Older houses–I have always loved older houses. East Coast, West Coast, I like the feeling of previous lives in the halls, the open hand of a home with a past opening to welcome me into its present, translating me and mine into its history.
But for those who have natural gas as a piped-in utility, there’s a discussion we should have, and spread, for safety’s sake. How old are the pipes carrying that gas in to your furnace, water heater and possibly dryer or fireplace? Ever thought about it? I didn’t.
“We have a dead rat, or something, in the side yard.”
I said that too many times.
“Something died out there.”
Of course, we live on a bit of property with an orchard and lots of garden, so something was always dying out there under a bush or a tree or in the woodpile. No surprise there. Every so often, I would find the body and take it off to a nice deep hole, feeling a touch of pity as I tipped it in and tamped earth carefully down.
Last winter watched the neighbors tear up their front yard and replace their gas line. Leaks, they told us–a passer-by had smelled it and alerted them. Ten days without gas, without heat, without hot water. No fun at all and an awfully big check to write. I watched with sympathy, commiserated, asked if I could do anything. Then they packed the soil back in and it was over. Hmm, maybe I should think about having our meter moved from the far edge to up by the house. That would be costly but better to do it before a problem existed. I went and looked at the bank account and told myself like Scarlett–I’ll think about that another day.
Spring and I was spending time in the garden. There was that dead smell, but in a few days it dissapated, so I relaxed and assumed the dead animal, which I hadn’t found this time, was gone. Then the scent came back and husband said–“I think I smell gas in the yard; come over here and try.”
A fugitive sniff, I’ve smelt something like it before. But there have been too many sniffs.
“I’m calling the gas company on Monday.”
“My father always said ‘Go Gas, Go Boom,” said husband.
“Thanks,” I said.
Monday the young fellow with blue uniform and cap, his black moustache and earnest manner, moved his sensor all around the water heater, the furnace, the dryer, the stove top.
“I thought I smelled a dead animal out in the yard,” I said. “This way.”
He smelled it too, but it’s diffuse and he can’t get a reaction from his equipment. We round the house and turn off every appliance, then check the meter.
“Oh,” he said, and that was a bad noise the way it came out of him. “Are you sure we got all the appliances? Looks like you’re cooking on a couple of burners with maybe some other thing going. Twelve cubic feet an hour.”
“I’m not going to fight you–we have a leak. Let’s get this turned off,” I said. “Wish it were a dead opossum.”
“I hear you,” he said and cranked it off. “May be multiple breaks. You know this kind of pipe was supposed to be good for the long haul, but we’ve found out that’s twenty five or thirty years.”
“Really? Most recent time this could have been laid was between forty or fifty years ago. I need a plumber,” I said. “You probably can’t suggest, but I’m thinking of this company in town been here forever, family owned third generation and all that. I suppose I could go cheaper?”
“Sometimes cheaper means complications, breaks made worse, connections…”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
Nice guy. I could tell he felt bad, even apologetic, but after all, I called him.
So I won’t regale you with all the adventures, but let me tell this–the lines of gas were not as simple as we hoped. We found a mysterious ‘T’, and strange gas line size changes. We dug up soil reeking with a deep bad smell, with white deposits that the plumber’s crew said meant this was old leakage indeed. I looked down on the immensely corroded pipe that ran about a hundred feet from meter to house and realized that we’d had incredible luck. There had probably been little in-ground leaks back when we bought the house about twenty years ago.
So those of you with over thirty years old natural gas in-ground galvanized pipe lines, consider planning and budgeting for a re-piping event. The new lines will be polyurethane, more flexible in case of earthquake and the natural expansions and contractions of the soil, and with the promise of a much longer term. They say ‘lifetime’– my caution dictates that I think that’s a lot to ask. And whose lifetime? Mine in my fifties or my daughter in her twenties?
And at the end of the day, consider my gasman’s comment.
“Two ways to find out you have a gas leak,” he said. “This is the better way.”