Diggers breach buried networks
By MIKE BRASSFIELD
They ignored him, and Stamos' phone soon went dead. So did 13,500 other phones in St. Pete Beach.
"There was a lot of money lost. We were out three business days. We had no credit card machines, and people couldn't call to rent stuff," Stamos, owner of Beach Cyclist, said of the incident last month. "It was huge."
Two days later, Stamos was told to boil his drinking water. Another construction crew had cut open a water main just down the road.
Things are getting crowded in the earth. The ground beneath our feet is brimming with an increasing number of pipes and cables that bring us electricity, water, phones, working toilets, natural gas, cable TV and the Internet.
But this growing subterranean network is like any appliance. You take it for granted until it's broken -- until a crew with a backhoe or a drilling machine digs in the wrong spot and punches through a line.
Construction-related outages are happening more and more frequently, according to local utilities. Several recent mishaps have inconvenienced tens of thousands of people in the Tampa Bay area.
"In the last four or five years, there's been a tremendous increase," said Florida Power official Ron Lippelt. "We continually have lines nicked or damaged by digging, sometimes cut right in half."
Why the increase?
Utilities complain that too many contractors are careless. Excavators say that, too often, they have to rely on inaccurate, decades-old municipal drawings of underground lines. The state tries to referee, but the system is far from perfect.
One major factor: There's more stuff underground than ever before, leaving less room to dig.
The old grid of water mains, gas pipes and storm drains is competing for space with a labyrinth of coaxial cables, reclaimed water lines and fiber-optic communications networks. More phone and power lines are being buried for weatherproofing or to beautify neighborhoods. New sewer pipes are replacing 50-year-old ones, which are then abandoned in the ground.
All of this is crammed into the narrow public rights of way alongside roads or in alleys.
"It's getting very crowded in the utility easements," said Lane Longley, St. Petersburg's wastewater collection manager. "Sometimes there's literally so much stuff above one of our sewer lines, we almost can't dig it up."
Most utility lines are damaged by crews installing other utility lines.
When the power or phones go out, an area can come to a standstill. You can't call 911; people relying on powered medical equipment may have trouble; and no air conditioning in the summer can be hazardous.
Conducting business is next to impossible.
Several downtown Tampa businesses found that out six weeks ago when a contractor accidentally severed a cable containing 2,400 phone lines. For example, the Tampa Museum of Art had no phone service for 24 hours in the middle of the work week.
"We get lots and lots of phone calls. It seems kind of quiet around here," museum spokeswoman Lani Czyzewski said at the time. "You automatically reach for the telephone to call somebody."
No one in Florida keeps track of how often utilities are knocked out by construction. Anecdotally, the utility companies said outages are increasing, partly because of the sheer amount of digging.
"There's a lot of construction going on right now in western Florida," said Shaun McLaury, an area manager for Verizon.
A quarter of a million times this year, excavation workers will ask Verizon officials in six Tampa Bay-area counties to mark the location of underground cables. Even in built-out Pinellas County, crews are revamping many older areas.
Before digging, a contractor must call Sunshine State One Call, a nonprofit company created by the Florida Legislature. One Call then contacts utilities in the area of the dig site. The utilities have two business days to mark the location of their underground lines, using color-coded flags or spray paint.
One Call goes through this process more than 1.2-million times a year, but accidents still happen almost daily. Utilities and construction crews blame one another.
"It's an ongoing battle," said George Trujillo, chairman of the Suncoast Utility Contractors Association. "I'm not saying contractors are always careful. But sometimes the utilities don't mark everything the way they're supposed to. Sometimes things aren't marked at all."
However, if a utility such as Verizon or Florida Power decides a construction crew is to blame, they'll bill the contractor or his insurer for the cost of repairing the damaged cable. Disagreements are settled in court or through mediation. Government regulators almost never get involved, even if a contractor breaks pipes and cables repeatedly.
"There's nothing in the state statute that says 'three strikes and you're out' or anything like that," said McLaury, the Verizon executive. "It's more a question of, 'How much can you afford to pay for?' "
Whether the problem gets better or worse is subject to debate.
The good news is that outdated drawings of utility grids are steadily being replaced by updated computer maps. The bad news is that crews now are using directional drills to carve tunnels for new underground lines, so they're not digging trenches as often. Without all the lines exposed in a trench, they can hit an existing line and not even know it.
In order to fine a contractor, authorities would have to prove he damaged a line deliberately.
"No contractor is going to try to cut a line. It's a headache, it's expensive, it causes delays," said Rodney Fischer, a former home builder who now runs the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. "I've done it myself. All of a sudden, you hear a big 'Bang!' "
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