An economic growth trifecta of new-home construction, voter-approved road rehabilitation, and remodeling projects has produced a flood of calls for underground locater services.
“The Colorado Springs economy is booming, and we’re certainly feeling it,” said Sean Daugherty, customer care field supervisor for locating for city-owned Colorado Springs Utilities.
By law, property owners and contractors are required to have utilities flagged before a shovel or backhoe hits the dirt on anything from installing a fence and planting trees to adding a garage or deck.
Requests for the free program are increasing in leaps and bounds, Daugherty said.
“We’re on track to more than surpass 2016 numbers,” he said.
The department fielded 68,490 residential and commercial calls last year through the state’s 811 hotline. That was 10,000 requests above the totals for 2015 and 2014, Daugherty said.
It’s the same story statewide, said Whitney Cregger, spokeswoman for Colorado 811. The nonprofit Utility Notification Center of Colorado, based in Golden, operates the state’s call center, which is also known as Colorado 811.
Notifications for locater services throughout the state increased 9 percent last year over 2015, Cregger said, and are up 4.5 percent this year through May.
Colorado 811 does not conduct the locating; either the utility operator or a contractor performs the tasks involved in finding buried water, wastewater, electric, gas and telecommunications lines.
The service is free to property owners and many contractors but costs Colorado Springs Utilities $1.43 per request.
“They’re paying so the excavator doesn’t get charged,” Cregger said.
Operators of large private commercial projects, such as a shopping mall, which involve street lights and commercial water distribution systems, need to hire a private utility contractor to locate the lines.
Colorado Springs Utilities locater Miguel Rodriguez used to handle 16 requests per day. The workload has increased to 30 or more job tickets each day for the past four months. “They just keep coming,” he said.
Within three days after a call to 811, one of 23 Colorado Springs Utilities locaters maps out buried water, wastewater, gas and electric lines for customers. Locating for cable and telephone lines are the job of those operators, but are handled through the one call to 811.
Colored flags and water-based spray paint mark the pathways of the lines above ground. The markings are good for 30 days.
The process can be simple or complex, Rodriguez said.
In newer neighborhoods or commercial developments, some lines are jointly trenched, which makes them easier to find.
In older parts of the city, such as the west side and downtown, it can be like embarking on a hidden treasure hunt.
Old lines may not emit enough of a signal, so locaters start troubleshooting. They turn to historic maps and records, measurements, disruptions in the dirt and other calculations to determine the path of existing lines and where abandoned networks might be lurking.
Sometimes, the work is a history lesson. A few months ago, Utilities’ crews unearthed the city’s second oldest water valve during a water main replacement project on Cascade Avenue in downtown Colorado Springs. The 129-year-old cast-iron valve was still working but replaced through a five-year sales tax increase voters approved in 2015 to fund a street improvements.
Even with all the care taken, mistakes happen. Last week, construction crews working on Manitou Avenue hit a mismarked gas main line, which led to road closures, emergency repairs and affected property owners having to have gas appliances re-lit.
There were 258 incidents of damage last year, and 130 this year to date. Of those, 42 were by people excavating without having called for locater services, Daugherty said. Damage incidents don’t necessarily mean a line was broken, but uncovered.
“I think there will be more this year; there’s a lot of work going on, and there could be times when contractors’ schedules might get them to be antsy,” he said.
Anyone who hits a line should call the 811 locater hotline to report the damage, Daugherty said. If natural gas is escaping, 911 emergency should be alerted.
Licensed contractors can be fined, with first-time offenses up to $5,000 The penalty can be reduced if the contractor attends a damage prevention seminar. Homeowners also can be charged for repairs to lines they’ve unearthed.
“It’s up to who responds to repair the damaged utility line,” Daugherty said.
Rodriguez has seen it all, from melted post-hole diggers to gas leaks.
An Army veteran, Rodriguez said he likes the job.
“It’s a good feeling to be a stress reliever,” he said. “Some homeowners lose sleep over hitting a gas line or electric line, and we can take away that fear.”