Pipeline Pitfalls, Precautions, and Protection: A Guide to Avoiding Water and Sewage Line Strikes

Striking water or sewer lines triggers a complex and painful set of repercussions.

July 8, 2024
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Water, Water, Everywhere…

Our clean water streams in, and polluted water flow out: We can’t stay happy and healthy without both of these smooth, silent, invisible processes.

As new communities emerge and existing ones grow, new water and sewage lines expand, crisscrossing residential and commercial areas. In fact, In 2023, construction spending on water infrastructure in the United States reached over 27 billion U.S. dollars. This investment supported the upgrade and expansion of essential water systems, including pipelines, treatment facilities, and distribution networks. The funding aimed to enhance water quality, reliability, and resilience across the nation.

But unlike sectors with evolving delivery technologies like solar power or satellite-based internet, transporting water via pipes has no game-changing, new hi-tech innovation on the way; these sprawling underground networks, though hidden, will continue to play a critical role in our daily lives, more or less as they have for centuries.

As we’ll see in a moment, the combination of such a treasured resource and the hidden nature of its infrastructure under the ground creates a “perfect storm” of risk for excavators.

 

Staying out of Hot Water

While damaging a power or communication line only severs a connection that can be reconnected in a relatively timely manner, striking water or sewer lines triggers a much more complex and painful set of repercussions. We’ll start with sewer lines, as the ramifications are more extensive.

Health and Safety Risks 


Wastewater Exposure:
Perhaps the most obvious (and frankly, unpleasant) result of a strike is that damaged sewer lines can release raw sewage into the immediate area. Offputting smell aside, exposure to untreated wastewater poses health risks due to biological contaminants like bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Chemical Contaminants: Sewer lines may contain untreated chemicals from industrial or household sources. Accidental exposure can lead to skin irritation, respiratory issues, or other health problems, leaving remnants in the soil that can’t be easily removed.

 

Environmental Impact 


Water Pollution:
Sewage leaks contaminate nearby water bodies, affecting aquatic ecosystems and potentially harming wildlife and complex food chains.

Soil Contamination: Sewage seeping into the soil can degrade its quality and affect long-term plant growth, both wild and commercial.

 

Now, let’s address additional costs as they relate to both water and sewer lines:

 

Service Disruptions 


Water Supply Interruption:
Rupturing water lines can disrupt water supply to nearby properties. The implications can halt everything from cooking to gardening, and operating toilets and showers. And that’s only the residential impact — nearby businesses like restaurants, laundromats, and factories often have to cease operations temporarily.

Sewage Backups: Damaged sewer lines may cause backups in both homes and businesses, leading to inconvenience and health hazards, as well the the extensive time and cost of cleanup at each location.

 

Infrastructure Damage 


Pipe Integrity:
Often, a pipe is not completely ruptured but only cracked — and the damage goes unnoticed. These structurally compromised pipes may, in time, deteriorate further, causing leaks and collapses.

Road and Pavement Damage: Water lines often run under or alongside roads. Excavation for repairs can disrupt or close roads, sidewalks, and other ground-level infrastructure, or cause traffic jams. This, in turn, triggers the need for emergency crews and police to handle traffic and pedestrians.

 

Legal and Financial Consequences 


Liability:
Construction companies may be liable for damages caused by hitting sewer lines. Municipalities employing or outsourcing their own teams could also be held responsible. When news of the cause spreads, it can do real damage to a contractor’s reputation.

Repair Costs: It should go without saying, but repairing sewer lines can be expensive, especially if extensive additional excavation is needed. During the time of the repair, workers or equipment standing idle is an added cost as the project comes to a halt.

 

Case Studies

Here are three examples to illustrate some of the far-reaching implications of a water line strike:

  • As many as 4,000 Urbandale residents were left without water after a construction crew accidentally damaged a 20-inch water main while installing a new sewer line. The water gushed into a creek, affecting thousands of homes. Two schools in the area had to close due to the water loss. Crews worked to repair the break, which was 17 feet deep, making it more challenging than usual. Residents were advised to boil water before using it and to flush their lines once water service was restored.
  • A significant sewer and water line incident in Cochrane prompted a state of local emergency due to severe damage and disruptions. On October 21, 2023, a contractor accidentally struck the town’s wastewater pipeline during drilling operations, leading to a sewage spill into the Bow River and impacting the town’s water reservoir. As a result, residents were subjected to strict water usage restrictions, including prohibitions on showering, dishwashing, and laundry, to conserve the critically low water supply. The town, collaborating with various agencies, including Calgary and Alberta Environment, hauled water from Calgary to mitigate the situation.
  • In the UK, a piling rig at a housing site in Beeston, Nottinghamshire, struck a water main, causing a geyser-like eruption that flooded ten houses and disrupted the Nottingham tram service. The water eruption forced the evacuation of residents, with debris breaking windows and damaging property. This significant incident halted work on the site intended for student accommodation and homes. Authorities confirmed that the contractors damaged the main, leading to extensive water-related damage in the area.

 

 

 

Water utility strike documented by RodRadar team.

 

Tactics for Preventing Utility Strikes

The stakes here are too high not to plan a few steps ahead of dig. Innovative contractors, developers, and municipalities know that repair expenses and fines don’t have to be a regular part of their operations; by implementing a series of intelligent safeguards and preparatory measures that leverage construction site safety technology, they can drastically cut down on incidents involving water and sewer line strikes.

Pre-dig Step 1: Contact the OneCall/811 Centers This is the most common first step and, indeed, a regulation. Before any excavation, reach out to the OneCall/811 centers to get utilities marked and possibly get access to additional data, providing a broad collection of relevant utility records to serve as a baseline for preparation. However, it’s well-known that available data is often incomplete and prone to

errors; after all, the data and its accuracy depend on the quality of the data reported (or not reported). Water infrastructure is also usually old — even decades — and lacks accurate position and, in most cases, depth.

Pre-dig Step 2: Supplement with Surface-level Detection

The right combination of site-specific actions can enhance preparedness. These include:

  • Flagging Known Locations: Marking areas with known water and sewer lines and ensuring sufficient clearance.
  • Potholing: Physically digging small holes to verify the presence and depth of underground utilities.
  • Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) Safety Solutions: Using specialized devices to “see” beneath the surface, identifying water and sewer lines as clearly as possible.

 

Now, Detect as you Dig

Even with all this prep work, ideally, you also want “as-you-dig” protection. Live Dig Radar® (LDR) Technology is an integrated, real-time solution for GPR-based utility strike prevention. A step beyond basic pre-dig preparations, it’s directly integrated into the excavator’s bucket and operates concurrently during excavation.

The LDR Excavate™ digging bucket, incorporating the Live Dig Radar technology, provides live feedback from below the surface during excavation. It detects water and sewer (as well as other utility) lines, mitigating risks associated with missing, outdated, or inaccurate utility data, acting as an additional layer of protection. LDR Visualize™ is an easy-to-use display unit located inside the excavator cabin, providing easy-to-understand alerts to the operators just before they would otherwise strike utility lines. This innovative approach can be deployed quickly and simply, streamlining excavations in an independent, cost-effective solution.

 

Conclusion

In the world of construction, precision in underground utility damage prevention isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. When digging for new projects or repairs, avoiding water and sewer lines isn’t just about technical compliance—it’s a strategic imperative that affects your business. By combining meticulous protocols, surface detection techniques, and real-time technologies, excavators can protect not only infrastructure but also their reputation for reliability, keep employees and bystanders safe, and improve their bottom line as they stay more productive.

Contact us to learn how you can dig safer. 

 

Contact us

59 Derekh HaRimonim St, Rinatya 7316500, Israel
T. +972.3.641.9302 E. info@rodradar.com

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