Gas was seeping through our walls and my family is lucky our neighbor took action
- A rotten-egg smell is added to odorless natural gas to make leaks easier to detect
- But not every transmission line has received the pungent, distinctive smell
- If you smell gas, call 911 and the gas company and leave the building
Emily Myers for Brick Underground
For months I’d been catching a faint whiff of cooking gas in the bedrooms. When I asked my husband about it he dismissed my anxiety, so I left it alone, but I should have known better. When you smell gas, you’re supposed to open the window, leave the building, and call 911. Instead I hesitated.
The smell was intermittent, and only detectable in two of the rooms overlooking the street—a residential block of townhouses and apartment buildings in Brooklyn. With the air conditioners on during the summer, the smell seemed to wane. The cat was still alive, I reasoned.
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Then, on a Sunday morning in October, my husband was heading out with the kids and texted me to say our neighbor, AJ, was out on the street and said he could smell gas. I went down to chat with him. He told me he’d had a gas leak in his kitchen a few weeks ago, which had been fixed but he could still smell gas. His landlord sent a plumber, but they hadn’t been able to identify a leak. In the end, they recommended he call National Grid—who had just arrived.
How do you detect a gas leak?
AJ had a handheld gas detector and suggested I borrow it. The reading on the meter had been going up to four bars in his living room. I’d soon be able to find out if my nose had been deceiving me or not. I went inside. Within seconds the device started wailing and red lights hit three of the six bars on the meter in my son’s bedroom and mine.
Why had I ever doubted myself? Searching online in the weeks before, I'd found out that natural gas is odorless and undetectable. A distinctive, pungent rotten-egg smell is added so leaks can be easily identified. I didn’t smell rotten eggs. The gas I could smell was more like the gas from the oven—a propane smell. I wondered—could it be from idling vehicles outside, or some other city smell? Was it because I live in a household of boys?
However, here’s a lesser known fact: Not all transmission lines are odorized.
Also in my defense: We had just replaced an air conditioning condenser on the roof at considerable expense to the landlord and I’d recently contacted him about the squirrels making a racket in the attic. I figured there are few rewards for being a tenant who’s permanently drawing attention to problems. I didn't want to add a vague complaint about an intermittent gas smell.
Getting answers from the gas company
Back outside I reported the gas detection to AJ. The National Grid technician was in his building. Fairly soon he came out, shaking his head. “It’s a mystery,” he said. This wasn’t promising. I told him how the gas detector was hitting three bars in our place too.
He then disappeared into the next building down the block. As AJ and I waited on the sidewalk for news, Margot introduced herself. She was heading back home, to her apartment in the building now being inspected by National Grid. “Had she smelled gas?” we asked. “Oh yes, I have,” she said brightly. Without a flicker of anxiety, she said “I’ll go and see if they need access to my apartment.”
It crossed my mind that I should have some evidence of the gas levels for our landlord. I head back inside with the detector. (It is absolutely not recommended to return to a building in which you can smell gas). However, the levels were a little lower, up to two bars and then the battery died.
I went back outside, eager not to miss the National Grid technician so I could ask him some questions. He came out of Margot’s building and reported how he punched a hole in the wall and gas bubbled out. This took me a while to process. I pictured the punctured sheetrock; the paint damage; and the hiss of something invisible effervescing from a wall. He had turned the gas off, he told us. Which perhaps explains why the levels had gone down a bar just before the detector died.
“Open the windows. Ventilate for a while,” he said.
How dangerous is a gas leak?
Gas leaks can result in fires and explosions. I did know this. I didn't know—but now it seems obvious—that gas leaking from a pipe can travel not just to your neighbor but your neighbor’s neighbor, through the walls. A few days later I texted AJ to thank him for taking the initiative and berating myself for not doing it sooner.
“I had the same self-skepticism,” he texted back, adding that his energy levels improved overnight once the gas was turned off.
Next time I smell gas I know what I am doing—not ignoring it or trotting in and out of the building to take my own measurements. I’m leaving the building and calling 911 from a safe distance. Other reminders: If you smell gas, don’t turn on or off any electrical appliances, don’t smoke or light matches or lighters, and don’t use a phone within the building. Once you’ve called 911, call the gas service provider for the building and don’t go back until you are told it is safe.
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