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If you’ve ever dealt with a propane leak, you know how much of a royal pain fixing it can be. And if you haven’t—well, trust us: It’s crucial to understand how to track down these hazardous leaks.
You’ll find propane in everything from your gas stove to your water heater to your home heating system. It’s safe for everyday use—and smelling the vapor isn’t toxic—but prolonged exposure to the gas is extremely dangerous.
Propane is an asphyxiating gas, which displaces the oxygen in your lungs and sometimes makes it impossible to breathe. To make matters worse, leaks can be challenging to pinpoint in your gas line (and expensive to fix when you finally do get to the bottom of things).
Last fall, I dealt with one such leak and learned a few tips and tricks. To help you avoid a similarly expensive (and scary) situation, I spoke to several gas industry experts to find out everything you need to know about handling a propane leak. Here’s what they had to say.
Know the signs of a gas leak
Safety is, of course, the No. 1 priority when it comes to addressing a propane leak.
Common signs of a gas leak include a “rotten egg” smell, which is added to the odorless propane so it can be detected. Going through your propane abnormally fast is another red flag that you might have a leak.
And leaks aren’t limited to inside your home. Your leak could originate at an outdoor underground line, as mine did. So you might smell gas only intermittently when going outside or walking near where the line runs. An outdoor leak tends to be more common in older homes where original pipes (often made of highly corrosive materials like cast iron) are still in place.
The first step of resolving a gas leak should always involve calling the emergency number provided by your gas company.
“If you smell propane, you should quickly look for an obvious source, such as an unlit burner that’s been left on,” says Leonard Ang, CEO of iPropertyManagement Leasing. “If you can’t quickly find the source of the odor, get yourself and your loved ones out of the house and call the gas company.”
Other things to keep in mind about gas leaks: Gas becomes especially dangerous the more it accumulates. Open windows and extinguish (or avoid igniting) any open flames to be safe.
Understanding the tests to check for leaks
Once your gas technician deems the home safe to work in, the pro will begin to perform a series of checks. At this point, it’s helpful for the homeowner to understand a bit more about the process. Although you won’t be responsible for finding and resolving the leaks yourself, you will be footing the bill for the work your technician does.
“Different tests are performed depending on the gas line’s size, length, and location,” explains Brham Trim, president of The Gentlemen Plumbers. “The first is called a sniffer test, which is performed with a tool that can measure gas present in concentrated amounts. Sometimes this test is redundant because a smell alerts us that gas is leaking. However, the sniffer test can lead us closer to the leak.”
If your gas technician can’t pinpoint the exact origin of the leak with a sniff test alone, he’ll run other more in-depth checks. These include testing a line using soapy water (bubbles indicate a leak) or pressurizing a portion of your gas line.
“Pressure tests isolate a section of the gas piping system by capping off the end of the pipe just before it enters into the appliances,” says Trim.
Once the end of the pipe is disconnected from the gas supply, air is pumped in. Your technician will then determine if that line section is good by using a pressure gauge. If the line holds pressure, there’s no leak. But if pressure drops, the tech will further inspect the pipe for a leak using a soap test.
Fixing a gas leak (on a budget)
You might not have to shell out too much money in repairs if the leak is inside your home and the pipe is easily accessible. But if the gas leak is in a line behind a wall or underground, you might quickly rack up bills to pay various contractors to excavate and resolve the issue.
That’s why it’s crucial to understand your options and get quotes from various contractors before moving ahead with any repair work. Remember: While you might need to expose a line to fix it, you could also have the option to simply run a new line.
Moving your propane tank closer to your home can also be a money-saving solution, especially when placing a new underground line outside (rather than digging through your entire property to fix the old one). Keep in mind that most local jurisdictions have laws around where a propane tank can go, how far it needs to be from your home and property line, and other landscaping features.
Dealing with a propane leak is never straightforward, but understanding the process and knowing that you might have less expensive solutions to fix it can certainly help. Once you find your leak, take the time to understand any regulatory limitations set by your gas company. Then get quotes from various plumbers and contractors to determine the best solution for your home.