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When a person smells natural gas leak in their home, their first natural instinct is to call the gas company CenterPoint. You can do this, and evacuate the house as they recommend. Or you can evacuate your home and call a plumber. We recently sat down with Casey Hill, a local master plumber who starts out by saying: Sure, it seems like I just want you to call a plumber for selfish reasons, but read on to see what really happens.

What happens after I call CenterPoint about a gas leak?

Generally, in the City of Houston, they’ll confirm that you have a gas leak. They have a little gas sniffer that they can use to determine where the leak is coming from. Due to the nature of natural gas being combustible, to protect the homeowner and to protect CenterPoint, they take the person’s meter, which in turn shuts off the gas to the home.

They no longer have access to gas appliances, water heater, a furnace, stove, dryer. That is the wrong thing to do. The first thing that a person should do, if they smell natural gas in their home, is to call a plumber. A plumber will come out, will turn the gas off to make sure that the home is safe and secure and to protect the homeowner, and to protect us.

What will a plumber do to test my gas lines for leaks?

In turn, what we’ll do, we will pressurize the gas piping system with compressed air. We’ll put a gauge on where the inlet comes into the home. That way we’re testing the entire gas piping system in the house. We’ll put a pressure gauge on the home and then fill it up with compressed air. Generally, that gauge, it’ll drop, of course, because there’s a leak somewhere.

We’ll keep the pressure on the gas system and then begin searching for leaks.

I have an older home and think I have a gas leak, what’s likely going on?

A lot of times the original builders, in the old days, the plumbers would use what we call a thread protector. A thread protector is something that comes on the end of the piping to protect the threads so it doesn’t get damaged. Back 40, 50, years ago, the plumbers thought, “Oh, a free coupling.” That’s not the case.

It’s not a coupling. The integrity of the thread protector is nowhere near a coupling. Generally, it’s easiest to find the gas leak on a thread protector. We’ll remove the thread protector and either put a coupling in there or a union. That’s generally the first thing that we can find that’s leaking.

If that’s not the case, then we keep pressure on the gas system and continue to search for leaks at various joints — 90-degree elbows, other couplings, unions, any point where pipe meets. Usually, the integrity of the pipe is always not compromised. What’s compromised is where the pipe joins a coupling or a 90 degree pipe angled down the wall.

What happens is the thread sealant — what we call pipe dope –generally after 40, 50, 60 years — depending on the age of the home — will dry up, corrode, just evaporate. Nothing last 40 or 50 years. A lot of the times, we can cut that old pipe out or just basically unscrew that piping and reseal it with the teflon tape and thread sealant and join the pipe back together.

Sometimes that will solve the leak or the issue with the gas leak. I can’t reiterate enough that when a homeowner smells gas in the home, don’t call CenterPoint Energy, the gas purveyor, the gas company. All they’re going to do is come out, take your meter, shut you down, and tell you to call a plumber. [laughs] Once CenterPoint takes your meter, then it opens up a whole new can of worms with the City of Houston.

Once CenterPoint takes the gas meter from the home they notify…Well, they don’t notify the City, they take the gas meter, tell the homeowner to call a plumber. You call us, we come out…but now, at this point, building code issues come into play. Once you invite the City of Houston to your home, the plumbing inspector comes out and they’re going to make sure that the house is completely up to code, and safe and secure.

Naturally these 40, or 50, year-old homes are not up to code because code changes every 10, 15, years. When I say “the code violations,” a lot of the times these older homes, the water heater has what they used to be code or efficient, is single wall vent on the vent pipe. From, say the furnace, or mainly from the water heater. Single wall vent is no longer code.

What we have to do is we have to upgrade everything in the home to meet current plumbing standards and the City of Houston standards. So that double wall vent has to go. The new code standard for water heaters requires a  Type B Gas Vent pipe.

We’ll have to demolish, take out all the old water heater vent piping and restructure it all the way through the roof with a cap collar, storm collar, with of course the double wall vent, which is much better protection for the homeowner…Whichever gas appliance, it evacuates all the carbon monoxide out through the roof to keep the homeowner safe.

That’s one thing that City of Houston’s going to look for, make sure that they have double wall Type B Gas Vent pipe in order to secure the carbon monoxide issue. Another thing, number two, that the City of Houston mainly is going to look for is what we call a drip leg. A drip leg is on the gas piping system.

This is in order to catch any kind of debris or just things that rust that may come through the natural gas piping system at the water heater. It’s basically right before we go into the gas control valve on the water heater with the gas piping, with the flex, we will install a T and a nipple and a cap. It basically looks like a cross. I’ll have to send you a picture of what a drip leg looks like. It’s kind of hard to explain.

It’s city code, and it’s meant to protect the gas appliance from any debris going into the gas control valve. This code also applies to the furnace. They want to protect the furnace from any kind of debris in the natural gas piping system. So also before the flex goes into the appliance, we have to install what’s called that drip leg — a dirt leg, drip leg…

Plumbers use a different variety of lingo, but I call it a drip leg. It sounds a lot better than a dirt leg. [laughs] Dirt leg sounds like something you’d find in a brothel. [laughs] other things on a gas system…

Once we bring the home up to code, the vent piping for the water heater, for the furnace, the drip legs are in place, all the leaks have been fixed, secured, with the new Teflon thread tape and thread sealant we will pressurize the system with compressed air once again.

Can I just turn off my own gas meter?

Oh, I forgot the biggest thing. We have to pull a city permit, a permit through the City of Houston for what they call a GTO — a gas turn off. This is a big thing. Remember this. We have to pull the city permit through the City of Houston, pull a gas test permit, or GTO — which GTO means gas turn off, that’s just more plumbing terminology. It’s called a gas turn off permit or gas test permit.

Once we’ve pulled the permit, and we fix all the building code issues, make sure there are no more gas leaks, we will put that gauge back on the piping system right there where the meter is, and we’ll pump that gauge up to approximately 8 to 10 pounds per square inch, and leave the gauge overnight. City of Houston usually comes…they do inspections on the next day. Once I have the permit, I’ve got a project number.

I will call in downtown to the City with that project number and say, “We are ready for inspection.” This very important, “We’re ready for inspection. We’ve got the gauge on the home, pumped up with 8-10 pounds per square inch of compressed air.” The next day, the City Inspector will come out, take a look at the gauge, make sure that it’s still holding and there are no leaks.

He’ll look at the gauge. Then, he’ll go in the home and perform the inspection — make sure that the water heater and the furnace have the proper Type B double wall gas vent pipe, and he’ll look at it, make sure that we have drip legs on the appliances, at the water heater, and at the furnace. Generally, after he does those inspections — it takes him 5, 10 minutes — he’ll come back out to our pressure gauge and make sure that it’s still holding the 8 to 10 pounds, or whatever setting we left it on when he got there.

He’ll thump the gauge to make sure. Generally, he’ll let some air out to make sure that the gauge isn’t faulty or anything like that, let a bunch of air out…”OK.” Then, he will give us what’s called a “green tag.” Once we have the green tag, he will upload in his Blackberry that the home is up to code and holding pressure, no more gas leaks.

He will update all his notes in his Blackberry, and send a notification to CenterPoint Energy, that this home is safe and secure for human occupation. Once that’s done — generally that night, that day…a couple hours — CenterPoint Energy will come back and they will hang the meter. Then, the homeowner has restored natural gas.

Once CenterPoint hangs their meter, turns their gas back on, they’ll come back in and light all their pilot lights, make sure that everything’s up and running. We have our green tag, and we have a satisfied safe homeowner. That’s all for now. Hopefully, this helps clear the air in the question of “I smell gas, what should I do?”

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