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What is a Pipe Locator?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A pipe locator is a device which is designed to locate buried pipes underground. Pipe locators work in a number of different ways, and can vary in cost considerably. These tools are manufactured and sold primarily by specialty companies, with some hardware stores carrying pipe locators for their customers, or being able to order them by request. It is also sometimes possible to rent a pipe locator, which may be preferred in settings when the device is only needed for one project.

Burying plumbing for water and gas underground, along with conduits for electrical lines, cable, and so forth is extremely popular in many regions. There are a number of advantages to burying utilities, ranging from less risk of storm damage to a desire to create a clean and uncluttered look in a yard and around a structure. However, the main problem with burying utilities is that they can be difficult to find again.

When service needs to be performed on a buried utility, a pipe locator can be used to find the pipe, minimizing the amount of digging which needs to be done to track it down. Pipe locators are also used to identify potential hazards before digging, ensuring that pipes and utility lines are not accidentally severed during digging. Damaging utilities with careless digging can be a costly mistake, as some people have learned to their chagrin.

People may also utilize pipe locators to map out underground utilities in a yard or area for general reference. For example, someone moving into a new home might want to know about the approximate location of buried utilities, as this information could be useful to have when problems develop or when yard work is being performed. While utilities do tag underground lines with signs, sometimes the signs are dislodged, removed, or accidentally moved, which means that the presence of a sign does not necessarily indicate that there's a pipe underneath it, and the lack of a sign doesn't mean it's safe to dig.

Some skill is required to operate a pipe locator, especially an advanced model which has a number of different functions. This task can be performed by an experienced contractor or utility worker. As a general rule, utilities would rather be called before people start digging than after people have made a mistake while digging, and many utilities are happy to send out a worker with a pipe locator to locate buried utility lines by request.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By lluviaporos — On Nov 26, 2011

My nephew decided he wanted to dig a hole to China a little while ago, which I thought was harmless enough and a good thing to keep him out from underfoot without putting him in front of the TV.

Unfortunately, I didn't realize how very tenacious he was.

He just kept digging pretty much all day, and eventually he came and told me that he had found something and when I went out to see, it was a pipe! Luckily he came and told me rather than trying to break it or something.

I don't know what the pipe was for, but at that moment I decided it was time to explain to him how very big the earth actually was.

So I guess I have my own little "pipe locator" if I ever need one.

By croydon — On Nov 26, 2011

@Mor - That could have been much worse. Hitting a water main is bad, but of the things under your yard that you can potentially hit, it's much better than sewage or electrical cable.

If you hit sewage, you'll be hit with a cleanup fee as well as a repair fee, although at least the local council will likely come in to fix your pipe, just to mitigate the health hazard.

If you hit electrical cables though... best case scenario, you might short out the neighborhood. Worst case scenario, you could seriously hurt or kill yourself.

I guess digging a hole in the ground seems like almost a primal thing. Like, what could go wrong? But, in urban areas you just can't take for granted that you know what's down there.

By Mor — On Nov 25, 2011

You always, always want to use a pipe locator before you do any digging.

Our neighbor thought he could get away without it by getting some plans of the property, and trying to map out where the pipes were by using those. Turns out they were too old to be of any use, which he discovered when he started digging his new swimming pool and it filled with water sooner than he had hoped.

The worst part was that they had to turn off the water to the whole neighborhood in order to get down there and fix his pipes so he really wasn't popular with anyone for a while. Although once my dad had teased him for a bit, and he took it like a good sport things were all right again.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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