Breathe Deep the Gathering Fumes

What’s in your household air?

When we moved in, our gas meter was located in a small closet in the basement. A representative from the gas company would enter houses like ours to take the readings, and sometimes I was required to phone in the numbers. All very old school. Often, when I opened that closet I would swear I smelled gas. I had the gas company out, but they said it was fine.

After ten years of having to read the meter inside the house, the gas company finally decided to move our meter outside. After that change, I started occasionally noticing an increased gas smell around the small closet where the meter once was. I called the gas company. They checked the area again and said nothing was wrong, and maybe the smell was from the sewer.

From a friend, I learned that one of the household maintenance tasks homeowners should be doing yearly, along with changing filters and humidifier pads and all that, was to pour a quart of water into your basement drains. If you don’t the traps can evaporate and sewer gas will enter the house. Traps are the “U” shaped sections you see under a sink. They fill with water and keep gasses from entering the house through your drains. It’s smart to run water in every drain in your house at least twice a year. Not only did we have the drains on the basement floor, but we also had a sink and a toilet that were never used. I’ve since been sure to run water into all of those at the start of winter and summer.

As the years passed, I rarely had to enter that small closet, but when I did I continued to smell something odd. I could swear it still smelled like natural gas. It would dissipate quickly though.

Years ago, we had one of those combination carbon monoxide and natural gas detectors. The detector started randomly going off, alerting us of a gas leak. Again, we called the gas company. Again, they said there was no problem.

Two years ago the air conditioner pipes started freezing up. We discovered the air conditioner coils were leaking inside the furnace. Two years and $900 later we realized the HVAC company we were using was wasting our money. The central air conditioner wasn’t fixable. This summer we replaced it, but for this story we have to go back before that leak was detected, because it took months to figure out freon was leaking. For all I know the freon was triggering the gas alarm. I really don’t know. In the mean time, since the alarm kept going off, I decided to buy a natural gas detector off Amazon. It’s not as fancy as the ones the gas company uses. It only has an audible reading. Like a Geiger counter, it starts off with a slow tick, about twice per second. When it detects gas the ticks speed up, machine gun fast, accelerating, until it’s nearly a single tone. The more gas detected, the faster it rattles. The more expensive units have a digital readout (like this one), which would be nice since you can assign the leak a number, but they’re way more expensive. Keep in mind this is not a carbon monoxide detector, but a natural gas detector. They also have radon detectors. There are different devices for different gasses.

I started sniffing pipes. The detector’s ticks went crazy.

I discovered two areas with gas leaks. Multiple connections were leaking right where the gas company had disconnected the old gas meter. There was another leak where the dryer was connected. Once again I called the gas company. This time I told them I used a gas detector myself and explained where I found the leaks. They said, yeah, it was leaking. They tagged the pipe joints and told me to call a plumber to fix it.

So, I called a plumber a neighbor had used. He’s an old guy with a rusted bucket-of-bolts truck filled with well used tools. He was affordable, and I figured he must have had plenty of experience. He started ripping out and reassembling the pipes. Just outside of the closet we still had the last of the old ceiling tiles up. They had been nailed to the floor joists decades ago. I had to remove a section of tile so he could finish the job. When he was done, and the gas was running through the pipes again, I sniffed some of the newly revealed pipe joints with the gas detector. Surprise. Another leak! Patching this new joint would require ripping most of the remaining ceiling tiles out to get to the hidden piping. The plumber said, “You’re just going to get yourself in trouble with that thing,” and proceeded to slobber joint compound on the pipe without disconnecting it first. He billed about $100 and left.

You can’t sniff newly connected pipe. The joint compound off gasses too much. A few days later, after the compound was dry, I checked that last area he’d slathered over and it was still leaking. I started wondering if I was over reacting. The gas company obviously didn’t consider a bunch of small leaks a problem. The plumber didn’t either. I would have to call another plumber in, which was more money being spent. I let it go for a while.

I decided to check a few other houses. Out of six homes I checked, four were leaking natural gas. Of the homes with leaks, each had multiple leaks. Maybe a small leak wasn’t considered important enough to the gas company to tag, but what about six to twelve small leaks? Doesn’t it add up? Especially when all these leaks are near the furnace which is circulating air though the house? Add onto that freon leaks, sewer gasses,  and the small amount of acceptable CO2 and radon. We sure do live in a lot of fumes.

This week I tore down the last section of the ceiling. As I pulled the tiles out I could smell trapped gas. There I found yet another leak. I had a different plumber out. We opened the windows, turned the furnace fan on continuous, and refreshed all the air in the house. As of today I’ve checked every pipe joint in the house. No more leaks.

While I was at it, I poured water into the drains.

The Internet is so filled with contradictory information. I see posts saying that natural gas is totally non toxic, unless of course, it kills you due to suffocation. I see others saying the additives that give it that nasty smell cause cancer. Yeah, everything gives you cancer. I also saw a few posts claiming that long term gas leaks in their houses had caused all kinds of digestive and neurological disorders, including food intolerance, anxiety, insomnia, dizziness, memory problems. Will we be healthier without all those natural gas and freon leaks? I’d have to assume so.

All I definitely know is the basement now smells fresher than it ever has.

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