A lot has changed over the years when it comes to installing drain tile. Better information and access to equipment has made do-it-yourself drain tiling easier. Farmers are saving money by installing their own systems.

At the same time, the number of drain tile specialty contractors has grown, giving farmers more options for outsourcing. A leader in this space is Clark Farm Drainage (pictured below). Three generations of Clarks have grown the company over forty years. Just as the equipment and processes have evolved, so has attention to safely.

There are a lot of different paths drainage projects can take. Whether you decide to do it yourself or hire it out, take the time to follow these few simple steps to work safely.


  • Call 811 in the Planning Stage

    In planning your field drain tile installation project, always call or click 811 first. Calling in a “Design” ticket notifies operators of underground facilities near your project and initiates a request for maps and other detailed information that will help you plan the project. Get the information in the planning phase to avoid redesign down the line. Otherwise, trained technicians will come out to the site within 2-3 business days to locate and mark the underground pipelines and other utilities. Do not rely on a hunch, handed down information, existing pipeline markers (which provide very limited information about the extent of the pipelines) or old markings. Depths of pipelines vary greatly and can be shallow, especially after years of topsoil removal. So, plowing and trenching for drain tile poses a real risk.

  • Pre-Excavation Meeting

    Drain tiling best practices dictate that the individual or company doing the tiling work may request a meeting with the facility locator (person marking underground lines) at the job site prior to marking the pipelines and utilities underground. Such pre-job meetings are especially important when designing drain tile plans.

  • Marking the Area

    When the site to be plowed or trenched cannot be clearly and adequately identified in the request to have lines located, the person doing the tiling/trenching will need you to designate the route and/or area to be excavated by white lining or flagging the area, either on-site or electronically. This will help the person who comes out to locate and mark the lines (a.k.a. the locator) provide the most accurate information.

  • Tolerance Zone

    Drain tile installers are required to maintain a minimum clearance (which varies by state) on either side of a pipeline or underground utility and the cutting edge of excavating equipment.  This clearance is known as the tolerance zone or an area in which hand tools are required for digging.  Consult your specific state’s requirements before installing drain tile to determine the required tolerance zone.


Once the location and depth are determined and you have moved on to designing your installation, a best practice is to minimize the number of times your drain tile crosses buried pipelines and utilities, lessening the chances of hitting a line while digging.

  • Crossing a pipeline

    Generally, field drain tile crossing a pipeline or utility line should be as near to 90 degrees (perpendicular to the line) as possible and clear the line according to the operator’s guidelines. A good rule of thumb is to maintain a 24-inch minimum clearance. Where the field tile crosses the pipeline, it is recommended that solid tile be used, and that pea gravel be used to prevent settling.

  • Parallel tile

    It is recommended that long runs of parallel tile and pipeline should be spaced a minimum of 10 feet, but ideally 25 feet, apart to prevent loosening the soil and disturbing the pipeline. Again, the operator will be able to provide the most accurate guidance with respect to parallel tile.

  • Report damage

    Even if it seems minor to you, report any contact with a pipeline so that the operator may check the integrity of the line and its protective coating. Do not cover up or attempt to repair a pipeline or utility line. Should you strike the pipeline, evacuate the area, then call 911 and the pipeline company immediately.


Scores of farmers safely install tile and reap the benefits every year. Unfortunately, a handful roll the dice and start drain tiling projects without first having underground pipelines and utilities marked. While it is the exception and not the rule, the Drain Tile Safety Coalition shares the following examples to demonstrate how accidents happen and the consequences of hitting a line. These accidents could have been avoided with a call to 811 to have lines marked.

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    On an early December morning in 2017, two farm workers and two farm owners were installing drainage tile on a piece of rented land in Illinois, land they had farmed for decades. One of the farms’ owners was using a tractor to pull a tiling plow. The tractor pulling the plow became stuck. In the process of trying to free the tractor pulling the tiling plow, the workers hit a 20-inch natural gas transmission pipeline. The escaping natural gas ignited almost immediately, killing the two owners and injuring the two workers. The fireball could be seen for miles. The fire destroyed two tractors and two trucks and burned for hours.

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    In the spring of 2012, a drain tile installation professional in Iowa went to work on an installation project without first having underground pipelines and utilities located. During the excavation, tiling equipment hit and ruptured a 16-foot diameter natural gas pipeline. The damage to the pipeline caused a massive explosion and fire, creating a large crater, scorching the farm fields, destroying the company’s tiling equipment, and causing substantial damage to the pipeline. Fortunately, the company owner and his two employees escaped unharmed, but the farmland was devastated. Area natural gas customers lost service. The drainage contractor paid a heavy fine for damages.

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    Another company in Iowa failed to have pipelines located before kicking off a drain tile installation project. The tile plow hit and ruptured a 24-inch natural gas pipeline, and just missed another 16-inch line nearby. The damage to the 24-inch pipeline caused a massive explosion and fire (including a 300-foot-high fireball), injuring two employees who were hospitalized, creating a large crater approximately 100 feet long, 35 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. The fire scorched approximately 80 acres. The company’s tiling plow and bulldozer were destroyed. A high-voltage power line was destroyed, and the pipeline incurred substantial damage. The company that caused the accident paid a $20,000 civil penalty and was sued for damages.


The National Ag Safety Database estimates that 80 percent of farm accidents result from carelessness or failure to deal with hazards safely. Don’t be part of that 80 percent. With respect to drain tile, here are some of the other hazards to be mindful of.

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    Drain tiling requires digging trenches – which a worker could easily fall into while walking backward, guiding the tile, or just not paying attention. Trenches could also collapse on equipment or workers. If the trench you’ve dug for the tile will be open for a time, mark the trench perimeter with flags, cones or caution tape. And keep equipment a safe distance away. OSHA requires that trenches that might not be visible due to vegetation growth or another visual barrier include guardrails, fences, etc. which shouldn’t be the case when installing drain tile.

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    Equipment Incidents

    Equipment-related accidents are the most common cause of injury on farms. Drain tiling requires some heavy equipment – tractor backhoe, chain trenchers, tile plows and wheel trenchers. As always, exercise extreme caution around heavy equipment. Tractor-related accidents are the root of most farm fatalities, according to the National Coalition for Agricultural Safety and Health. Being struck by a tractor causes a host of farm-related injuries.