Waging War on Cross-Bores

One of the most terrifying thoughts for freedom-loving Americans is that of a homeland attack. The idea of strangers infiltrating our soil and imposing danger on our families and our way of life makes us feel vulnerable. It creates an immediate sense of awareness, protectiveness and Patriotism.

But what if I told you that the "Damage Prevention World" has already been infiltrated - and that the risks to our families and communities are already there?

Silent explosives are buried beneath the surface, and we unknowingly send excavators into minefields every day. Those minefields are our neighborhoods. It's the schools, shopping centers, churches, hospitals and offices where we extra employee security measures to keep us safe. What we don't expect is an infiltration from below… from a silent enemy that we created.

The 1980s were a time of peace and progress for Americans. Not actively engaged in any major military conflicts, the decade was marked by significant economic growth and various thriving industry sectors. Deregulation of financial markets, increased mergers and acquisitions, and the introduction of junk bonds and derivatives fueled expansion for financial services. Low-interest rates, favorable tax policies and increased demand for commercial and residential properties created a surge in real estate and construction industries. But our most impactful advancements were the technologies that changed the way we work - many of which are still in use or became the steppingstones to even more advanced technologies we use today.

Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) is one of those technologies. HDD is a trenchless technology in which a small hole is drilled horizontally underground and then can be enlarged to the desired size along a desired path. The technique was initially developed as a method for installing utility lines, particularly for cross-boring obstacles like rivers, highways and environmentally sensitive areas, without the need for open-cut trenching. Offering greater efficiency and less disruption than traditional excavation methods, HDD gained popularity through the 1990s and became and industry best-practice for subsurface utility installation by the 2000s. But not all that glitters is gold.

Other utility advancements followed a similar timeline. Economic growth drove residential and commercial developments, a rise in personal computers and the introduction of the internet, cable and other telecommunications were just the beginning of the massive changes afoot for underground infrastructure. Less sexy and often overlooked by non-utility professionals is the simultaneous introduction of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) as the preferred material for gas distribution lines.

HDPE is a versatile thermoplastic polymer made from petroleum. It is characterized by its high strength-to-density ratio, meaning that it is strong and durable while also being relatively lightweight. Unlike its cast iron and carbon steel counterparts, it offers greater flexibility and resistance to environmental inhibitors like ultraviolet radiation (UV) and moisture. However, because of its non-metallic nature, it cannot be detected with traditional electromagnetic utility locating methods.

Horizontal directional drilling is often used in congested areas and can range up to several thousand feet in distance. Private utilities, not marked by 811/One Call, can get caught in the crossfire. HDD can blindly and unknowingly bore through these (and other) existing utilities creating a situation known as a "cross-bore." The most prevalent (and dangerous) cross-bores occur when gas lines intersect residential and commercial sewer lines. Sewer damages are scary because they are often unknown and unreported until the damages cause significantly bigger issues. Even scarier is knowing the potential risks they pose to our communities, but not having a true consensus of the volume of existing cross-bores in the U.S.

According to Cross Bore Safety Association (CBSA), there have been "as many as 430 cross-bores found nearly 200 miles." Their research indicates an average of approximately 0.4 cross-bores per mile of mainline in the U.S.

Cross-bores pose a wide-range of safety hazards and negative health and environmental impacts to our communities, as well as disruption of essential services:

System Disruptions and Malfunctions: Cross-bored utilities can wreak havoc on the functionality of both the gas and sewer systems. Gas pressure may decrease, leading to service disruptions for residential and commercial areas. Sewage flow can be obstructed, leading to backups, contamination, and health hazards for the community.

Toxic Exposure: When gas lines cross through sewer lines, the risk of exposure to toxic gases doubles. Sewer gas is a mixture of various gases including methane, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and carbon monoxide. Natural and sewer gases can enter homes through drains, toilets, sinks or other plumbing fixtures that are connected to the sewer system and are hazardous to human (and pet!) health when inhaled in high concentrations. They can cause symptoms like headaches, nausea, dizziness, respiratory issues, loss of consciousness and even death.

Gas Leaks and Explosions: Sewer and natural gases are highly flammable. The same way sewer and natural gases infiltrate homes and pose toxicity to humans, they can fill confined spaces over time. Cutting tools sent blindly through sewer lines to clear unknown obstructions can result in complete catastrophe. Even something as simple as a pilot light on stove, water heater or furnace can ignite the gases devastate entire neighborhoods.

With more than 1.5 MILLION MILES of public and private sewer infrastructure in the U.S., that's approximately 600,000 potential cross-bores - and an 80% chance that one exists within 2 miles of your home and office. But that leads to a much bigger question: what can you do about it, now?? Prevention is key moving forward.

  • NEVER blindly send cutting tools through sewer lines. Robotic Camera services provide real-time visual confirmation of obstructions, allowing you to make safe, educated decisions to restore the facility.
  • Locate and map sewer lines where you are performing HDD to install gas lines with Robotic Camera services. Not only does this ensure line location with GPS-accuracy, it can provide approximate depth of the lines and high-definition video evidence of the existing condition of the lines prior to drilling.
  • Establish strong communication between utility companies, contractors and public and private utility locators prior to horizontal directional drilling or excavating. Sharing information and coordinating efforts will help to potentially identify potential cross-bore risks and mitigate occurrences.

The dangers of cross-bores are real - and they are serious. As damage prevention professionals, ignoring the potential risks of cross-boring utilities is contradictory to the very foundation of our industry and counterproductive to every measure that has been put in place over the past 30 years to better protect and serve our communities. By adopting advanced practices such as GPR, robotic sewer camera services, and utility mapping, we can mitigate risks, protect our communities, and ensure a safer, more resilient underground infrastructure.

Mason Private Locating has centuries of experience advocating for comprehensive damage prevention. We want YOU to join us in our fight against cross-bores. For more information about specialty utility services to prevent damages related to existing cross-bores and/or protect infrastructure from future cross-bore instances, give us a call. Our Customer Service Representatives are passionate about educating our customers and partnering with them in long-term solutions for the future of our infrastructure (888)316-3933.