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What to do if you smell natural gas in your home

January 13, 2012

Natural gas is a common fuel used for furnaces, hot water heaters, clothes dryers, stoves and ovens.  What we call natural gas is mostly methane (70-90%) and a collection of other gases (ethane, propane, butane, etc.).  It’s one of the more efficient fossil fuels we can use.  Natural gas is produced by millions of years of geologic heat and pressure on the remains of plants and sea organisms.  It is a relatively small molecule and consequently is lighter than atmospheric air.  Alberta Energy indicates that complete combustion of natural gas leaves water vapor and carbon dioxide.  While carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, so is methane and methane does more damage as a greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide.  Furthermore, combustion of natural gas produces far less greenhouse emissions than wood, coal or oil.

Natural gas is also one of the most efficient fossil fuels.  It’s easily ignited and produces larger amounts of heat per unit of fuel than most other fossil fuels.  This is why it is widely used as a fuel source in America.  Safe Gas Indiana indicates that 63 million homes in America (52% of American homes) use natural gas.

Natural gas is colorless and odorless.  You can’t see it or smell it.  So gas leaks would go undetected if it was not odorized.  Gas distributors put a chemical in natural gas called ethyl mercaptan that gives off a strong rotten egg odor.  This is to warn people that gas has leaked.  Leaking fuel gas is a problem.  Remember how efficient natural gas is?  That means a little bit of loose natural gas can cause a lot of damage if it finds an ignition source.

That doesn’t mean that natural gas is any more dangerous than any other fuel.  Remember the purpose of any fuel is to be ignitable.  Any loose fuel in your home presents a hazard.  Regular maintenance of all fuel-burning appliances is an outstanding preventative measure that will help guard against leaks or failed appliances.

There are some things you should do if you smell that rotten egg odor in your home from leaking natural gas.  These tips are courtesy of Avista Utilities.

  • Don’t cause any ignitions.  Don’t smoke, light matches, use any phones or switch any appliances (on or off).  Any of these actions can cause a spark that could ignite fuel and you want to avoid that if you suspect a gas leak.
  • Get everyone outside as soon as possible.  Keep them out until a gas company technician tells you it’s safe to re-enter the building
  • Open windows and doors to the outside on your way out, if possible.  This allows the gas to escape your home and it keeps fuel from being bottled up, which makes ignition worse.
  • Call 911 and then your gas company from outside of the house.

You can purchase natural gas detectors that will sound an alarm if natural gas levels begin to rise in your home.  SCFD-9 responds about nine times a year where the calling party reports a smell of natural gas.  So this is not a high call volume for us.  However, it does happen and the ramifications can be a big deal.  Pay attention to the tips from Avista about what to do if you smell natural gas and contact us or your natural gas utility if you have any questions.

References:

Avista.  (2012).  Indoor and outdoor natural gas safety.  Retrieved January 13, 2012, from http://www.avistautilities.com/safety/naturalgas/indoor_outdoor/Pages/default.aspx

Government of Alberta.  (November 21, 2011).  General natural gas frequently asked questions.  Retrieved January 13, 2012, from http://www.energy.gov.ab.ca/NaturalGas/742.asp

Natural Gas.Org.  (2011).  Overview of natural gas:  Background.  Retrieved January 13, 2012, from http://www.naturalgas.org/overview/background.asp

Safe Gas Indiana.  (n.d.).  About natural gas.  Retrieved January 13, 2012, from http://www.safegasindiana.org/about/about_indiana.html

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