When to Call Texas 811 & When to Call a Private Utility Locator

Find out the difference between 811 and private utility companies, find answers to common 811 questions and learn more about when it's time to look into private utility locating.

When contractors on a new construction project get ready to dig, they need to know what’s underground and what obstacles they could hit. When homeowners and landowners decide to renovate and dig, they also need to know about the utilities or pipes they could encounter. Having this information not only prevents costly mistakes and project delays, it ensures the safety of anyone excavating who could be injured by striking a dangerous utility line under the surface. The first step to confirm what’s underground is to call 811. The second step may be to hire a utility locating company like Vosburg Welsh and here’s why.

Damages to utilities can be both costly and dangerous and they are more common than one might think. In 2019 alone, 40% of damages to gas or hazardous liquid lines were directly caused by residents homeowners not locating their service lines.

Is Calling 811 Required by Law?

With so much potential damage from digging, you should know calling 811 is required by law in all states and Canada. Avoiding that responsibility can result in fines and leave you liable for the cost of damages. In addition, if you are digging in a location that 811 has previously serviced, you must call them again if 14 days have passed since the last time they have located utilities in the area.

Why is There no Centralized, Current Database of Utilities Underground That People Can Just Look Up?

Changes in Construction

It is very common for the placement of utilities to deviate from the original planned location due to roadblocks in the construction process. It is also common for utility systems to be repaired, replaced, abandoned and adjusted many times over the life of any given property. To maintain accurate maps, these changes must be meticulously recorded and updated throughout the life of a property. This does not happen very often on private property, leaving most existing utility records inaccurate and/or outdated. Money is also a large consideration. Engineering plans and as-built maps for utilities are expensive. Without a law requiring updated as-builts and little immediate incentive to spend the money , many companies choose not to do so.

No Legal Requirement to Provide Records

There are some areas where accurate records are kept by utility owners, particularly within public property (also known as right-of-way). However, most companies are not legally required to provide them to the public.

No Legal Requirement to Keep Private Records

Private utility records are often not kept at all. For example, a private homeowner may decide to add a gas line to their backyard to hook up to a BBQ grill.; they do not have to keep a record of this anywhere or provide the location to the next homeowner if they decide to sell their home.

When to Call 811

  • At least 2 days before planning to start your project
  • No more than 14 days before planning to start your project
  • Every time you dig

If you already know you will be locating private lines and will need the help of a private utility locating company, it is recommended you contact 811 as soon as possible or as close to 2 weeks before the start of the project as possible. While it should only take 2 business days for all your public utilities to be located, it often takes longer. See the “When To Hire a Utility Locating Company” section below to understand when you’ll need help beyond 811 to locate private lines.

Can I Call 811 in the Middle of a Project?

While you should always contact 811 before you dig, you can contact 811 in the middle of a project without penalties assuming you have not damaged a line.

How Deep Can I Dig Before Calling 811?

Utilities can be buried only a few inches underground. You must contact 811 before any project that includes digging. Even a project as simple as starting a garden in your backyard runs the risk of you hitting a utility.

What Happens if I Don’t Call 811?

If you do not contact 811 prior to digging and hit a line, you will be liable for all damages in addition to being fined.

Besides the financial toll of damaging a line, it should be emphasized that it can be extremely dangerous to yourself and those around you. It can be easy to assume that only large projects run by companies with excavators can result in serious damage but, hitting a line in your own backyard can be just as dangerous.

A tragic example of this is shown by a homeowner whose home project resulted in a gas line explosion in Southern California in 2019. Both he and his contractor failed to contact 811 prior to digging. This incident resulted in 1 death, 15 injured, and 4 homes unsafe for entry and could have been prevented if the lines were located before any digging was done. This is one of many examples and a difficult reminder of the importance of properly locating your utilities.

Does 811 Cost Money?

No, 811 is a free service. If you need private utilities located, you will need to contact a private locating company as well. See more information under “When to Hire a Private Locating Company” section below.

How Do I Contact 811?

The toll-free phone number for 811 in Texas (as well as all other states and Canada) is simply 811. You may also contact 811 using their Online Ticket Entry System, “The Portal”:

What Happens After I Call 811?

Once you contact 811:

  1. You are assigned a ticket number
  2. 811 contacts all the appropriate utility companies on your behalf and coordinates with them
  3. Utility companies come to your project site and mark utilities using a standard color marking system created by The American Public Works Association
  • This process should take up to 2 business days but can take longer when there are delays
  • If a utility is not present, you will be contacted by the utility company to be informed that the area is clear of that utility

Source: Underground Utility Color Code

When to Hire a Private Locating Company

Simply put, 811 will not locate private utilities and will direct you to a private company to do so. Beyond that, private companies such as Vosburg Welsh are staffed with highly skilled professionals who are capable of locating many types of utilities with numerous pieces of specialized utility location equipment. “Ticket” locating companies that service the 811 system simply do not have many of these pieces of equipment or capabilities.

65% of all utilities are private, not public. See the diagram below for a better idea of where you would typically find private utilities vs public utilities.

Source: Comparison of Private Utility Lines to Public Utility Lines

What can a Private Utility Locating Company Do That 811 Can’t?

Simply put, 811 will not locate private utilities and will direct you to a private company to do so. Beyond that, private companies such as Vosburg Welsh often find more information than 811 could. See the example below of all the utilities Vosburg Welsh was able to find on a project that 811 did not.

       Public Utilities Located by 811              Public & Private Utilities Located by                                                                                                    Vosburg Welsh


Additionally, private companies are able to work with you directly about the utilities they locate and how your project should adjust to them. We are accountable to you, our client, not a ticket system. Private locators provide a reliable, consistent asset as you progress through your project. At Vosburg Welsh, we are happy to go over exactly how our equipment works and won’t shy away from being upfront about its capabilities and limitations.

Additionally, private companies are often able to answer questions about the utilities they find and how your project should adjust to them. At Vosburg Welsh, we are happy to go over exactly how our equipment works and won’t shy away from being upfront about its limitations.

Can a Private Utility Locating Company Contact 811 For Me?

While it is possible for a private utility company to contact 811 on your behalf, it is rarely done as it is the 811 ticket holder’s responsibility to ensure no one digs before 811 has located all of their utilities. The person contacting 811 should also be the main project manager for any teams digging.

Best practice is to contact 811 yourself while you search for the right private utility locating company for you.

In Summary

Whether you are a contractor using machinery to dig in preparation for constructing the foundation for a home or a homeowner digging in the front yard for a new mailbox, it is the law to contact 811 before you dig.

On private property, 811 may not be able to help you locate what you need and that’s where private locating companies, like Vosburg Welsh, can save you time and money.

For more information on how Vosburg Welsh can help with your project, contact us or submit your project information for a quote and we will answer any questions you may have.

Our Services Are Trusted  by

Request an Estimate or Schedule Services

Let’s talk about your construction project and how Vosburg Welsh can help.