Vic Doucette, a distribution service agent with FortisBC, has smelt it all during visits to investigate odours in customers’ homes. Among the most notable are the scents of birds’ nests clogging chimneys, dead rodents in walls and forgotten batteries that have been charging for days.
However, one smell B.C. residents should report is anything that resembles rotting egg, Doucette says. The odour can signal a gas leak in your home.
What is natural gas and what causes the smell?
Natural gas is an organically occurring gas found under the earth’s surface. It contains mostly methane along with other gasses including ethane, propane, butane, and pentane.
A chemical called ethyl mercaptan is purposefully added to natural gas to give it that distinctive, sulphur-like smell. The odour is used to alarm homeowners that natural gas is in the air.
The Canadian Standards Association code dictates that the odour be easy to smell for the average person, so the odour of natural gas will start to become detectible when it reaches at least one per cent of the air in your home.
Once you notice the smell, call 911 or FortisBC’s emergency line at 1-800-663-9911.
FortisBC’s call centre receives about 20,000 gas leak calls a year. Many turn out to be other issues, including faulty appliances or wiring, but the team attends to every call, says Ian Turnbull, damage prevention and emergency services manager at FortisBC.
“What we know is they’ve told us they smell natural gas, so we get someone there to check it out,” says Turnbull.
Callers will be asked the following questions to determine the seriousness of the situation:
- Have you just noticed the smell?
- Is it very strong or very weak?
- Can you smell it all the time or does it come and go?
- Is the smell inside the house or outside?
Technicians will also check the gas meter, kitchen vents and the hot water heater, and will “try to recreate the situation.” That means closing windows or shutting off fans if they were on, to try to determine the cause of the odour. Technicians also use a meter called a combustible gas detector, to test the amount of natural gas in the air.
Hybrid cars can be an unlikely culprit of natural gas leaks, says Doucette. Because they are so quiet, people often drive into their garage and get out of their hybrids while they are still running. An hour later their homes are filled with fumes.
It takes a bit of detective work to find the problem, says Doucette. “Sometimes it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”
While many customers call as soon as they notice a problem, both Doucette and Turnbull say they’ve seen numerous cases where customers had been smelling natural gas for days or weeks and ignored it.
Preventing gas leaks
So what is your best bet for preventing a natural gas leak in your home? Doucette says regular service and maintenance b a licensed gas contractor is key.
“Think of your furnace as your car, and have it serviced and maintained on a regular basis.” The same goes for natural gas fireplaces, ovens and hot water tanks.
For more information on keeping your home safe and preventing natural gas leaks, visit FortisBC.