Most homes built in the last 10-15 years will most likely have natural gas that is used to heat the home, water heater or power the fire place. Natural gas is very much a part of our daily lives. In fact, The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that natural gas and petroleum systems are the largest anthropogenic source of methane in the United States, and the second-largest globally.
Natural gas is made of a variety of different elements and is generally considered a safe, efficient, colorless and odorless gas. However, the main component is methane. Methane is an extremely toxic gas that is roughly 30 times more harmful to the human body when breathed in than is carbon dioxide. In addition, it can also be harmful to the environment contributing to the Greenhouse Effect. Therefore, natural gas has these qualities when it is properly contained within a system.
Factors that can Contribute to Natural Gas Leakage
Because natural gas is “pipped” into homes and other structures there is the risk that damage to these pipes as well as other structures can lead to an accumulation of the gas in an enclosed structure like a home. Sometimes the soil or land upon which a house is built may experience some shifting that could lead to a disruption of the pipe structure and a release of gas. During natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, fires and earthquakes, gas lines can be ruptured and leak gas into the atmosphere or your home. As in-home appliances age or experience an excessive amount of movement, there is the possibility of connection points cracking that can result in a release of gas.
The Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Program
Because of the potential dangers associated with natural gas, the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program requires trainees to understand the dangers of natural gas leaks and how to mitigate those dangers, whether they be in the home from a defect in an appliance or support structures, or in the community resulting from a natural disaster.
There are two main reasons why a natural gas leak into your home is hazardous, they are:
- Natural gas is considered an asphyxiant gas, meaning the gas reduces or displaces the oxygen in the air that we breathe. Without enough oxygen in the air you will essentially suffocate.
- Natural gas in highly flammable and can be easily ignited if comes in contact with any type of flame or spark.
Characteristics that Could Indicate You Have a Natural Gas Leak
If you have a gas leak in your home, you may notice the following:
- An odor of rotten eggs or sulfur: As previously mentioned, natural gas is odorless. However, for easy detection, manufacturers add a chemical called mercaptan to give the gas a “rotten egg” odor. If you have ever been to Yellowstone National Park and visited the geysers and hot pools, you no doubt have encountered the odor.
- A faint hissing or whistling sound near a gas line or connection point.
- A white cloud/mist or dust cloud near a gas line or connection point.
- A damaged gas pipe with the appearance of a crack
- Dead houseplants. However, this is not very helpful in our home as every plant my wife gets ends up dying regardless.
Because natural gas is considered an asphyxiant gas that can reduce or displace the oxygen in a home, occupants may experience physical symptoms such as:
- Breathing difficulties
- Fatigue or drowsiness
- Flu-like symptoms
- Irritation to the eyes and throat
- Mood changes, including depression
- Pains in the chest area
- Pale skin or blistering, following direct contact with gas
- Reduced appetite
- Ringing in the ears
How to Mitigate Natural Gas Hazards
Waiting until you observe in others or personally experience the signs and symptoms listed above to determine if you have a gas leak is obviously not the recommended approach and could prove to be dangerous. The following are actions to consider in reducing your risk of natural gas exposure.
- Install a natural gas detector near your furnace, water heater or any other appliance that is connected to natural gas.
- Test your natural gas detector at least once a month to ensure it is in good working order.
- Know the location of natural gas shut off valves both inside and outside your home.
NOTE: There are multiple shutoff valves in the home, including the appliance connection point, the main gas pipe connection, and a master shutoff valve that is located outside of the home at the gas meter.
- Know how to shut off the gas valves. Practice to ensure you have the knowledge and skills to complete the task.
- Post the utilities phone number on your furnace and other appliances that use natural gas, so you know how to contact them immediately in case you detect the odor of natural gas.
- It also would not hurt to post the utilities phone number to your cell phone emergency contact list.
What to do if You Detect a Gas Leak
- Locate the shutoff valve and turn it off.
- Leave the house.
- Call 911 – Do not make a phone call until you are out of the house.
- Call the utility company.
A natural gas leak can be extremely dangerous and should be acted upon immediately. If you do not know how to turn off the gas inside or outside of your home, you should contact the utility company and request an inspection.
If you have not already done so, while the inspector is there, ask questions and learn what is important that you should know as a home owner to protect your home and family from the potential hazard of natural gas leakage. This could include:
- Leaning where all the shutoff valves are located.
- How to turn them off yourself so you can do so by yourself.
- Any other important information that the inspector could share with you to create a more safe home as it relates to natural gas.