May 10, 2023

Click before you dig applies to every job, big or small. Whether you’re building a fence, putting in a pool, planting a tree or digging a new garden, or any other small digging project you need to contact Ontario One Call.”  Go to OntarioOneCall.ca or call 1-800-400-2255.

The phrase above is taken from the Ontario One Call website.  If you are planning on a project involving digging, contact Ontario One Call as per the above with at least 5 days’ notice and they will arrange a free locate.  Please do this.

Locates are a free service provided by all utilities.  If you ever drive by a property and see either small colourful flags or painted lines on the ground then that property has had locates provided.  These are important.  Whether it be gas, water, electricity or communications lines there may be underground infrastructure below your property.  You do not want to accidentally contact or break these lines in the course of your digging.  That could be costly, could create a big mess, and, in the case of electricity and/or gas, could be fatal.

Ontario One Call has been around for over 20 years and the requirement to get locates is legislated.  From the utilities perspective, it is cheaper to provide the locate than to fix damage after the fact.  For most of this time, the locate process operated quietly and effectively.  Utilities either hired their own locators or hired third parties who specialized in providing this service.  The cost of locates was built into the rates the utilities charged.

About five years ago things started to change.  Projects requiring locates increased; particularly fiber broadband investments by the telecom companies.  The locate providers could not keep up and projects were getting delayed by many weeks due to lack of locates.  Here in Niagara-on-the-Lake this prompted NOTL Hydro and the Town of NOTL Operations Department to work together to find a joint solution.  NOTL Hydro hired a locator who provides the locates for both NOTL Hydro and the Town.  We also have an arrangement with a new local locate company for any overflow.

The Government of Ontario also took action.  Worried that the locate backlog would prevent it from achieving its own goal of getting broadband to all Ontarians, the Government of Ontario created new regulations including allowing a contractor to do its own locates and penalties if locate timelines are not met.

Done properly, new regulations can adjust behavior to the desired result.  The danger is that done poorly, new regulations can create additional costs and adjust behavior the wrong way.  Regulators always think they are designing regulations properly but the real proof only comes out with time.  With regards to locates, the question is whether it would have been better to leave things as they were and let the markets take care of it, as we did in Niagara-on-the-Lake, or were the regulations needed.  Some initial thoughts:

  • Letting contractors perform their own locates is probably a good idea.  The only caveat is that the locators must be properly trained for which there already are some standards.  By doing their own locates the contractor is taking on the liability if there are errors so has an incentive to have them done right.  This will give the contractor the ability to control the timing of their projects better which has a substantial financial benefit.  NOTL Hydro is aware of one telecom company who is already looking at this.
  • The fines issue is more complex for two reasons. 
    • Contractors have been known to place several months’ worth of locate requirements on the register at one time.  Expecting a utility to provide locates for all these within the required timelines is not possible.  Determining when the lateness of a locate is due to the utility not performing or the contractor not being realistic becomes an impossible judgement call and could result in unneeded tension and game-playing in the system.  Current regulations prohibit “dumping” locate requests but this will also be tough to define. NOTL Hydro used to address this by having its locator contact the contractor directly to get which locates were actually needed and when.  This successful informal process could be lost if parties are worried about regulator fines. 
    • Ontario One Call has been all about facilitating locates and promoting the concept of getting people to request locates as a matter of public safety.  As this organization now has a regulatory responsibility, one that it previously did not have, that could create issues in terms of how it manages this new responsibility.
  • There is a new wrinkle that has arisen from these new regulations that is even more worrisome.  Locates were always provided free of charge by the utilities.  Enbridge has now requested the right to charge contractors and other utilities for locates; locates for homeowners would still be free.  The proposed charge was incredibly high.  If they are successful, other utilities will do the same.  That was our first reaction.  If this happened, a single site could incur over a thousand dollars in locates.  There is only one loser in all of this and that is utility customers who will ultimately see higher costs.  While it is easy (and somewhat appropriate) to blame Enbridge for this, the real culprit was the new regulations that opened this opportunity to Enbridge.  A related worry is also that locates may not now be called in to avoid the fee.  While there are penalties for digging without locates this increases a risk that previously was not very likely.

In summary, a previously largely ignored part of the business has suddenly become contentious and a potential source of future problems.  This can be a risk of using regulations to try to solve a perceived problem.  It will be interesting to see if the issues can be resolved pragmatically or will future issues just be created instead.

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