Own a gas appliance? Remember these safety tips
Dale Roe, Go-To Guy
The early-morning explosion that rocked North Austin earlier this month, resulting in the death of one man and critical injuries to another, along with an estimated $270,000 in damages to a pair of homes, might have you thinking about natural gas safety. Fire officials said that the explosion was caused by an accidental gas leak.
"Natural gas is a safe and effective way to heat and cook," says Austin Fire Department Battalion Chief Palmer Buck, but he adds that you need to exercise care where gas appliances are concerned. "Make sure you have them in good, working condition."
Buck says most problems the department sees relate to pilot lights. Though most modern appliances have electric ignitions, older appliances still utilize pilot lights, he says. "If those go out, that tends to be one of the most common causes for smelling gas."
In its natural form, the fuel is colorless and odorless. Natural gas providers add the odorant you smell so that leaks can be easily detected. If you have to relight a pilot light, follow the instructions posted on the appliance, Buck says.
Gas leaks can also occur when appliances — usually stoves, Buck says — are moved. Older gas supply lines are not meant to be moved, he explains, and they can develop pinhole leaks when jostled.
"The newer appliance lines and gas supply hoses — the flex hoses — have more plastic and more flexibility," Buck says. "They're much more forgiving than the old metal tubing." Really old cast-iron pipes can even develop rust-induced leaks, Buck notes.
A good time to replace an aging supply line is when the appliance needs cleaning or repairing, he says.
Leave appliance installation and gas line repair to professionals who know the correct materials to use, he says. "For instance, you use nylon tape in plumbing but you use gas tape in gas lines. The two products are not interchangeable. Because it can be critical if not done right, we're always of the mind-set to let a professional do it."
If you do smell gas, leave the house. Other actions — opening or closing windows, turning appliances on or off — can lead to an explosion, Buck says. "When you flip the light switch and you see a little spark, that can be enough to ignite gas when it's in its flammable range."
The flammable range of gas is relatively small — it won't ignite if there is too little or too much in the air, he says. That's why he cautions against opening and closing windows. "If you let oxygen in there, you can stir up enough to have a problem," he notes. "But to get that amount of gas in your house, you'd have to have significant leaks."
Think about gas safety outside the home, too. "Always dial before you dig," Buck says. The supply lines leading to houses aren't buried very deep. "If you don't call before you dig and you hit the supply line, you're liable and responsible for the repairs to the line and the cost of the gas that was lost because of the leak."
If you do hit a gas line, back away (Buck says about 50 feet is a safe distance) call 911 and notify the gas company immediately.
Another risk of using natural gas is carbon monoxide poisoning. Gas appliances work by combustion, and the deadly substance is a byproduct of incomplete combustion.
Buck recommends carbon monoxide detectors along with regular maintenance for appliances and their vents. "A poorly venting water heater or a stove that's not burning correctly can produce a significant amount of carbon monoxide in a home," he says (a noticeably yellow flame can be an indicator of a problem).
Many carbon monoxide detectors plug in to wall outlets so, unlike with smoke detectors, you don't have to worry about changing batteries, Buck adds. Their sensors are usually good for about three years.