Sherleak Holmes, the famous leak detective, investigates how to find gas leaks

It’s not easy being a homeowner. There is a seemingly endless array of things that can worry you. One of the scariest is when you’re faced with the possibility of having a natural gas or propane leak—most notably because the possible consequences are extremely dangerous: poisoning, fire, and explosion. This article will provide homeowners with much-needed instruction on becoming aware of and detecting gas leaks around their property, both above and below ground.

Your Nose Knows

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Gas odors are often the first sign of a gas leak. To that end, manufacturers of natural gas and propane add mercaptan—a rotten egg, sulfur-like odorant—to help identify leaking gas. No, it’s not high-tech, but the sniffer your mama gave you is a good first line of defense. Check any appliances that are powered by gas and all visible pipes. Because the nature of gas is to diffuse out over distances, gas smells usually travel away from their source. For that reason, you may not be able to pinpoint the leak with your nose, but you can at least be aware of its existence. Also, keep in mind that you can become inured to odors over time, so if you smell gas when you get home but it seems to go away over time, that doesn’t mean the problem went away.

Break Out Your Magnifying Glass

When you checked your appliances and pipes for smells, you also, of course, looked for possible visual signs something might have been amiss. Did anything look broken? Was anything rusted or corroded? Those items are pretty easy to spot. For underground gas leaks, though, the signs are different and typically show up after heavy rains or thaws.

Look for these underground gas leak signs:

Warning signs of underground gas leak
  • Dead vegetation spots or discolored grass above gas lines.
  • A vapor cloud or white cloud if the leak is substantial enough.
  • Standing water or mud seepage from gas escaping underground.
  • Blowing dirt, dust, or bubbles. As the gas emerges from below it displaces the soil.
  • Changes like those, especially when clustered together, could be evidence of an underground leak.

Be sure to make a note of any of these clues that you discover on your property.

Use a Gas Detector for Early Gas Leak Detection

While your nose and eyes are invaluable for helping to identify the presence of gas leaks, good ‘ol technology—in the form of specialized gas detectors—can lend a considerable hand.

Methane detectors and natural gas alarms simply plug into any wall outlet and monitor the surroundings for leak indicators. Some give real-time gas readouts on LCD displays. Basic detectors trigger alarms and flashing lights when sensing dangerous levels. They aren’t all that expensive either; most cost less than $100 online or at hardware store retailers.

The first priority is placing them near gas appliances, but there’s certainly no harm in adding units throughout the house. No siree. They’re designed to alert you to leaks before they pose a major threat and give you time to evacuate the family out of the house and call the gas company.

Be Careful With Propane

Propane leak explosion meme

In many states, plumbers and other technicians who work with gas must get a special license for propane. The reason is because, while natural gas is lighter than air, propane is heavier. As a result, it sinks and pools together at floor level, making it easier to accidentally ignite. If the potential dangers of propane make it necessary for the pros to get a special license, logic would dictate that propane issues certainly aren’t something that homeowners should try to remedy.

When to Call in a Professional

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For small suspected leaks, while the gas detection equipment listed above allows you to survey your own property, it usually makes sense to call in the big guns. If you do suspect a leak exists, give a shout to your utility company or a leak detection service contractor. The pros have specialized leak detection tools such as:

  • Flame ionization detectors can identify minute gas concentrations in the air.
  • Thermal imaging cameras can detect gas escapes not visible to the naked eye.
  • Ground penetrating radar uses radar pulses to map underground gas lines.

With the right equipment, specially trained technicians can locate the origin and extent of any leak on your property. It’s a wise move to let them identify the exact location of the leak. The safety of your significant other, your little ones, and your furry friends are too important to risk.

How Water Leak Technicians Find the Exact Source

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In addition to the equipment above, gas leak techs use other methods to isolate the source after detecting a gas leak on a property:

  • Pressure testing isolates sections of pipe and raises pressure. Drops indicate leaks.
  • Tracer gas testing injects detectable gas into pipes and tracks where it emerges.
  • Acoustic sensors listen for the high-frequency hiss of gas escaping pipes.
  • Soil gas surveys extract soil gas samples to test for leak signatures.

Once the leak is pinpointed, repairs can begin. If the leak is underground, excavation equipment may be needed, of course. In that case, before digging, the utility or contractor will first need to locate the existence of anything else in the general vicinity that may be underground—for example, pipes, electrical lines, other wires, conduits, etc. Best to let sleeping dogs lie.

How to detect a gas leak - photo of an outdoor gas meter

Repairing Gas Leaks

The specific repairs required depend on the leak cause and location:

  • Cracked pipes or fittings are repaired by sealing leaks or replacing damaged sections.
  • Corroded pipes usually need to be replaced.
  • Loose joints can simply be tightened or new leak-proof seals added.
  • Damaged valves are replaced.
  • Shifts in the earth can require adjusting pipe alignments and adding support.

Depending on the repairs needed, fixing an underground gas leak can put a dent in your pocketbook. But repairs pale in comparison to the potential effects that gas leaks can cause physically to your property and, most importantly, to your family’s health.

Maintain Your Gas Lines

Like anything else, doing proper preventative maintenance enhances safety and can avoid costly emergency repairs down the road. Many leaks occur in old, deteriorating gas pipes. Outdated iron and steel lines are eventually going to leak—it’s a question of when not if—and should be replaced with newer polyethylene plastic piping, PE piping doesn’t become compromised by either the gas or soil and can flex when the earth shifts. Bottom line, at the very least, if your pipes are older, do yourself a big favor and routinely inspect them and conduct leak surveys after incidents like earthquakes or floods.

Trust Your Instincts

Vigilance is the key, my friend. Stay alert for any signs of potential danger, and never ignore questionable gas smells or visual evidence. Document your observations and get a professional to investigate immediately. Trust your senses and act promptly if you suspect an underground gas line is leaking. Your safety instincts combined with the right detection tools can help catch leaks before disaster strikes.