Smelling gas in your home or neighborhood is terrifying, as a leak can cause fires and explosions. As RP Gas Piping reported, “Between 1998 and 2017, 15 people per year on average died in incidents related to gas distribution in the U.S.” Knowing what to look for is vital, along with knowing what to do to save both yourself and your property, but not all signs of a gas leak are what you think they are. Here’s how to spot a gas leak and steps to ensure your safety.
How gas works
There are 2.8 million miles of regulated natural gas pipelines in the United States, with 64% of U.S. energy being transported through pipelines. Alliant Energy has a kid-friendly infographic to explain how gas makes it to your home.
- Natural gas companies drill thousands of feet into the earth and use big wells and pumps to bring it to the surface.
- Then they send the gas to your town through gas mains buried underground. Utility companies bring it to your house in smaller pipes.
- Those pipes connect to the meter outside your house, which measures how much natural gas your family uses.
- More pipes connect the meter to the gas appliances you use at home, like the furnace, water heater, clothes dryer or stove.
The first step is known as “Fracking.” It’s a dangerous form of discovery for natural gas because the digging and transportation process can contaminate groundwater and make animals and people nearby sick. It’s also a volatile, unstable substance that is prone to explosion.
Watch out for white smoke and the smell of rotten eggs
The gas and electricity company ConEdison explained the most important things to look out for in the event of a gas leak.
- The smell of rotten eggs. (This is unlike the smell of car gas, which is more of an oil-based chemical fragrance.) Natural gas is truly odorless. Energy companies added the substance called Mercaptan, giving it a distinct rotten egg smell to detect the gas if it were to leak.
- White smoke emerging from the pipes could mean gas is escaping into your home or building.
- Bubbles in standing water. Standing water doesn’t naturally bubble, and if you see this, it could be a sign of a broken gas main. Concurrently bubbles around pipes or appliance connection pipes could mean gas is escaping from the line.
In addition to these signs, the People’s Trust insurance company instructs people to look out for things like swirling dirt. Similar to the bubbling water, spiraling or swirling dirt could be the result of a broken or leaking underground pipe.
If you hear a hissing or whistling sound coming from your oven or home dryer, it could be leaking hazardous gas into the building. Brown or discolored plants in your yard could also mean a gas leak. But don’t call 911 every time one of your favorite plants dies—take notice of brown vegetation surrounded by lush and healthy plants; this means you may have a dangerous leak.
Leave immediately if you notice signs of a gas leak
ConEdison recommends leaving the site right away. Do not turn on any lights or appliances, and don’t use your phone, as these items can spark, causing an explosion. Once you’re out and away from the location, call your gas and electric company, fire department, or 911.
Take preventative measures
There are small precautions you can take to lessen the odds of a gas leak in your home. Always make sure your stove top is off when you’re not using it, as any burners left on but not lit are releasing gas into the air. Also, don’t place any flammable items like paints, aerosol cans, or hand sanitizer near gas appliances. And if you have significantly older gas appliances, consider upgrading to newer ones, or have a professional evaluate to make sure you’re in safe shape.