHA emphasizes the importance of maintaining a safe work environment for your workers during this process, and making sure that they are fully informed both of how the machinery works and the dangers of hitting a pipeline.
You should thus make sure that your personnel are specifically trained to operate horizontal drillers or any other piece of drilling machinery before you begin your project.
All of this can seem a bit exhausting. Those are a lot of rules and regulations to follow.
That being said, they are in place to make sure that drilling can be conducted in as safe and effective a manner as possible, and we should be grateful for that.
No matter where you live, when it comes to working near pipelines, a blend of knowledge, mapping, tools, and an abundance of caution are all essential tools in helping you get the job done right – and with these insights and tips, you can make sure you do just that and “Do No Harm” while drilling.
Ben has a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering. When not constructing or remodeling X-Ray Rooms, Cardiovascular Labs, and Pharmacies, you can find him at home with wife and two daughters. Outside of family, He loves grilling and barbequing on his Big Green Egg and Blackstone Griddle, as well as working on projects around the house.
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