A Complex Network

Most people don't give much thought to this labyrinth of essential services until they build a new home or — like the Bernards — convert an outbuilding that has no systems, save antiquated, exposed electrical wires for a few lights. In recent years, tying into those systems has become more complex and expensive; the Bernard hookup will cost around $30,000. One reason is the trend toward running wires underground. This avoids unsightly utility poles and the chance that storms can knock out power, but it costs much more to dig than to string a wire. Another complicating factor is the proliferation of high-tech services, each of which runs through its own plastic pipe.

It would be easier — and much cheaper — if all those systems could be buried in one neat trench, but safety and performance dictate otherwise. Consider water and sewer lines, which typically need to be 10 feet apart (codes vary), with the sewer line always below the water line; in the unlikely event that a sewer pipe and a water pipe both spring leaks, the sewage can't seep down and contaminate the drinking water. Likewise, the phone company prefers its wire be at least 12 inches from the electrical feed to avoid creating static.

Plotting this jigsaw puzzle involves a subterranean task force of tradesmen and utility workers, supervised by a general contractor. The man on the ground — or under the ground — is a specialized water and sewer contractor, who has the know-how, equipment, and insurance to dig trenches for most utility lines, including power and communications. He's hired by the general contractor — in this case, Tom — to work hand-in-hand with the utility companies' technicians and the homeowners' electrician and plumber. "I'm pretty handy with a backhoe," says Tom. "But having an expert who is fast and accurate, like John is, saves the homeowners a lot of time and money." The water and sewer contractor also coordinates with a one-call center, such as Dig Safe, which locates and marks the various underground wires and pipes so Aiello knows where to dig — and where not to.

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