Private Utility Locating and Property Damage: Who’s Responsible?

Property damage on a job site, showing liability and private utility scanning concept

The job of a private utility locator may seem cut and dry, but sometimes things get a little murky. Like when it comes to the big “L” – a word that some people in the industry don’t even like to say out loud in case it comes back to haunt them. Yes, we’re talking about liability.

Let’s say you hire us for private utility locating because you want to start excavating for your next build. We come out and use our GPR antenna, and other NDT tools, to scan the area you plan to dig, and we don’t locate any targets. So you start excavating and immediately hit private utilities. Uh-oh.

Private utility damage from a hit target underground can either be a mild inconvenience or a costly and dangerous nightmare. So, who’s responsible for the hit? Is it the private utility locator or the property owner?

We get asked this question a lot, so we thought it was time to clear things up. After all, trust and transparency are some of our guiding values here at Enhanced Scanning.

Our Job as Utility Locators

As utility locators, our job is to interpret NDT (nondestructive testing) data through several feet of dirt, ground, soil, and rock. Our customers hire us to look beneath the ground and tell them what we find. That’s what we do. We locate things. But while private utility locating uses  scientific principles, there’s also a lot of interpretation involved.

There’s this misconception that private utility locating is the same as having superhero x-ray vision straight into the ground. We hate to break it to you, but the technology isn’t quite that advanced yet. There are some limitations and some things we can’t find.

Factors like soil conditions, the presence of groundwater, certain utility materials, and any other number of things can all impact our visibility and ability to locate a buried target. Our official role as locators is to give you as much information as we can so that you can make an informed decision. This is one of the single most important truths that both a locator and his customer must understand.

For instance, we might tell you, “We found a power line here, a gas line here, but we couldn’t find your sewer line. We aren’t sure exactly where it is, so at this point we have to use some conjecture.”

To document our findings, we deliver something called a “job ticket” at the end of every job.  This ticket is an overview of what we found and where we found it. It’s also an agreement that states the limitations we encountered and the targets we were able to locate.

What’s Your Job as a Contractor or Property Owner?

Many of our customers come to us because they want to dig or drill into the ground. After we finish scanning and give our customers all the information we gathered, they’ll ask, “So, are we okay to dig a hole here?” Well, we technically can’t tell you that!

As our customer, you decide where to drill, dig, and cut. We help you make an informed decision, but we don’t make your decision for you. In the end, the decision to dig, cut, and drill is yours and yours alone. It’s important to do your due diligence and gather all plans and maps ahead of time to fill in the knowledge you gain from our private utility scanning. This includes taking the time to determine public utility locations, too.

Since the contractor or property owner has the final say in where to dig, they are ultimately responsible for the outcome. That’s why we aim to build trust from the very beginning with all our customers. This keeps us all on the same page so each party knows what to expect.

The Importance of Trust and Transparency: Our Promise to You

Private utility locating requires a lot of trust. It’s not like some industries where you can see what’s going on. When you hire a framer, you tell them you want your walls made to specific dimensions, and you can come in and easily see if they’ve done their job right. Not so with NDT work like GPR scanning.

Our work happens beneath the ground, and our limitations aren’t always obvious. Our customers need to trust that we’re doing a thorough job and that we’re reporting everything we see. They also need to understand that private utility locating with GPR (or other tools) isn’t always 100% on the nose, so sometimes, there are things we can’t see.

At Enhanced Scanning, we’re always transparent with our customers about what we can do and our limitations. We provide clear Terms and Conditions before beginning any job as well as in the job ticket at the end of the job that both parties sign. This workflow helps to ensure that we’re all on the same page, from beginning to end. When you sign off on the job ticket, you’re acknowledging receipt and that you will not hold us responsible for any decisions you make in terms of digging, cutting, drilling, boring, etc.

But Really, Who’s Responsible for Private Utility Damage?

As with many questions in our field, the answer isn’t black and white. It depends on various factors. What we can tell you is that, in most cases, the person who does the actual digging is liable for damage caused by a hit utility. That is, if the property owner and private utility locator provide the proper information and the access required for the excavator to have adequate knowledge about where they can dig.

Of course, a PRIVATE utility locator usually doesn’t scan for PUBLIC utilities – you need to call 811 for that service – so it’s the contractor or property owner’s responsibility to obtain public utility locations and any available plans or maps of the site. 

There are always exceptions, but the main lesson here is that, as an excavator, you must ensure that you have all information possible before you make an informed decision to dig. 

Finding the Unfindable – but Documenting Any Limitations

Our goal with every project is transparency and accuracy, and we have an excellent track record of finding the unfindable (while always documenting any limitations). If you’d like our help locating things underground, contact us now.

Give us a call: 951-783-2483