Liability/responsibility: damage to invisible fencing

ginger_nh(z4 NH)November 8, 2007

Hello, All-

A nuts-and-bolts dilemma: This season we have damaged several "invisible fence" underground wires while planting thousands of fall bulbs at various properties. The wires are black and very fine-about 1/16th". Although the wires were flagged, the flagging is often 6"-12" off - not very precise. I give a reminder when we start work at such a site; the flags are visual reminders; my employees are very careful, remind each other to be sure to watch for the wires, keep a good distance away from the flagging -- and still this happens.

Do any of you have a policy in your contract regarding this problem? Do you just pay the home owner's repair bill (have your insurance pay)? Have you ever assumed/presumed that the homeowner would pay?

I think that planting in a mine field is rather difficult and that if you ask your gardener to do so, you should assume or perhaps share responsibilty for any damages.

However, rather than wrangle with my clients about who should pay, or write a clause into the contract about not taking responsibility for damaged wires, I am considering just charging "invisible fence" (and perhaps drip irrigation tubing) clients an increased hourly to cover any costs if the system is damaged.

Do any of you charge extra for PITA factors like this one or others? Any other ideas or thoughts?


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If I may ask what is the purpose of the invisible fencing?

    Bookmark   November 9, 2007 at 1:24AM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Invisible fencing is buried electrical wire for the purpose of keeping dogs or other pets on property. The pet wears a battery powered receiver on its collar; when the pet nears the buried wire, it receives a shock. Before long, the animal learns to stay away from the property line. Extremely popular with upscale homeowners.

Often garden beds edge property lines, so the wires are double looped through beds at about 3-4' apart through out the beds. There is flagging that shows where the wires are buried, and flagging that gives warning that the wires are about 12" away from the flagging. Each flagging is a different color. It makes planting quite difficult and of course mars the look of the garden. I am a dog lover, however, and invisible fencing does certainly give dogs more freedom as they don't have to be confined or on leash for their own safety. If you can get over the electrical shocking.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2007 at 8:33AM
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If they marked it and you cut it where it is marked, it is your responsibility. If they marked it and you cut it because it was not where it was marked, you are not responsible. It is that simple.

In some places, the cable tv companies are a no show when it comes to marking their wires. They have determined that it is cheaper to repair than to locate and that there is no safety issue from cutting the wire. But, if you don't call for the location you are responsible. If you do call, they are responsible.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2007 at 6:55AM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Hello, laag-
Thanks for answering. Not that simple as the marking is difficult to assess. Double row of markers: one warning row to indicate you are within 12-18" of the wires; 2nd row of flags to indicate you are within 6". Then when you dig in a supposedly safe spot--there is a wire. I imagine they do not want to place the flags directly over the wires for fear of piercing them.

Anyway, I have found over the years that it is quite a task to always miss the invisible fence wires and buried drip irrigation tubing. I wonder how other landscapers and gardeners handle the situation when a breech occurs.

Reminds me of the client I had some years ago who would let her dog out in her fenced yard, then go to work for the day. We needed to go in and out through the gate numerous times to plant the trees and shrubs, move wheelbarrows of riverstone and mulch, remove prunings, etc. She firmly stated: "If my dog gets out, you must chase him and get him back in the yard." We had to come to a different agreement on that one. Clearly, to my way of thinking, it was her responsibility to keep her dog away from the proceedings of the garden installation. I am feeling the same way about dog wire and drip irrigation tubing: it is the homeowner's responsibility for asking the landscape gardener to work under unusual conditions.

Maybe I am just getting ornery in my old age . . .

    Bookmark   November 10, 2007 at 9:53PM
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Whenever we hit low voltage wire or drip or any other irrigation the standard operating procedure was to fix it right away. That was what we used to think it meant to take responsibility. Now I'm not sure if we would not have to write a confession, pay a project manager to get estimates, pay someone else to repair it, triple damages to the homeowner for mental trauma, and go on the Jerry Springer Show and get yelled at by the property owner's mother in law.

I don't have Invisible Fence experience since it has been a while since I cut anything with a shovel unfortunately.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2007 at 10:39PM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Funny re JS show, etc. :)

Maybe I should just lighten up and call my insurance company.

Or maybe I'll offer to split the cost with homeowners.

And in then future, add on $2.00 to the hourly to cover any damages in "land mine" gardens.

We have never had any problems with Dig Safe sites over the years, for which I am grateful.

Thanks for input.

    Bookmark   November 11, 2007 at 8:21AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Wouldn't it make sense to tell the owner that if they want new plantings in poorly marked areas, that it will cost extra for repairs? I'd find myself trying to dissuade the client from doing continual extensive work in areas that are likely to be damaged. I've never had to deal with invisible fencing, but it is a similar problem accidentally cutting irrigation pipe/drip tubing/low voltage lighting lines, etc. Similar to LAAG, I just have my crew fix it, and carry on. The client does get billed for the time and the materials, particularly if there was no plan showing locations of existing elements. On the other hand, I do tell my guys to take their time and go slow when there is the possibility of cutting underground utilities. I'd rather not have to fix things if we can avoid it.

I might also suggest that placing schedule 40 pvc pipe as an enclosure for such wires would go a long way to avoiding cutting them accidentally in the first place. I always prefer to run low voltage wiring in protective pvc pipe if located in areas likely to be frequently dug up...

    Bookmark   November 12, 2007 at 8:31PM
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nwnatural(zone 8 PNW)

I've hit low voltage wires and irrigation tubes. Darn things can be so unpredictable and sneak right up on you, always in the rockiest hardest to dig soils.

I keep a generic supply a parts just for the fixing. I don't know what it's called, but I call it the flexible PVC band-aid that can be glued (with PVC glue) into place. In several sizes. If I hit a lighting wire, I'll use that bonding, underground electrical tape, and I cut a generous piece of PVC tube to act as a sleeve to protect my work once it's buried in the ground.

I don't do it very often, but I always have the parts on had. It's so easy to fix, it only takes a few extra minutes.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2007 at 5:04PM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Invisible fencing wires are placed about 3-4" deep and never in any protective sleeve or tubing.

I would not attempt repairs myself--these systems are tricky--even nicking or scraping can cause malfunction. Malfunction can mean a dog running into the road. (I also am rather peevish about this, to be honest, as I have an additional problem with shocking dogs in order to keep them on your property). We do repair irrigation tubing, however.

I think a PITA charge is in order.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2007 at 9:02PM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

So here is what I came up with as a proposed solution--just sent out this email to my customer:

"Dear ____,

Blah, blah, blah . . .

Re the invisible fencing: I will contact your installer and have my insurance pay for the repairs. Please send along the name and number of the business so I can contact him ASAP.

There is a high possibility of this happening again, despite exercising due diligence. Should this happen again, I will split the cost of repairs with you, 50/50. After that, I will submit a disclaimer for your perusal and signing, stating that my business will no longer be held liable for damage to the invisible fence wiring. It is quite difficult to garden effectively with electrical wires running through the beds. The fencing is undoubtedly convenient, but as it is said, every solution breeds its own problems.

It occurs to me that this fencing is invisible in more ways than one . . . ;)

Please let me know if this seems to be a fair way to deal with the problem.

Best Regards,

Now to wait for the response.

    Bookmark   November 14, 2007 at 10:04PM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

I received a reply from my client. She offered to split the cost of repairs with me this time, rather than next. She is considering how to go about further planting in the beds--and quite a bit is planned for next year. She asked if perhaps the wires could be carefully re-flagged. Anyway, the problem has been addressed and we seem to be on good terms.

Each situation is different. It does seem that in this case, the installation of delicate, buried electrical wires throughout extensive beds in the middle of a two-year planting plan, brings some responsibility to bear on the homeowner.


    Bookmark   November 15, 2007 at 1:15PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Glad to hear that you resolved this amicably, but I wouldn't have thought this worth making a claim on your insurance policy, as the work wouldn't likely excede your deductable, and every claim you make these days just increases your rates or gets your coverage dropped when it is up for renewal. Don't get me started with my malevolent thoughts about insurance companies in general, as I think they are pretty close to being the scum of the earth...

If the buried cable is that close to the surface of the planting beds, it would seem to make more sense to locate it at the edge of the area to be planted prior to digging, and then pull it up or flag it by relocating it before you plant anyhting. That seems like it would be the fastest, most economical way to deal with it.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2007 at 2:28PM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Hi, Bahia-

You are correct on both counts.

I think I will talk with the installer and ask if he could relocate the wires out of our way possibly. They are double looped right through the beds--rather peculiar. I think they were trying to keep the dogs out of the beds and on the property, without digging up the lawn (where it could have been placed). Accurate flagging would help, too.

    Bookmark   November 15, 2007 at 3:45PM
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We have a disclaimer in our contract which specifically deals with such issues. It states that any lines that have not been located by our local "one call" locating service is the owners responsibility, with repairs being initiated by us at the owners expense. The specific things we list in our contract are: landscape lighting, gas lines for BBQ's and gas lights, septic/sewer lines, invisible dog fences, pool plumbing and related electrical service ect. Although we ordinarily we will just fix the lines which are a "quick" fix, it absloves us of liability in cases where repairs may be costly. It also solves the issue of owners showing the crews "exactly" where the buried lines are but are in a different area as indicated by the owner.

All Wet

    Bookmark   November 27, 2007 at 9:53AM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Hello, A-W:
That's what I am leaning towards--a disclaimer in my contracts. Glad to hear that another business is doing so.

After Dig Safe appears and flags electrical, gas, and sewer lines, all else that the owner has installed for his or her enjoyment or ease (pool plumbing, lawn irrigation, invisible dog fencing, etc)that obstructs contracted gardening/landscaping work is the owner's responsibility, IMO.

Analogies usually fall flat in one way or another but this comes to mind: installing these things in a garden and then expecting the landscaper to "work around them" is rather like scattering a set of bone china in the driveway and then telling the oil delivery man, UPS driver, snow plow driver, meter reader, etc. that they are responsible for damages.

In my view, if you put these things in harms way, it is your responsibility to pay for any damages.

Thanks for posting.


    Bookmark   November 28, 2007 at 8:46PM
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txjenny(z8 TX)

A few years ago I did a couple of jobs where we cut throught the Invisible Fence, even after it was flagged. Flagging is often inaccurate, and the tiny wires are very difficult to find even when you know they're there!

I have a disclaimer in my contracts now; I just don't mess with it. I've never had a client who has taken umbrage to it. I tell them that we will certainly do the best we can to avoid it, but we are not responsible if it's severed.


    Bookmark   December 17, 2007 at 10:10AM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Thanks for answering, Jenny. A disclaimer is what I am considering. What sort of business do you have?

    Bookmark   December 20, 2007 at 7:07PM
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reg_pnw7(WA 7, sunset 4)

Hi Ginger

Glad you're getting some resolution.

I used to operate a landscaping business, and I have an escape artist dog that requires I use one of those invisible fences strung along the physical fence to keep her from going under it. (Nothing short of the Berlin Wall was going to keep her in otherwise. And thank you for your concern for my dog, but the occasional mild shock is much kinder to her than having her get hit by a car, picked up and immediately euthanized by Animal Control, or shot by an irate neighbor. She gets a warning tone before the shock, so she rarely gets shocked.)

I always kept on hand an assortment of irrigation parts for fixing any damages to irrigation systems while I was working. That's how I learned how to install irrigation, actually, by having to fix the darn things. It's just part of the job in my opinion.

As to Invisible Fence, it's ridiculously easy to fix. Waterproof wire nuts, like those used for irrigation valves, splice cut or damaged wires together. That's it. It's no different from fixing a damaged irrigation wire. The only trick would be verifying that the fence still works. The newer systems have an LED on the controller that will tell you at a glance if the fence is working - it's probably installed in the garage, in the same place you'd install an irrigation timer.

Invisible fence wire requires a complete circuit to work. Doubling and looping the wires allows you to create blank zones where the dog will not be shocked, while connecting no-go zones in one continuous strand of wire. If the client is going to have invisible fence wire installed in planting beds, then they should pay you to encase it in PVC pipe or trench it with gravel to protect it, as is done with irrigation valve wire.

    Bookmark   December 22, 2007 at 1:21PM
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ginger_nh(z4 NH)

Hello, Reg-
Thanks for the thoughtful post and practical solutions. Also for the explanation as to what all the looping and doubling of wires is about.

Trenching with gravel seems the best, lowest cost solution.


    Bookmark   January 7, 2008 at 2:10PM
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