The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 54 code, the vast majority of industry training modules and owners manuals that come with gas appliances speak to the need to check for leaks following an interruption of service.
It is also necessary to bleed some air from the line following a service interruption. Air in the line prevents pilot lights from lighting, which frustrates customers.
We recently handled a case that serves as a good example of how air in the line can go awry.
In this incident, a marketer was asked to change out his tank for that of a competitor’s. As a result of the change-out, the gas system was subject to an interruption of service. Following the normal practice of the company and NFPA 54, the serviceman conducted a leak check of the gas system at the tank using a manometer. No leaks were found. The serviceman then went to the home and asked the homeowner if she would like to have the pilots relit. She agreed to have this done.
The serviceman lit the pilot on the stove without incident. He then went to a utility closet off the kitchen and attempted to reach the water heater. The closet was configured so that a furnace with a door entry was on one side and a washer and dryer – on the other side at a 90-degree angle – were set behind a framing that prevented them from being moved. The serviceman could not squeeze into the opening. He asked the tenant if she could get to the water heater. She agreed to try and was successful. She was not, however, able to light the pilot. The serviceman asked if she knew someone who could get to the water heater and attempt to light it. She said she could find someone.
After the serviceman left the home, the tenant called her parents – who owned the home – and asked if they knew anyone who could light the pilot. The mother called the gas company and asked if it would send someone out. She was told they could come, but it would cost $50. So, she asked a family friend to light the pilot. He had lived in the home and had previously lit the exact water heater. The mother then had the serviceman speak to the friend who had agreed to help.
During this call, the serviceman confirmed that the man knew how to light the pilot. Additionally, he told him there might be air in the line and he would need to briefly crack the line to get air out. He asked the family friend if he knew how to do that. He said he did.
Once at the home, the family friend attempted to light the pilot without success. He then cracked the gas line for a few seconds and reconnected it. He smelled gas and asked the tenant’s mother to come into the home and confirm the smell. She confirmed a faint smell of gas. She left the home as it was aired out for about 15 minutes. The family friend then attempted to light the water heater without success, so he cracked the gas line again. He reconnected it after a few seconds. The tenant’s mother entered the home, and the family friend tried to light the pilot without airing out the room. An explosion followed.
A lawsuit was filed. The claim was simple. It was negligent to advise a homeowner to crack a gas line. We should have ensured the water heater was lit before we left the scene or secured it to prevent someone from getting hurt in the process.
Lighting an appliance is not required by code, but having homeowners attempt it and instructing them to crack a gas line is not a good idea. Only a leak check is required following an interruption of service, but the company said on its website and in its literature that it would light appliances in this situation.
Keep safety as a top priority at all times. Don’t ask consumers to do something like crack a gas line.
John V. McCoy is with McCoy Leavitt Laskey LLC. His firm represents industry members nationally. He can be reached at jmccoy@MLLlaw.com or 262-522-7007.