The national organisation “Dial Before You Dig” (abbreviated to DBYD) is a non-profit, free referral service for information about the location of underground infrastructure such as pipes and cables. It helps owners to avoid damage to underground infrastructure on their property when doing excavation. DBYD is a “one stop” service which means anyone planning to do excavation doesn’t need to contact all the utility providers individually. It originated in the 1980s in Western Australia as a result of a dramatic incident in which a bulldozer ruptured a high-pressure gas pipeline, causing significant damage.
Apart from the excavation required when actually building a house, there are many reasons why excavation may be needed on a residential property. It could be a seemingly straightforward thing like putting in a new mailbox, driveway or fence. You may be planning to landscape your property, such as levelling the ground by “cutting and filling” or constructing a retaining wall. Or you could even be doing something major like putting in an in-ground swimming pool, or extending your house. Anything like this will require excavation, even though the depth will vary.
All residential properties are served by a number of utilities such as telecommunications (telephone and internet), water, electricity and gas. The infrastructure of underground pipes, cables and conduits can easily be damaged by excavation, which can potentially cause injury to people as well as cutting off essential services to their property.
Anyone who causes this sort of damage may find themselves or their company liable for the cost of repairing it, which can be substantial. Therefore, the essential first step prior to undertaking any excavation, no matter how small, is to lodge a free “Dial Before You Dig” enquiry. This can be done by telephoning 1100 (toll-free from landlines) during business hours, using the Dial Before You Dig app (for iPhone) or the Dial Before You Dig website. The enquiry must be lodged at least two business days before the planned start of excavation.
The essential first step prior to undertaking any excavation, no matter how small, is to lodge a free “Dial Before You Dig” enquiry.
The utility providers (asset owners) will then contact you directly to notify you of the presence of underground infrastructure on your property. It is important to note that you do not necessarily receive plans of the exact location of the infrastructure, so care still needs to be taken to avoid damage when excavating.
How Far Down Can I Dig on my Own Property?
Legally, there is no straightforward answer to how far down you can dig on your own property. Historically, property law was applied according to the saying: “Cujus est solum, ejus est usque ad coelum et ad inferos” which is Latin for: “whoever owns the soil, holds title all the way up to the heavens and down to the depths of hell”. However, in practice, this is not the case anymore and the depth that you can legally dig to on your own property will vary from state to state and depending on the circumstances.
Additionally, property owners do not own any resources such as oil, coal or gold that may be found in the ground under their property. These belong to the Crown (effectively the government) in the first instance. Exploration or mining licences can be granted to someone other than the property owner.
More information on the definitions of property and property rights in Australia, with reference to past legal cases, can be found on the Australian Law Reform Commission’s website.
What Do I Do if I Hit a Utility Line?
If you accidentally hit a utility line when excavating, despite taking due care using the information from Dial Before You Dig, or because you didn’t submit a Dial Before You Dig enquiry before commencing excavation, the important thing is not to panic.
Cease all work on the site immediately, regardless of the amount of damage. Even a seemingly small amount of damage to underground infrastructure is significant. When thinking of damage caused by excavation you might imagine water gushing out from a large hole in a pipe, for example. But apparently minor damage to an electricity cable can cause electrocution, and a small hole in a gas pipe can cause a gas leak which could lead to an explosion.
Even a seemingly small amount of damage to underground infrastructure is significant.
Ensure everyone on site is safe. If anyone has been injured initially, call emergency services to make sure they will be looked after, and perform first aid if necessary. Move all workers and any bystanders to a safe distance away.
Do not use your mobile phone to make a call close to the site of a gas leak!
Damage to underground infrastructure caused by excavation can be expensive to repair
Once the people on and near the site are safe, call the emergency number for the utility which has been damaged, to enable it to be repaired as soon as possible. In the meantime secure the area to make sure that no-one gets close to the site of the damage. This will also help prevent the damage from getting worse.
Can a Gas Leak Cause an Explosion?
Gas leaks can most certainly cause explosions. Gas explosions are caused when a flammable gas comes into contact with an ignition source in the presence of air. An ignition source could be something like an electrical spark or any open flame. As mentioned earlier, the catalyst for setting up Dial Before You Dig was an incident of damage to an underground gas pipe which resulted in a huge explosion.
Even a small gas leak could potentially cause an explosion, and prolonged exposure to gas can have detrimental effects on health. This is why it is vital for any damage to gas pipes caused by excavation to be repaired as soon as possible, and for people to be removed to a safe distance away.
Disclaimer: Information and advice in this article is general in nature and current at the time of publication, and no warranty is offered as to its accuracy or completeness.