The recent weather conditions, combined with people spending more time at home due to the Covid-19 lockdown, has inspired many homeowners to pick up a spade and renovate their gardens and outdoor spaces. But do you know what’s hiding under your patio and how to find out if you’re at risk of a cable strike? Fisher German Partner and Managing Director of LinesearchbeforeUdig (LSBUD) Richard Broome talks garden renovations, lockdown cable strikes and our work with the Utility Strike Avoidance Group.

It seems that many of us continue to look out at our gardens and outdoor space (especially during this lovely weather) and consider those jobs that have needed doing for longer than we like to admit. But the knock-on effect of increased gardening work is a worrying number of cable strikes – as reported on the Isle of Wight, when Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks saw nine reported incidents in just the first few weeks of lockdown.

Some people might be surprised to learn that utility cables and pipelines could lay underneath anyone’s home or land, and records are not always easy to find, nor readily supplied when you become the owner of a property.

It casts me back to a project that we undertook at home towards the end of the summer last year where we had a ‘very’ near miss.

We were installing approximately 80 metres of new duct for an electric cable on a very wet Sunday and we only had the day to excavate and backfill. Being involved in LSBUD, which has a sole purpose of avoiding asset strikes, does put a bit of added pressure on you when you start putting a spade in the ground, even when you are on a day off!

We hadn’t moved into our house long before and been told that the 25mm private water supply to our house ran “in the area” where we were digging but was “way over a metre deep”. No records or plans available - just the words of the school’s groundsman (the local school was the previous owner of our house and provides our water supply).

In the first metre of our excavation, we found the offending water pipe at just over 450mm deep which was a bit of a surprise! Thankfully damage was just avoided as the excavator driver was using a toothless bucket and was much more careful than if I’d been at the controls! Once we started, we found that we followed the exact same route that the water pipe ran down for the entire length of the duct (about 80m) so plenty of hand digging from yours truly followed!

We approached the project with caution due to the knowledge of a water pipe somewhere, so we were digging with extra care - I’m sure that it was one of the most planned domestic excavations in a garden that took place in 2019! That doesn’t excuse the fact that we could easily have hit the water pipe on a number of occasions, but it’s fairly typical that doing it absolutely "by the book” was too expensive and time consuming for the job involved. This is the case for many home and landowners who don’t have access to detailed surveys, Ground Penetrating Radar and similar technologies that would have helped identify the assets and their depth within the ground.

So, what could have happened if we hit the pipe with more force? The outcome of a strike on that water pipe would have been minimal - our own house simply being off water whilst we repaired it. But is that the point? Surely a near miss is a near miss?

And there we get to the point of the problem. Whether or not we hit the pipe, we did not have to report what happened to anyone, so apart from me having more experience, nothing gets learnt and a future owner of the property might not be so lucky. Whilst not a big problem for me on our own land, real strike incidents take place on a daily basis across the industry in public places on assets shared by thousands of people and we don’t have anywhere near the awareness of the issue, understanding of the implications, nor engagement between all stakeholders that we need to solve the problem.

Had the pipe been a high pressure fuel or gas main, or high voltage cable – the kind that LSBUD members operate with daily – the damage extends beyond a single property to a whole street, possibly even multiple towns or large parts of a city.

If we can do more to report incidents and therefore reduce strikes, fewer people will be affected and we’ll see less cases of water supplies being shut off, gas or electricity being unavailable or internet connections going down. While we’ve been in lockdown and all doing our best to work from home where possible, thousands of residents in Northamptonshire were left with no internet access after Openreach suffered damage cables in April. This level of damage is not just a problem for whoever started the excavation work, but also inconveniences a large number of residents and local businesses as a result.

So, what can you do ahead of planned works if you aren’t already aware of any utility assets beneath your property?

First of all – do any research you can and don’t just take the word of previous owners. As in my case, the suspected depth of the pipe was much deeper than the reality and we weren’t prepared for it. LSBUD is a free, online search service that anyone can use in advance of groundworks to check thousands of kilometres of overhead pipelines and cables including electricity, gas, high pressure fuel/oil, heating, water and fibre optic networks. If you’re a contractor, excavator, utility provider or farmer, it should be your first port of call for planning your works, and if you’re a property owner don’t be afraid to ask your contractors if they’ve done their research ahead of time.

And if your renovation works do unexpectedly hit a pipeline, what should you do? Report it!

We voluntarily work with the Utility Strike Avoidance Group (USAG), which is a collaborative group of industry professionals from utilities, contractors and service providers who are leading the way to encourage the industry to provide their strike data so that others can learn from it. All that is needed is to keep a record of strikes (based on the simple agreed format) and submit them on an annual basis. By doing this, and I would argue only by doing this, can industry make a step change in understanding the risk of strikes across the UK and then understand how to reduce them.

If you’re a contractor or utility/services provider and you’re not already signed up, visit their website to find out more and sign up to the Charter to help us avoid utility strikes in the future.

At LSBUD, a typical working day sees between 11,000 and 12,000 enquiries a day being responded to, covering over 250,000 excavations a month. If we can influence all those thousands of stakeholders to do the right thing then it will make the UK a safer and more efficient place to be. By providing this information to USAG, it means that the next DIY job for others on a wet Sunday may be slightly less stressful!

LSBUD is a joint venture within which Fisher German owns a 50% share. You can find out more about LSBUD and how the free, online search service could benefit your future projects here