What is Potholing? – Construction and Utilities

What is Potholing

Potholing has been widely used in various industries for years now. If you’re working or exposed to the utility industry, you are more likely to encounter potholing. It has helped a lot of infrastructure and construction companies to make accurate confirmation of the utilities below the surface.

This article isn’t like our normally outdoor recreational posts, but we often are asked, What is Potholing and how is it different than caving? 

Potholing was originally the act of exploring large pothole rather than caves and caverns.  The construction and utility industries have adapted potholing into a technique with the purpose of boring a hole into the ground to expose and see underground infrastructure.  

In this article, we will take a closer look at potholing and the different techniques.  We will also do a more detailed explanation of how it differs from caving and spelunking.


Potholing is defined as a type of leisure activity or sport that involves climbing into underground caves and tunnels. Many consider this to be a magnificent sport, ideal for people with healthy lungs and limbs.

Over the years, potholing grew into a diverse variety of applications, including infrastructure and construction. This activity usually occurs before the beginning of a construction. Generally, 8 to 12 inches of excavating holes are dug to determine the depth, location and confirm the specific type of line involved.


What is potholing in construction?

Potholing is widely used in the construction industry. Construction workers use this method to identify potential problems, while safely searching for important utility lines such as cable television or natural gas–without creating severe disruption or inconvenience to the residents.

“This process is proven to bring a more accurate and quicker result than the conventional methods of locating underground utility lines.”

This method includes the use of vacuum excavation to obtain visual confirmation of the underground obstructions and utilities beyond or near the desired bore path. This process involves underground digging along a small exploratory hole to inspect whether there is any conflict with any of the existing features or the subsurface construction that may interfere with the construction.

How potholing helps in construction:

  • isolated locations can be easily accessed
  • more convenient and safe than using shovel or backhoe
  • improves the overall quality of an infrastructure or construction project
  • provides protection for the construction workers and to the environment
  • projects potential cost that helps contractors to budget and allocate their funds appropriately

What is potholing utilities?

Potholing utilities are used to identify utilities under the surface through the use of a vacuum excavator. Usually, workers begin with making a pothole with a diameter of around 8 to 12 inches, and shifts to a vacuum excavator to expose the lines.

Hydro and air vacuum excavators are two different types of self-contained units that involve the use of pressurized water or air, with a high-velocity suction that creates a wet or dry displaced spoil. These machines are ideal for pointing out existing utilities during construction projects, mainly to clean car-wash pits and septic tanks, as well as to clean the slurry residues from drilling projects.

Potholing Techniques

There are a wide variety of different potholing techniques available to protect and locate utility lines. From hand tools to backhoes, and vacuum excavation, there are a lot of things to tackle regarding the different methods.

#1 Hand Tools

Hand tools such as shovel is perceived as the most accurate, but labor-intensive way to locate utility lines. Among the three options, this technique ranks as the cheapest one, and are relatively safe for underground pipes and other utilities.

#2 Backhoes

Backhoes are often used for the development or construction of new homes. This type of technique involves less intensive work compared to other techniques. However, on the flip side, the use of backhoes consists of a couple of health risks and injuries, especially for the backhoe operators and the bystanders. Moreover, using a backhoe to locate a utility line is not the most accurate method among the three.

#3 Vacuum Excavator

Through the use of a vacuum excavator, you can make an accurate confirmation of the utilities. This technique involves the use of air or water to break up the soil, without the risk of harming anyone or damaging any utilities.

Without a doubt, using a vacuum excavator for digging underground is perhaps the most optimal choice. Instead of using hand tools and backhoe, which can be very time consuming, unreliable and dangerous. 

Listed below are the benefits of vacuum excavator:

#1 Minimizes danger in your workplace

Workers can get severe injuries and other health complications when digging underground using a shovel or backhoe. And not to mention, bystanders can also obtain some injuries during the digging process. The good news is, you can use hydro excavation as a safe and reliable alternative to this dangerous equipment.

#2 Keeps the utilities undamaged

Typically, digging equipment will require repair or replacement if it damages the underground utilities. In this case, it can slow down the job progression, and it can be very costly. An optimal alternative for this is to use a vacuum excavation to keep the utilities undamaged, without any expensive repair or replacement. This type of machine deeply penetrates in various types of soil and ground conditions, including rocky soil, red clay, and even frozen ground.

#3 Used in various applications

Hydro excavation was proven to be useful in various applications such as locating water lines, fiber optic cables, and gas pipes. This type of machine is often used by many industries, including engineering services, oil refineries, pipeline companies, and barge operations.

What’s the difference between potholing vs. spelunking/caving?

There is often a confusion between potholing and spelunking/caving, but the primary distinction among the two is its exploration. Potholing involves the exploration of various potholes, while caving consists of the investigation of caves.

The primary goal of potholing is to ascend and descend to reach the bottom, and usually consists of vertical passages. While in caving, it involves horizontal passages. Although these two are often used interchangeably, their key differences are quite easy to remember.

Potholing Summary

To sum it all up, potholing is a form of leisure activity or sport that involves climbing into underground caves and tunnels. However, it is also widely used in construction projects to identify and search for utility lines such as cable television or natural gas–without creating severe disruption or inconvenience to the residents. There are three (3) primary types of potholing techniques, and among the three, vacuum excavation is found to be the safest and most cost-efficient method.

Lee G.

I love the outdoors! Everything from hiking, climbing, rappelling, and caving.

Recent Content