That Smell Can Save Your Life

Gas leak or smelly flowers?

Dead grass.  Flies.  Air bubbles in the street when it’s raining.  The smell of decay.

All of the above can be indicators of a natural gas leak.

Yesterday when I walked home from dropping off Kid 1 at school I noticed a foul smell in the air.  The morning was overcast and moist, so it didn’t surprise me that there was a weird smell – that happens when air gets trapped by clouds.  But by the time I got to my house, I realized that the smell lingered over the whole block.  It smelled like the odorant in natural gas to me, and since I had recently heard a PSA by The Gas Company urging people to call them if they smell gas, I called them.

A few hours later, a technician came out to my house and asked me some questions, then walked through the neighborhood to investigate.  Unfortunately, by the time he arrived, the smell in the neighborhood had gone away, along with the clouds.  Fortunately, there were no other signs of a gas leak, but the tech offered to show me what that could have looked like.  So on this sunny morning, I walked up and down the block with Tony from The Gas Company, learning about the signs of major gas leaks.

First, what’s not a gas leak:

“That smell” can come from decaying matter in the sewage line, which can waft up to your nose through the gutter or manhole covers.  If the smell is overwhelming and The Gas Company is called and they track the source to the sewer, they in turn call the city which will flush the decaying matter down the line.  Flowering onion plants can also smell like natural gas, because the oils in onions have the same chemical that is used in the odorant.  One of my neighbors had two long rows of the plant growing in the front yard.

Every so often, construction sites or the Oak Park substation will flush moisture out of major gas pipes, and that can send the odor down into your neighborhood, especially on cloudy or humid days.  Tony told me that when that happens, The Gas Company gets a lot of calls.  At that point, they know what is causing the odor, and there’s no reason to be alarmed.

What could be a gas leak:

Tony pointed out the things he looks for when a natural gas odor is reported at someone’s home and a street-level pipe leak is suspected:

-Dead grass and vegetation where it should be thriving, especially near where the pipeline from the house to the street is located:  if there is a gas leak, the gas suffocates the grass and other plants, just as if the soil was flooded.

-Flies collecting around a certain area, where there is nothing visible for them to be feasting on.  Tony said they like the smell of natural gas, and tend to be attracted to leak areas.

-Bubbles:  when it rains or when you spray water on a crack in the street and you see bubbles, that is a pretty good sign of a gas or water leak.

Before he left Tony told me that if you suspect a real emergency first call the fire department.  They can send someone out faster than The Gas Company.  You should know where your gas shut-off valve is (attached to the meter on the side of your house) and how to shut it off (with a wrench).

I might have felt silly for bringing Tony out to the neighborhood for a false alarm, but I am grateful that it was a false alarm.  About a year ago, a natural gas pipeline exploded in a residential neighborhood in San Bruno, CA.  Eight people burned to death and many others were injured.  Blocks of homes were destroyed.  It was a horrible disaster.  Investigators say the explosion was caused in part by poor management and aging pipelines.  But maybe if someone had smelled something, and called it in…

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