Professional Surveyors and Utility Locations

Surveyors are frequently faced with utility-related issues that, if not resolved adequately, can result in a negligence claims accompanied by inordinately high liability. Whether the concern is showing utility locations as part of a design survey, setting monuments in close proximity to a buried utility or locating sub-surface infrastructure in preparation for excavation, the problem of obtaining accurate utility locations is pervasive.

Nationwide 811 calling for utility locates was designated by the Federal Communications Commission in 2007 as part of the culmination of an effort to identify best practices through the Common Ground Study. That study was mandated by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) passed by Congress in 1998.

The study was conducted by the Office of Pipeline Safety (now the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) and involved representatives from electric, water, sewer, cable TV, oil and gas transmission and distribution, telecommunications, railroads, excavators, design engineers, regulators, location service providers and local, state and federal government. One result of the study was the establishment of the Common Ground Alliance to further the damage prevention effort on an on-going basis.

The 811 location service is called by a variety of names including Julie (Illinois), MissDig (Michigan), DigLine (Idaho), Gopher State One Call (Minnesota), Sunshine 811 (Florida) and, most commonly, [Your State Name] 811. While each state has its own specific set of laws, some offer exemptions and optional location services that might offer some relief to professional surveyors when excavation is not pending.

Depending on what state a surveyor is working in, an 811 call might not be required at all, or might be mandatory with no exceptions. For example, in Illinois, excavation requiring an 811 call does not include “land surveying operations as defined in the Illinois Professional Land Surveyor Act of 1989 when not using power equipment…” [emphasis added], yet in Indiana, surveyors have been told in no uncertain terms that anything driven into the ground more than 1 inch requires an 811 request with absolutely no exceptions.

Notwithstanding all of this, surveyors—on a fairly regular basis—drive rebars/irons through gas and other utility lines, so they cannot claim they are inculpable and that they should be exempted from the law. Yet, 811 calls for surveys often result—at best—in incomplete responses.

One step that states have made is to create a “design ticket” request that can be used to obtain information for planning and design when excavation is not imminent. There are, however, tradeoffs when requesting a design locate such as a longer time period for locators to respond and limitations on such things as requests for re-marking and on how many design requests can be made in the same location.

In consideration of all of this and acknowledging the need to document accurate locations of utilities during the design process, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) developed National Consensus Standard ASCE C-I 38-02: Standard Guidelines for the Collection and Depiction of Existing Subsurface Utility Data. This standard outlines the attributes of Quality Levels D through A, with D being the least comprehensive and A representing the most thorough investigation of the standard.

A new Colorado law requires that a licensed professional engineer designing a government “subsurface utility engineering-required project” must submit a location request to Colorado 811 during the design phase. With regard to utility locations, the law mandates that the project plans meet the ASCE Quality Level B criteria, using appropriate surface geophysical methods to determine the existence and approximate horizontal position of subsurface utilities.

Needless to say, the engineering community in Colorado has concerns about being held responsible for utility information depicted in engineering drawings, because it is typically not something they would be gathering themselves. Although one could argue that design plans are routinely produced using information produced or gathered by professional surveyors; the difference here is that the statute puts the burden of the locate request on the engineer which may have consequences relating to liability.

Table A, item 11 of the 2016 Minimum Standard Detailed Requirements for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys essentially represents a Quality Level C investigation. The ALTA and NSPS committees will, during the next revision, consider whether ASCE C-I 38-02 Quality Level C should be specified as the performance standard for Table A item 11.

It is likely that Surveyors will begin to receive more requests to perform utility investigations to one of the ASCE quality levels, so they should familiarize themselves with ASCE C-I 38-02 and always be acutely aware of their responsibilities under state’s utility damage prevention law.

Surveyors do not have x-ray vision, but they can mitigate potential liability and dangerous situations by knowing the law, the applicable standards and, most importantly, by clearly communicating what they know, what they do not know and what steps they took to locate and depict underground utility locations.


Colorado Revised Statutes 9-1.5-103

2016 Minimum Standard Detailed Requirements for ALTA/NSPS Land Title Surveys

About the Author

Gary Kent, PS

Gary Kent has been a professional surveyor with Schneider Geomatics since 1983 and is also owner of Meridian Land Consulting, LLC. He has chaired the joint ALTA/NSPS Committee on the Land Title Survey standards since 1995. He also sits on the Indiana State Board of Registration and lectures nationally.