Beneath Our Blocks: The Hidden Risks of Residential Gas Lines

When it comes to excavating next to gas lines, contractors and utility companies must work safely and confidently in order to avoid environmental hazards.

June 23, 2024
Blog

Here’s an easy way to instantly spike the blood pressure of a contractor or an excavator operator reading the morning news:

“WAPPINGERS FALLS, N.Y. — More than a dozen people were injured when a gas line was struck on Thursday afternoon in Wappingers Falls, New York, causing an explosion that destroyed a home.

Officials said Central Hudson contractors were performing routine maintenance replacing gas lines, when they struck a 3/4-inch gas service line, and the dig caused a fire and explosion around 12:15 p.m … 10 civilians and five first responders were injured … eight adults and two children, while the first responders include one firefighter and four police officers.” (Full story here)

What isn’t news is that natural gas has become a staple in residential energy, offering a convenient and widely available source for heating and cooking for over 189 million Americans. Yet its very ubiquity brings its sprawling infrastructure into close quarters with our daily lives, often running just beneath the surface of our neighborhoods — both crowded, bustling cities and quiet, suburban towns. This proximity, while necessary, intensifies the inherent risks of excavation for construction or repair work.

Let’s examine the specific challenges that contractors face in digging near gas lines. Then, we’ll consider a few strategies for mitigating the risks to life and property and, finally, focus on a specific solution that solves many challenges at once.

 

The Invisible Danger Beneath Our Feet 

According to the American Gas Association, in 2022, the U.S. natural gas industry had a whopping 2.75 million miles of pipeline in place, including distribution, services, transmission, and gathering lines. The AGA also notes that since 2000, there has been a 1% increase each year: The U.S. saw an addition of 640,000 residential natural gas consumers in 2022. This annual increase is equivalent to 1,752 new gas customers being added daily.

As more and more new gas infrastructure is laid, new regulations for marking and reporting on their locations are indeed protecting future contractors from striking them. The remaining challenge, however, is existing /older infrastructure — both main lines and individual connections branching off to residences — that may be forgotten, mismarked, or mislocated. Add to that the fact that lines can be tricky to detect as they may not be made of metal, and the industry faces tricky ongoing challenges in avoiding those lines.

 

Understanding the Risks

The minute an excavator damages a gas line, it can trigger a long, painfully expensive chain of events, including:

Personal injury or death at the point of strike: Topping the list is the most obvious: fire bursts and explosions from striking a gas line (leading to terrifying headlines like “FLAMES SHOOT OUT OF GROUND AFTER GAS LINE HIT”). These can lead to immediate danger to everyone in the vicinity — on-site workers, residents at home, businesses, or pedestrians and drivers in the area. Whether the result is severe injury or even fatality, this factor alone warrants taking advantage of every safety-oriented strategy available.

Property damage and loss of essential services: Damage to gas lines can disrupt essential services like heating, cooking, or industrial activity, leading to property damage. Even more disturbing is a common phenomenon reported back in 2016, where the implication of the strike was not even noted immediately – the gas leaked into the ground over time and could then have exploded, destroying vast residential areas, had someone not smelled the odor and reported it.

Neighborhood evacuation: The previous two points mean that gas leaks of any kind often necessitate the evacuation of nearby residents as a precautionary measure, disrupting lives and causing anxiety. Even once they return home, psychological damage takes its toll as, unlike water, natural gas is invisible and flammable, and might leak anywhere that work is being done.
Project halts and investigations: Utility strikes can stop construction projects in their tracks, leading to delays and investigations to determine the cause and prevent future incidents. Idle workers must be paid and leased equipment sits unused. These factors can significantly impact project timelines and budgets.

Fines and lawsuits: Companies responsible for gas line strikes may face hefty fines and legal action. The societal cost of underground utility damages is estimated at $30 billion annually, indicating these incidents’ financial impact.

Contractors’ loss of business and access to reasonable insurance: Contractors may lose business and face insurance complications following a gas line strike. The reputational damage and potential for increased insurance premiums can have long-term effects on their operations.

 

Prevention is Obviously Key

Forward-looking contractors and developers do not see the repairs and fines listed above as the inevitable “cost of doing business.” They know that a series of strategic safeguards and preparatory steps will radically reduce incidents of gas line strikes.

Contacting the 811 locator center before digging is always the first step. As a clearing house, this resource offers the broadest collection of mapping records to use as a “base level” of preparation.

However, 811 records are notoriously incomplete and error-prone; the data they collect and share is only as accurate as the bodies reporting (or not reporting!) to them. As such, preparing a site in advance is critical to supplementing the 811 data with anything detectable from the surface. These strategies include flagging known locations with sufficient clearance, potholing, and using various ground-penetrating radar devices to “see,” as deep and clearly as possible, what lies below the surface.

With these two steps completed conscientiously and thoroughly, one final layer of defense can help “plug the holes” in all the tools and tactics. RodRadar’s Live Dig Radar® (LDR) is a pioneering technology directly integrated into the excavator’s bucket. It’s deployed in real-time, not as a step in above-ground, pre-dig preparation. LDR offers live feedback while digging, from down in the earth, pinpointing underground utilities’ location and depth, thereby mitigating the risks associated with outdated, incorrect, or entirely absent maps. It acts as an additional, essential layer of protection against utility strikes of all kinds, complementing traditional pre-dig procedures by alerting operators of potential hazards just before they would otherwise strike the gas line. This innovation enhances safety protocols and streamlines excavations, providing an immediate, independent, cost-effective implementation.

 

Conclusion

The widespread presence of natural gas, often running silently beneath our homes and streets, is a testament to its integral role in our daily lives. Yet, this silent partner carries inherent risks, particularly when construction or repair work breaches its hidden pathways. The consequences of such strikes are not just statistics; they represent real threats to life, property, and community well-being. We must employ every available measure to prevent these incidents, from meticulous planning and mapping to adopting cutting-edge technology like RodRadar’s Live Dig Radar®. When it comes to gas lines — more than any other type of utility — contractors, developers, and utility companies cannot be complacent because every move counts in the intricate dance between progress and safety. Together, we can ensure that the benefits of natural gas are matched by our commitment to responsible stewardship and the protection of all it serves.

 

Contact us to learn more about our LDR Excavate digging bucket.

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

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