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Robert Lamoureux: Make sure you call Dig Alert before you move earth

Your Home Improvements

Posted: March 19, 2010 11:34 p.m.
Updated: March 13, 2010 4:55 a.m.
We have designed a custom, full color Signal/Your Home Improvements T-shirt that we will send to you, with our compliments, if we answer your question in our column.

Mr. Lamoureux,
I've been a faithful reader for over a year now. I serve on the BOD and something is going on in our 400-unit complex about which I thought I could ask your thoughts. There is an area of driveway that has been wet for some time now. At first we thought it was an irrigation line that was spraying, but eventually one of our workers discovered the water was coming up from the ground and soaking the asphalt.

They started to dig it out to repair the line that was leaking, but now have 100-square-foot hole about 5 feet deep and have not found the leak yet. We have since hired another man to help but they keep making the hole wider and deeper and it is getting expensive.

Is there any advice you can give? Thank you,
Ernie G.

Hi Ernie,
There are leak detection companies that you can contact that specialize in these types of problems. They will come out with highly sensitive listening equipment, and put a gas in the water line. The gas will find the hole in the pipe and as it comes out, the hissing noise and bubbles it makes will be detected by their microphones. The technician will then be able to pinpoint exactly where the leak is located.

The procedure is they find the closest water bib in the area and will attach their gas tank to it. Let's say, for instance, the bib is at one of the residences. They will shut the valve off for the water going back into the unit. This way, the gas does not go inside and start bubbling up through the toilets, and you don't want that gas in the house. Once that valve is closed, it forces the gas into the main line. That gas will start bubbling out of the pipe at the leak and the noise made from the gas is how they locate the problem.

Based on the size of the complex you're describing, you probably have an 8- to 10-inch mains. That means you should bring in a licensed plumber who really knows his craft. You need somebody with the manpower, who knows how to work on those big mains.

Also, keep in mind that before you do any excavation, you need to notify Dig Alert. Call 811 and they will come out and mark any and all underground utilities at no charge.

Each utility is color coded and are marked off accordingly:

Red - Electric; Yellow - Gas, Oil, or Steam; Orange - Communication and Cable TV; Blue - Water; Green - Sewer; Purple - Reclaimed Water; White - Proposed Excavation.

Once you call Dig Alert, they in turn notify AT & T, So Cal Gas, Edison, Time Warner, and the water company. They will let you know, depending on the utilities in that area, you may have to dig it out by hand.

Calling Dig Alert is required every time you move earth, even you are just planting a shrub, that's California State law. In fact, if they catch you digging without a Dig Alert ticket, you can be fined as much as $50,000. The reason it's so expensive is due to the possible damages you could cause. For example, you might cut through a fiber optics cable with millions of phone calls going through it, or cause an explosion from a gas line, or risk electrocution from an electrical line - and, you break it, you buy it.

One exception to the notification law is if there is an emergency. According to the law, "emergency" is defined as: "a sudden, unexpected occurrence, involving a clear and imminent danger, demanding immediate action to prevent or mitigate loss of, or damage to, life, health, property, or essential public services. "Unexpected occurrence" includes, but is not limited to, fires, floods, earthquakes or other soil or geologic movements, riots, accidents, damage to a subsurface installation requiring immediate repair, or sabotage."

Under these circumstances, you would not need to call the required 48 hours in advance for any excavation.

Hey Robert,
Concerning concrete, I've always wondered, what does "hot mix" mean? Thank you,
Chris B.

Hi Chris,
A hot mix is concrete that has accelerators, chemicals you add to the mix, to expedite the cure time. You can also use thermal blankets. Especially if you get into very cold areas, you pour a 3500 psi mix and then cover it with heating blankets. This will also speed up the cure time. Otherwise, the water inside the concrete will freeze and will cause the mix to pop.

Hello Robert,
We have an electrical closet that has an emergency shut off switch for the elevator. The handle has broken off. I opened the cover and it is missing the fuses and I don't see how to replace the handle. Any information you provide will be appreciated. Thank you,
John B.

Hi John,
You have a knife switch. Instead of fuses, there are three arms that engage/disengage. The fusing is put in further up the line whether in the equipment or in the panel.

All a disconnect switch is for is to shut off a particular appliance. Instead of having to go to the breaker, you have the switch in the room. Just like on an air conditioner, outside on the condenser, it has to have a disconnect within sight of the service man when he is working. This way, he can see it and he knows that it's off.

On the switches, there is a blade that is stationary, and a disc that is tied to the arm so it turns to show a hole that you can place a pad lock so it won't accidentally be turned back on. This way, if the a/c man is behind the machine, no one will walk by and turn it back on - which happens all of the time.

A lock out, tag out system is typically used when doing any kind of service on breakers. It is a numbered tag that only the service man can remove.

Regarding the broken handle, you can't repair something like that. You'll have to replace the switch.

Robert Lamoureux has 25 years experience as a general contractor, with separate licenses in electrical and plumbing contacting. He owns IMS Construction Inc. in Valencia. His opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of The Signal. Opinions expressed in this column are not meant to replace the recommendations of a qualified contractor, after that contractor has made a thorough visual inspection. Send your questions to


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