Here’s a piece of shorted electrical cable pulled from the ground. It was rated for direct burial and was damaged by frost movement in the soil. (Tim Carter)

Q: Tim, can you settle a debate between my wife and me? We have to have electric cables buried in the ground for all sorts of things around our home. She insists that the cables should be in conduit, and I say, after doing online research, that code-approved cable for direct burial is good enough. I’ll add that we live in a colder climate where the ground does freeze all winter, if that makes a difference. — Brad P., Burlington, Vt.

A: I hate getting involved in marital battles. I tend to side with the wife because women seem to apply more critical thinking to the disputes. Perhaps that’s why they live longer, too.

Brad’s wife is on the right side of this issue in my opinion. Consider a personal encounter I had at my own home with buried underground electrical cables. I should point out that the house I live in was built by someone else — not me.

Last spring, I discovered that the post lamp at the end of our driveway no longer turned on. I checked and the circuit breaker had tripped. I went to reset the breaker and it immediately popped, indicating a dead short in the circuit. Dead shorts are bad.

While I’m not a master electrician, I’ve done lots of residential wiring to code, and I knew how to quickly isolate the sections of the circuit to determine the location of the short. Within minutes, I discovered the short was in a section of wire that was buried between the corner of the garage and an oak tree where an aboveground junction box was located.

Fast-forward and the short was at the end of a single piece of PVC conduit that the builder, or his electrician, had placed under our blacktop driveway. No conduit was used anywhere else, just under the driveway. The wire exited one end of the conduit and made a sharp turn. The up-and-down movement of the frost action here in New Hampshire had rubbed the plastic insulation off the cable where it contacted the sharp edge of the PVC conduit.

Sharp rocks are brought to the surface slowly by frost action. They can cut into unprotected wire and cable even though it’s rated for direct burial. Garden spades, shovels and deep-cutting roto-tillers can chop into unprotected cables. Conduit prevents damage from almost all these accidents.

I shared my woeful tale back in the spring about my shorted electric cable in my Ask the Builder newsletter. One of my subscribers who lives in northern Maine shared how his electrician protects underground electrical cables.

This older master electrician discovered that conduits in deep-cold climates can be problematic for a host of reasons. He experimented years ago digging a two-foot-wide trench and putting in one foot of sand in the bottom. He’d then lay the wire in a zigzag fashion on the sand to allow for movement. The cable would then be covered with another foot of sand. My subscriber claims the electrician has never had a failure putting in buried electric cable this way.

Those who live in warmer climates where soil frost isn't an issue should always bury cables in conduit, in my opinion. Code-approved PVC conduit is affordable. It's easy to install and comes with pre-bent fittings, allowing you to go around tighter corners.

Should you decide to use conduit around your home, always take photos of where it is before you cover the conduit with soil. If your digital photos are stored online, create a public album and place the URL to it on a piece of paper that you put in a sandwich bag next to your circuit breaker panel. Mark on it: PHOTOS OF BURIED EXTERIOR CONDUIT.

Believe me, a future homeowner, contractor or electrician will thank you profusely for these photos showing where the wires snake about under your lawn, driveway and gardens.

While you’re at it, be sure to install sections of larger conduit, no less than two inches in diameter, under sidewalks, driveways or other paved surfaces. You may not need to run a cable now, but believe me, it’s so nice to know you can go under a paved surface with ease in the future. Make note of these conduit locations and put that drawing in the same sandwich bag next to the electrical panel.

Another key point is to follow the National Electrical Code with respect to all provisions dealing with conduit and the required depth of burial. Even though you bury the cables the recommended depth, they can be damaged by an inexperienced equipment operator. The key, in my opinion, is to have a clear record of exactly where all underground cables are buried on your land.

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