Heating with Fossil Fuels? Know the Risks

Posted By: Bruce Davis Sr. Maintenance,

The fossil fuels we use in our homes and businesses are wonderful and valuable to us, but propane and natural gas also have inherent risks and dangers:
•    A gas explosion from a leak, either above or below ground,
•    Carbon Monoxide poisoning caused by incomplete combustion from an appliance or piece of equipment.

Leaks from natural gas or propane are common but don’t always make the news.  According to data from the U.S. Government, there is a major incident/fire/explosion involving either natural gas or propane leaks at least every other day.  These incidents result in millions of dollars in damages, thousands of injuries, and dozens of deaths per year. 

Carbon Monoxide poisoning from natural gas or propane use is much worse, averaging more than 15 deaths per month, and that’s just from appliances that have fixed gas piping.  Factor in the deaths from portable devices and vehicles, like RVs, boats, grills, and barbeques, more than twice that many people are killed.

Natural gas and propane tend to be equally ‘dangerous’ when it comes to deaths caused by carbon monoxide poisoning, but it’s generally thought that propane is more dangerous than natural gas when it comes to explosions and fires.  The reason is the nature of the two fuels.

Natural gas is lighter than air. It floats up and out and tends to dissipate if there is a leak.  When a natural gas leak occurs, the window of opportunity for ignition/explosion doesn’t last long, nor happen as quickly or as often as with propane.  

Propane is heavier than air so it sinks and tends to pool if there is a leak, creating bigger and bigger collections of gas in anything it can; crawlspaces, rooms, ditches, basements, and low spots. Though it’s heavier than air, it’s lighter than water so it floats.  A propane leak underground in a wet area will pool together fast and focused.  To make matters worse, due to this ‘pooling’ and what propane is composed of, it will tend to ignite sooner and easier than natural gas, from any source of ignition; flames, sparks, or even static electricity. Explosions from propane tend to result in worse damage to structures than with natural gas.

Finally, it’s important to know that even if you and your family don’t use a fuel gas of any type you may still be susceptible to the risks and dangers, due to your proximity to someone who does.

A few years ago in Bellevue, WA tragedy struck a couple because their neighbor had a swimming pool with a defective pool heater that sat outside, right next to the property line.  That night, the pool boiler worked long and hard, and due to bad combustion, it was kicking out several thousand ppm of Carbon Monoxide (less than 100 ppm in the chimney vent is normal).  Unfortunately, something happened that night with air temperatures and wind patterns, and the CO went right into the couple’s open window only seven feet away.  Though they never had, nor used fuel gas themselves, they were ‘downstream’ just right and were killed in their sleep that night.
Natural gas or propane leaks can be like that too.  If there is a fuel gas leak underground, two dangerous things can affect you even if you don’t ‘have’ or use fuel gas in your home.

1.    Natural gas and propane are odorless in their natural state. Before they are distributed they are infused with a foul-smelling odorant called mercaptan (also known as methanethiol).  In an underground leak, however, the mercaptan can be ‘scrubbed’ from the gas by the very soils it’s passing through, leaving little or no odor attached to the gas fuel.  So, lots of gas can be collected in your vicinity and you may not know it, or perhaps just barely smell it.

2.    Fuel gas leaks can travel a long distance without igniting because the air/gas mixture must be just right for ignition to occur, and it might happen that the ‘pooling river’ of leaking fuel doesn’t get a chance to ignite until it’s traveled to where you are or where you live; and once it does…Boom!

So how can we still enjoy and use these fuels safely?  A few suggestions…
•    Continue to do what you are doing right this moment; learn about these things.
•    Be aware that any fuel gas odor may indicate a dangerous leak. If you smell even a slight amount of gas take action immediately!  Open up the area, clear the area, shut off the sources of gas, and call the gas company immediately. 
•    Always have CO detectors (both regular-level detectors and Low-Level detectors) and Natural Gas or Propane detectors in your home/trailer/RV/boat… in all the areas that are appropriate, and keep them maintained by changing batteries every 6-months.  

As winter approaches and our home heating systems run continuously, the risk of Carbon Monoxide poisoning increases. Even if you don’t have and use these fuel gases personally, if you are living or working in their vicinity, do whatever it takes to be safe, stay safe, and protect yourself and your loved ones.

Bruce Davis, Sr. is a Licensed Journeyman Plumber, Licensed Electrician, HVAC/R Electrical Administrator, HVAC/R ,and Certified WA State C.E.U. Instructor. Day and Nite Plumbing and Heating, Inc has been in Lynnwood serving Snohomish and N. King County for over 68-years, and Bruce Sr. has been President and working at this family-owned business for 36-years. Bruce can be contacted at: Email: Bruce@dayandnite.net.Day and Nite Plumbing and Heating Inc. 16614 13 Ave. W., Lynnwood, WA 9803, (800) 972-7000.