Millions of Americans use gas (natural or propane, i.e. LP) to heat their homes, heat their water, and cook their food. Our family is one of them and in addition, a natural gas pipeline crosses our property. While gas is safe, economical, clean-burning, and a versatile fuel when used properly, it is also highly combustible. Thus, a gas leak can be a risk of a fire and explosion or carbon monoxide poisoning. To help ensure that you live safely with gas, everyone in the family should be aware of the signs of a gas leak, never ignore even the slightest indication of one, and know what to do should there be a leak. Because of our proximity to a gas line, our gas company provides information periodically on what to know and what to do. The same precautions apply to propane gas.
Smell. Because gases are colorless and odorless, a strong odorant that smells like rotten eggs, a skunk’s spray, or a dead animal is added to alert or help consumers detect a possible leak. If you aren’t sure of the scent, you can request a free scratch-and-sniff card from you supplier.
Sound. A hissing or whistling sound near a gas appliance, meter or pipeline is also an indicator of a gas leak.
Air. Another indicator would be blowing dirt or a breeze coming out of the ground.
Bubbles. A leak in a gas pipe can sometimes cause bubbling in moist areas around the home.
Discolored or dyeing vegetation. If you suddenly notice your grass or shrubs have changed color, looking more brown or rusty, that could be a sign of a leak. Plants near a gas leak will quickly become sickly and eventually die.
Feeling ill. The symptoms of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning are similar to flu or food poisoning. You cannot see, taste, or smell CO.
Fire coming out of the ground.
If you suspect or discover a gas leak:
- Stay calm.
- Leave the area immediately and evacuate everyone as well as all pets or animals from the home or building. Inhaling high concentrations of gas can lead to asphyxia in which your body is deprived of oxygen.
- Go to a remote location and call your gas company or supplier. If they can’t be reached, call the fire department. Program your gas supplier’s number into your cellphone so that it is readily available in an emergency.
- If gas is blowing, call 911.
- Move quickly. Don’t stop to look for the leak, open windows, turn switches off, or unplug equipment. Leave the door open as you leave.
- Don’t use anything that might create a spark, such as a cellphone, light switch, or garage door opener. These can ignite gases or vapors.
- Do not return to the building until the gas company or fire department has given you the all-clear or the leak is fixed.
As always, being prepared in case of an emergency is key. First and foremost, have the number of your gas supplier programmed into your cellphone. If you don’t have a cellphone, have the number tucked into your wallet so you can quickly dial the number from another phone. Secondly, know how to turn off your gas should you need to or be asked to do so. Begin by knowing where your gas meter and/or emergency control valve is located. For natural gas users, the emergency control valve should be next to the meter. To turn off the gas supply, simply turn the handle a quarter turn so the lever is crosswise, perpendicular, or at 90 degrees to the upright gas pipe; a wrench may be required to turn the lever. Propane users should locate the main gas supply valve on the propane tank. Close the valve by turning it to the right (clockwise). If you are unsure about where to find these valves or what to do, contact your supplier and have them show you. And it is always a good plan to have your gas furnace and other gas appliances checked annually and serviced as needed for proper ventilation.
During winter, keep your gas meter and valve free from snow and ice using a broom, not a shovel, to remove snow or ice. Make sure outside appliance vents are not blocked by snow and ice. Blocked vents can cause carbon monoxide to back up into the building or shut down your system. If your home or business has natural or propane gas appliances, a carbon monoxide detector should be installed. When a gas appliance malfunctions, it can produce CO, that deadly, odorless, colorless, and tasteless silent killer. And always, always call 811 before you dig!
Everyone should know how to detect and respond to a gas leak. Make it part of your family’s emergency response plan.