top of page

Excavating on Private Property

Managing the Challenges and Reducing Risk

Last year in Ontario there were 5,042 reported damages to buried utility infrastructure that resulted in an estimated $600 million in societal cost expenditures, according to the 2018 Damage Information Reporting Tool (DIRT) Report.

This Report indicated that the direct and indirect costs are a result of repairs, emergency response, evacuation, environmental contamination, down-time, interruption / loss of production and sales, and the redirection of safety services such as 9-1-1. Unfortunately, these statistics are grossly underestimated as they only account for public utility owned infrastructure damages that are voluntarily reported.

These direct and indirect costs also do not account for any damages to privately owned buried infrastructure. The unfortunate truth is the majority of private landowners do not know their responsibilities with respect to their privately-owned facilities and also do not report damages to DIRT.

This lack of understanding within the commercial, industrial and institutional private landowner community presents a large risk for public safety, in particular, the excavation community.

The public and private locate processes are multifaceted, involving many people along the way. An excavation company that does not know its role when excavating around public or privately-owned buried infrastructure or understand how to manage these locate processes, adds a tremendous amount of risk to each and every project.

Direct repair costs can potentially run into the millions depending on the type of buried facility that was damaged, let alone the safety issues, cost overruns, extended project timelines, and brand reputation consequences. An owner, or the C level management of a company, can quickly find themselves contemplating bankruptcy in the event of a catastrophic buried facility damage.


Working around privately-owned buried infrastructure is one of the many challenges an excavation company must manage on a daily basis. When excavating, it is important to understand where a buried facility falls within the distribution network and who is required to locate the buried facilities in a work area before breaking ground. In fact, when working on privately owned commercial and industrial property, there are potentially more buried privately-owned facilities than ones which are public utility owned.

Private facilities lie beyond the public utility demarcation point that are owned, maintained, and located by the private property landowner or a private locate company working on their behalf. The unfortunate reality is that the private landowner rarely hires or has contact with the private locate company. This responsibility is typically either given to, or assumed by, the excavator to hire a private locate company to ensure the private landowner’s assets are accurately marked before excavating.

For a private locator to perform an accurate locate, they require information from the private landowner that includes: the public locates for the work area; private landowner facility drawings or records; access to knowledgeable site operations personnel; and, building access to mechanical rooms. When this information is withheld from the private locator, the risk of missing and ultimately damaging a buried facility increases significantly.

To further compound this risk, currently in Ontario, private locate companies are not regulated and have no set of standards or rules to follow. Each individual private locate company has set its own policies for training, service offerings, and acceptance of liability. As such, this presents a challenge for the excavation company to ensure that the private locate company they hire is qualified to provide an accurate private locate.

Qualifying a private locate company at the corporate level can include asking for copies of its insurance documentation; locate technician training certificates; work practice methodology, service offerings; and, its acceptance of liability or “fine print” on its private locate report. A reputable private locate company should be able to provide this documentation upon request.


The person who is ultimately responsible for digging safely around buried facilities is the excavator who will be putting the shovel or tooling in the ground. The excavator must be aware that not all private locate reports are created equal. Excavators require the necessary skills to check what is presented on the locate report, and to account for all private buried facilities in the work area.

Being able to check and have the answers to the following questions gives the excavator an idea of how much risk is involved when excavating around private buried facilities:

  • Was the private locate performed with or without drawings?

  • Did the private locator have access to the building mechanical rooms?

  • Did the private locator interview the private landowner’s operations personnel?

  • Were the private facilities for all buildings in and near the work area marked?

  • Have the buried facilities been marked for all nearby above ground utility structures?

  • Are there any limitations noted on the report?

If a private locate report does not provide the answers to all of these questions, a different private locate company should be consulted.

Negative responses to all, or some, of these questions presents a limitation for the private locate and increases the risk for the project. Most of these limitations are avoidable and, if managed properly, can significantly reduce the risk. Nonetheless, there are many unavoidable limitations that an excavator must be made aware and they need to be managed in consultation with the private landowner. These limitations include: non-existent records or drawings; non-toneable facilities; non-functioning or missing tracer wires; and, non-conductive buried facilities.

When limitations are encountered on private locate projects, they must be managed properly, or the excavator can unknowingly accept the liability for a damage to a private facility. When reviewing a private locate report, one must follow proper protocols to manage limitations. The Project Manager should be notified of the limitation, and all mechanical excavation activities should not proceed until clear direction is given from the private landowner who is ultimately responsible for its buried utility infrastructure.

bottom of page