In road markings, colors are crucial codes

Q: I have been seeing road markings in and around the town of Bath, and also along Township Line Road. The attached photo was taken along Penn Dixie Road near Route 248 (Bath Pike). It looks like a red dot with a water drop inside, and there's an arrow near it. I have also seen them with blue dots. I would love to know what these markings indicate. It does not seem to be where public water would run.

— Kevin Cupples, Moore Township, August 2012

 

A: By the time I got up there in late September to track down the road markings you cited, Kevin, they were gone, or at least, I no longer could find any examples.

The issue remained in my engine-control module, and in the intervening months, as I noticed green markings on my own street, and red and yellow paint on some Allentown roads, it struck me that there must be a method to the madness of the different road-paint colors.

And there is, according to Dave Stack, business manager of the Bath Borough Authority, the agency I though might have made your marking, Kevin. Alas, it's not one of theirs, Stack said; their markings are blue or red.

Stack referred me to Pennsylvania One Call System, the nonprofit agency created in 1972 to help prevent underground utility lines from being struck and damaged during digging operations, for the full truckload of information regarding road-paint colors and what they signify.

The uniform color code for marking underground utility lines was established by the American Public Works Association, and there's a wider range of colors than I would have imagined. Who knew that pink, orange and purple were on the list?

Some of the choices seem intuitive. Blue is for public water lines ("potable water," according to the code), while green signifies pipes carrying less-appetizing liquids: raw sewage, or simply storm water.

Come to think of it, I'm not sure how intuitive a match green makes with sewage, but red seems to make sense for electric power lines, conduit and lighting cables — maybe because the electric stove top glows red when you turn it to "high." Or because the body of "Reddy Kilowatt," the onetime mascot for electrical generating companies including PPL Corp. (back in the Pennsylvania Power & Light Co. days), consisted of red lightning bolts. He had a light bulb for a nose, too. As a kid, I thought Reddy was pretty cool.

Yellow is used to mark lines carrying gas, oil, steam, petroleum or gaseous materials — I'm abandoning this intuitive thing altogether — while orange is the color for communications lines such as telephone or TV cable. Purple is for reclaimed water (treated sewage) or irrigation water, and pink is set aside for temporary survey markings.

According to the code, white is for "proposed excavation," which confused me in first gear, because I thought each of the virtual rainbow of colors previously cited marked the corresponding lines for just that purpose. Unless you plan to dig, why paint temporary lines on the road surface in the first place (apart from permanent traffic-related markings, of course)?

Bill Kiger is president of the Pennsylvania One Call System, which notifies utility companies of any plans to use power equipment to dig in a street, back yard, or anywhere else in the state. We're all required by law to call One Call before proceeding — even residential warriors using rented gas-powered hole-diggers to put some fence posts in. The service is also known as Pennsylvania 811 for the three-digit, toll-free phone number established to take the calls. Naturally, you can make the notifications through the One Call website, too. Either way, there's no cost to residents. Utilities pay a fee of 81 cents per notification to support the One Call system. Calls must be made at least three business days before the dig.

Kiger steered me straight on the white-lines issue. Normally, contractors (or residents, for that matter) mark in white the areas they propose to excavate, then the relevant utility companies mark their lines in the specified colors. The white markings aren't mandated in all cases — they're not used in the case of today's Allentown photo — but they save time and money, and officials strongly encourage their use, Kiger said.

Kiger served on the Utility Location and Coordination Council, the APWA committee that developed the marking guidelines that were adopted, internationally, about 1980. He said it took about four years to develop the scheme, which matches information provided by APWA Publications Manager Connie Hartline.

James Attebery of Phoenix, Ariz., was ULCC chairman when the guidelines were developed. According to a 2008 interview provided by Hartline, Attebery recounted how officials got the idea to develop standards in about 1976: "One day, I got a call from the city engineer in Albuquerque," Attebery told interviewer Howard Rosen, a University of Wisconsin engineering professor. "He told me that they couldn't find any standard for color-marking the various utilities. … He assumed I would know the colors … I told him that this was not a problem, that I would find out what the standards were and get back to him. The problem was, I couldn't find any standard, or anyone who knew of any. I really [had] thought there was something in place." Instead, they had to develop the guidelines, Attebery recalled.

I ran out of roadway before reaching an answer to your question on the odd Penn Dixie Road marking, Kevin. "Interesting photo," Upper Nazareth Township Public Works Director Shawn Shupe wrote in reply to my question. However, "Not Upper Nazareth's marking," he wrote.

Stack from the water authority said bicycle trips sometimes come through that way, and he thought it might mark part of a bike route. But normally such markings consist of directional arrows at turns, with maybe the sponsoring agency's initials.

Kiger offered an educated guess: There's proposed legislation in Harrisburg that would require utilities to map their lines in the One Call system. In preparation for that — it's expected to pass, he said — some utilities "are having … consultants survey and GPS their lines." The odd symbol could be a water provider's survey mark for that purpose, Kiger suggested: "My thought is, this is a water drop on a pink background with a white directional arrow showing the direction of the line." No excavation is needed, so the symbol would avoid confusion with the standard excavation markings we've been discussing here. Kiger said PPL, the city of Harrisburg and others are using similar markings for their GPS mapping.

If anyone out there knows for sure what this marking is — or was — please drive the information into my email garage.

Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to hartzell@mcall.com, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.

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