It’s sad to keep hearing horror stories involving natural gas. From the recent story of a million dollar home in Connecticut being devastated by a massive gas explosion, to the incident of a terraced house and two adjoining properties that were destroyed by a gas explosion in Sheffield, it’s a reminder of just how powerful and deadly Natural Gas can be – and the fact that we should treat it with respect.
That incident reminded us that the safety of our gas appliances is sometimes taken for granted – either that the installer will do their job properly or we simply don’t think about it unless something goes wrong. So one of our main questions was how could we ensure that gas appliances in our homes are safe?
The first thing we did was a little reading about Natural Gas, the gas used by the majority of households in the UK. Around 21 million people in the British Isles use Natural Gas for cooking and heating. It’s extracted from ‘fields’ under the Earth’s surface (in the case of the UK, under the North Sea) and suppliers inject it with a smelly gas called mercaptan before it reaches our homes to give its distinctive smell, which makes gas leaks more easily detectable. You know that smell – sort of like rotting vegetables or rotten eggs. But despite this safety measure things can, and still do, go wrong.
Natural gas was introduced into the UK in the 1960s, partly because of the scale of reserves found in the North Sea but also because it was cheaper, less poisonous and not as inflammable as its predecessor, so called ‘town gas’. Town gas was a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, more explosive than natural gas and far more toxic. At the time of the switchover hundreds of gas engineers were dispatched across the country to convert and inspect every single one of the 4000 different gas appliance being used at the time, reaching around 13 million households! According to the Gas Museum, the conversion programme started in May 1967 in Burton on Trent in Derbyshire and spread nationwide, finally coming to an end 10 years later.
According to the Burton Mail, the town was used as a guinea pig for the conversion project because ‘…it was an average-sized town with a suitable population size, as well as its close proximity to the National Transmission System (or network of gas pipelines that supply gas to 40 power stations and home suppliers).”
The switchover was a huge undertaking and testament to government ambitions for the industry. It cost around £500 million which would equate to billions in today’s money! Would we have the financial muscle or vision to do something like this today?
The benefits were not only financial; as a result of the switchover records published on the Gas Museum website show that gas related deaths fell from 1,246 in 1963 to 271 in 1970. A remarkable achievement, due partly to the ‘new’, safer gas but probably also due in part to the comprehensive inspection of appliances that had taken place.
Nowadays all landlords are required to have a gas safety certificate, but because the regulation isn’t statutory, full-scale servicing doesn’t always take place. Householders should also regularly check their appliances, and their gas boilers, fires and cookers if these are in the property.
Gas boilers should be serviced regularly – every 12 months being a standard length of time – and often before winter so it is serviced before heavy use. Gas safety certificates are important but they do not replace the need for a boiler to be serviced to ensure it is working properly and safely.
Gas fires are generally what are called ‘open flue appliances’ meaning they need oxygen from the surrounding area to burn. Ventilation is key to ensure that the gas burns cleanly and any dangerous gases that are produced are allowed to escape and do not collect in the room, which can have potentially fatal consequences.
Hundreds of people are left ill and dozens die each year in the UK due to carbon monoxide poisoning. The safest measure is to ensure the gas fire is installed by a qualified gas engineer, but a useful device to have in the room is a carbon monoxide detector. They are small and simple to use and generally only cost between £15 and £35 – these gadgets can be lifesavers, the modern equivalent of canaries down the mines!
Other devices like cookers that burn at a lower rate, below the safety level, are called flueless. These appliances, particularly freestanding cookers – can be lethal if not looked after. It is important not only to have a gas cooker installed correctly, but ideally should be serviced regularly to ensure the appliance is working correctly and efficiently.
Many domestic gas appliances are highly specific and need a specialist trained on that particular make to check them out. Getting the right expert for the job is vital and will allow you to rest easy.
The message is simple: Gas is great to cook on, it provides instant and often attractive heating, with some gorgeous coal effect fires on the market, but it needs to be treated with caution and common sense. The upshot is that you can’t be too careful – it can be your best friend and the worst of enemies.
This article was written by MyBuilder – helping UK homeowners find local recommended tradesmen.