What To Do When You Discover a Gas Line Leak
(Part Three of a series aimed at neighborhood or workplace teams)
In the first two segments of this special article we talked about where gas lines run, why they leak and how to recognize a leak.
Now, let’s talk about what to do if you find one!
Your response depends in large part where you find it. Let’s look at some possibilities.
Before we start, remember Rule #1.
If you detect a strong smell of natural gas, leave the area, get a safe distance away, and call 911.
A leak in the home
In your home, what’s most likely is that you will get a weak smell of gas. In that case, remain calm. Think.
You may be able to solve this problem yourself and safely.
Possibility #1. Nearly every home has a couple of pilot lights – usually in the gas furnace or water heater, gas stove or oven. The pilot light is really a “starter” flame. When you turn on the appliance, the pilot light ignites the gas coming out of the main burner.
In older appliances, the pilot light burns 24/7. In newer ones, it is turned on when needed by an electronic igniter. (You may hear a clicking sound as it activates.) Fortunately, when the pilot light goes out, it triggers an automatic shutoff valve to the gas supply. So you won’t usually smell a gas leak from this source.
However, in older systems, your pilot light could go out from something as simple as a draft or spill, and if the system doesn’t have an automatic shut-off valve you would smell leaking gas.
In this case, you can attempt to relight the pilot light yourself by following instructions on the appliance. They are likely to be something like this:
- Turn off the appliance and wait at least 5 minutes for any leaked gas to dissipate.
- Be sure you know where the pilot flame is located. (It may not be near the on/off knob.)
- Turn the knob from OFF to PILOT.
- Hold down the reset button (could be the knob itself) and light the pilot light with a long match.
- Keep holding the reset button until the flame is burning steadily, maybe a minute.
- Turn the knob to ON.
If the light doesn’t stay lit, try again. If it still doesn’t work after a couple of tries, quit and call for professional help.
Tip: You can’t light an electronic pilot system using a match! If the electronic system isn’t working, be sure the appliance is turned off and call for professional help.
Action item: Check all your home appliances — gas furnace, gas water heater, gas oven or gas burners — to see where you have pilot lights. Are they ever-burning or do they have electronic ignition?
OK, so much for pilot lights. You’ve checked, they are working, and you still smell gas.
Possibility #2. Most often, a gas leak is usually the result of an appliance with poorly designed, faulty or damaged connection.
Check your appliances carefully.
- Sniff to see if you can detect where the rotten egg smell of leaking gas is coming from.
- Coat a questionable pipe or connection with soapy water. Bubbles will appear where the leak is located.
- Look at the color of the flame on the appliance. Is it blue (good) or orange (not so good, could suggest a leak)?
- Check the outside of the appliance for soot or scorch marks.
- Do you have excessive condensation on the inside of your windows?
In these cases, if you identify the culprit appliance, get assistance from a qualified expert – probably your gas company. You may be advised to shut off the gas to the appliance, or even to the whole house. In either case that expert will have to re-set the system once the leak is repaired.
A leak in a larger pipe or larger system
If you discover a gas leak in a larger pipeline or facility, move to a safe distance and notify your gas system operator or property owner or 911. (Review signs of a major pipeline leak in Part 2 of this series.)
Do not attempt to find the exact location of the leak, to shut off the pipeline or to fight any gas main fire. Dealing with a large pipeline leak is the business of professionals.
However, in a big disaster . . .
It’s one thing to handle day-to-day leaks. After a storm or earthquake, however, there may be multiple or large leaks. Professionals may be delayed.
You may be called upon to shut down an entire system to protect against fire or the spread of fire.
Gas line shut-off valves may be located at an individual home, at the entrance to a building, at the street, or in other places along the system. Different size systems use different styles of shut-offs. The more you know about where gas lines run and the shut-offs on those lines, the more options you will have.
(As we have already indicated, your gas line operators are not likely to tell or show you exactly where the shut-off valves are located without your being clever and/or persistent. Remember that map that we recommended building in Part One?)
1-Appliance shut-off. Individual appliances may have their own shut-off valves, usually with a handle that turns 90 degrees. Action item: Check your own home appliances to find these valves. (Do not “practice” shutting them off!)
2-Building or home shut-off. In an emergency, shutting off the gas to the building likely means shutting it off at the meter. To do this, you’ll need to know where the meter is and have a wrench and an understanding of the ON vs. the OFF position of the valve. Here’s a sample of what a typical home shut-off valve looks like.
You can turn a shut-off valve using a regular crescent wrench. You may prefer to use a non-rusting tool specially designed for the purpose, like the one shown below. (Click the image or the link to go to Amazon, where you can buy this tool — less than $15. Full disclosure: we may get a commission.) In either case, you must store the tool near the valve!
Action item: Find your home and building shut-offs and have a wrench placed at each one. Figure out a way to attach the wrench to keep it from disappearing.
3-Automatic valves. Some valves, such as seismic gas shut-off valves, operate automatically. They aren’t required, and many professionals don’t trust them – but you may have them on your system. Action item: Find out if any automatic valves are installed on gas lines leading to your home or in your place of work.
4-Gas main. When it comes to shutting off gas at a larger line, the shut-off may be a larger version of the wrench turn off, or it may operate with a large wheel and gear. It may be locked in such a way that only the operator can access it. Often, these valves are painted red. Action item for your group: locate the pipes and the shut-offs leading to your building or community. Larger line shut-offs may be marked with a sign like the yellow one at the start of this article. Or they may not be marked!
What procedures are in place for shutting off the gas?
As we have emphasized, shutting off the gas is a major event to be taken only with due deliberation. It will require professional assistance to get the gas turned back on again. It may take days for all gas service to be restored.
In a widespread disaster, when fire fighters are delayed, representatives of the gas company may also be delayed, perhaps indefinitely. You or your group may have to make decisions about shutting off the gas.
Questions you need to have answers to BEFORE something happens:
- Who is authorized to shut off the gas?
- Which valves are they authorized to shut off?
- What training and tools do these authorized people need? Do they have what they need?
- How likely is it that authorized and trained people will be on hand in an emergency, when immediate action may be required?
With this info, you will be far more prepared in case of an emergency.
Getting more answers
Over the years we have found that “the authorities” are loathe to share gas line information. However, as we have built up our own skills and knowledge, we have better luck at getting more. Above all, we have a better understanding of just what our role should/could be in an emergency.
One of our most effective guest speakers was a representative from the Fire Department who talked about the various gas lines in our neighborhood. (We have the usual mains and feeder lines PLUS a high-octane aviation fuel line running beside our community.) Action item: Get a speaker on natural gas safety from your own fire department or local utility. Prepare some questions in advance.
Your invitation will cause that fire official to update his or her knowledge about your neighborhood or building, as well as remind your neighbors and/or co-workers to be more alert. (In our case, the fire department speaker was NOT up to speed on gas mains that had recently been installed near us as part of a construction project!)
We started this 3-part series with the question, “Are you sitting on a gas leak right now?” The question still is pertinent. We hope that by now you have a better idea of how to respond!
And one last disclaimer. We are not professionally trained experts on gas main construction, maintenance or procedures. We offer this special series for informational purposes only. Any time you consider messing with your gas supply or gas lines, we recommend that you do it with the assistance or under the supervision of professionals. Gas is inherently dangerous so treat it with all due caution.
But as emergency responders, you can’t ignore it!
Your Emergency Plan Guide Team
Here are the three parts of this special series. Please read all three parts.
Part Two: Detecting a gas line leak
Part Three: What to do when you discover a gas line leak
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