Common Causes of Underground Utility Damage

Underground utilities damage causes

Underground utilities are pretty well-protected, but they can still get damaged. In order to prevent this, it's important to understand why it happens in the first place. Just because these utilities are pretty well-shielded doesn't mean that they aren't subjected to a wide variety of vibrational, temperature, and even chemical hazards that can negatively impact their structural integrity. Here's how that happens:


Underground utility materials are chosen for their durability, but nothing lasts forever. The longer something is in the ground, the more time it has to be subject to routine wear and tear.

This is part of the reason why it's so important to locate and mark existing utilities before beginning any digging project. Older ones aren't as durable as more recent installations for a variety of reasons and are much more likely to fail.


Blockages are caused by obstructions. This can happen over time, as you see with boiler scale or fatty clogs building up on the inside of water pipes. It can also occur when objects like tree roots infiltrate a pipe.

One common cause is the intrusion of construction materials. This is another reason why utilities must be located and marked before any project can begin -- all it takes is one misplaced pole to block a pipe and cause a major problem.


Erosion is what happens when an abrasive medium acts on a pipe or other conduit. This could be from the surrounding substrate, or even from the contents of the pipe itself over time. Erosion occurs from erosive media, drops of fluid striking the pipe, microjets caused by tiny pits in the pipe's inner surface, or even just from flowing water.

The best defense against this is proper planning. The right materials, depth, and position will help prevent erosion damage.

Chemical Corrosion

Chemical corrosion happens when a material reacts with its surrounding environment. Picture a piece of metal exposed to the sea -- over time, it corrodes and breaks down. While this situation can arise due to an unforeseen circumstance, like a flood or chemical spill, the biggest contributor is material incompatibility.

Every time an underground utility is buried, it should be viewed as a unique situation with its own challenges. Laying utilities for a small seaside community, for example, can call for a very different approach than for an inland city.

The materials used for the job must be compatible with their environment. They also need to be compatible with each other and whatever they'll be transporting. When planning an underground utility project, all of the pipes, gaskets, fittings, and sealants need to be able to play well together so they don't damage each other over time.


Sometimes utilities just get shaken a little too vigorously. This doesn't have to be from a major tectonic event, either -- vibration from jackhammers, for example, can negatively affect the structural integrity of buried pipes. This is something that happens more often with rigid materials since they aren't able to flex and deform in response to that kind of stress.

This can be avoided by properly locating and marking these utilities and avoiding using vibrating equipment like jackhammers for large-scale projects. There are better options for breaking up old asphalt and concrete now, and they don't have the same potential to damage surrounding structures.

Positional Shifts

Imagine a pipe underground. It's freshly placed, and there are still a lot of gaps and air spaces in the surrounding substrate. Over time, these gaps get filled in and the ground settles. That pipe is no longer in its original position.

This is one of the most common causes of positional shifting. When a section of pipe suddenly isn't where it's supposed to be anymore, it creates a discontinuity. It might bend, crack, or even disconnect. This can happen because the original project didn't properly account for settling.

Changes in position also occur when something about the surrounding area changes. This could be an increase in load or even something like a flood or earthquake.

Damaged Materials

One key contributor to underground utility damage is damaged or defective materials. Pipes with hairline cracks, for example, aren't exactly going to improve with use. Buring an underground utility is a complex process with a lot of steps, and these need to be carefully followed to avoid damaging the materials.

Improper storage, poor securing during transport, and sloppy laying, backfilling, or compacting can all harm underground utilities before they're even used. The best way to avoid this is to be conscientious when it comes to properly storing, securing, inspecting, and handling materials during each stage of the job.

Overall, the most common cause of underground utility issues is a cut corner. Regulatory guidelines exist for good reason and skipping one or two here and there to save time or money can be disastrous in the long run. Taking the time to locate and mark any existing utilities, properly plan a project, select the right materials, make sure those materials are sound, and position them correctly can go a long way toward ensuring that underground utilities last as long as possible.

POSTED: December 22, 2022