Can You Dig It?

maybe not ‑ only diggers Hotline knows for sure

Tom Giffey

When sprig finally arrived in the snowbound Chippewa Valley a couple of years ago, my wife and I were eager to put in a modest garden behind our new home. And while I’m a newbie when it comes to gardening – my experience with fruits and veggies has almost entirely involved consumption, not production – at least I knew enough to make an important phone call before we shoveled our way into the earth: I dialed the state Diggers Hotline, the free resource that keeps would-be excavators from getting themselves into a whole lot of trouble (and that’s trouble of the severed gas or electrical line variety). 

Calling 811 or – if, like me, you’re paranoid about dialing 911 by mistake – punching (800) 242-8511 into your phone will connect you with a real human being who will ask a series of questions about your pending project. (If you prefer interacting with a computer, you can fill out a form online at Most of the questions are pretty basic, including your address, the nearest intersection and its distance, the portion of the property you’ll be digging in, and what kind of work you’re doing; a few – whether or not you plan to use explosives, for instance – may seem weird if your project is small. (Although, come to think of it, I wouldn’t gotten into gardening a lot sooner if I’d know it meant blowing stuff up.)

Under state law, your utility providers have three business days to mark their underground lines on your property, so don’t wait until the last minute. In my case, within two days my still-brown lawn was decorated with colorful flags and dabs of spray paint – all of them, fortunately, far away from where we planned to dig.

It’s important to remember that Diggers Hotline isn’t just for large-scale projects that require backhoes and dump trucks. State law says you must contact the hotline any time you excavate, which is defined as “any operation in which earth, rock or other material in or on the ground is moved, removed or otherwise displaced by means of any tools, equipment or explosives.” This includes – deep breath – “grading, trenching, digging, ditching, drilling, augering, tunneling, scraping, cable or pipe plowing and driving.”

So what do you do once the marks are made and the flags are up? First, start digging within 10 days. If you wait too long – or if the marks and flags get covered up by your excavation – you’ve got to call the hotline again. In addition, because there’s always a margin of error in marking utility lines, you’re required to use hand tools if you dig 18 inches or closer to a marked area.

Calling 811 is not only free, but it can prevent injuries and save you money as well: If you accidentally damage an underground line, you’ve got to pay to repair it and you could be fined $2,000. What more incentive do you need to call?

To learn more about Diggers Hotline, go to

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