A case for combustible gas detectors

February 1, 2005 By    

If you are like me, you want to avoid accidents and promote safety. It is important to make this distinction, because I am calling for something a bit radical that requires some help from all safety leaders.

 Jay Johnston LP/Gas Magazine Columnist
Jay Johnston LP/Gas Magazine Columnist

I’d like to see fire code and jurisdictions require combustible gas detectors for all commercial and residential applications, similar to current recommendations for smoke detectors.

Be it natural gas or propane, post-accident investigation generally concludes that a gas leak, in conjunction with the correct mixture of air, eventually found ignition. Leaks are unusual in systems that are maintained and where service remains uninterrupted. They most often are attributed to unauthorized work on the system, frost heave, line deterioration, damage to lines outside the building and equipment malfunction.

It is easy to blame and point fingers after the fact. When the cattle are out of the barn, we should argue less about who ought to pay the cost to round them up and more about fixing the gate.

Therefore, I recommend that combustible gas leak detectors become mandated by code for all commercial and residential buildings, applying equally to propane and natural gas. In conjunction with fighting for tort reform, why not fight for prevention and warning equipment? We already do so for carbon monoxide detectors; why stop there?

Plaintiff attorneys place responsibility for distribution, maintenance and accuracy of combustible gas detectors upon the propane marketer. This self-justifying legal notion is misguided and incorrect. Is the electrical company or the fire department responsible for providing and maintaining your smoke detectors? Are they responsible for their accuracy? Of course not. That falls on the building owner as specified by code.

The greatest reason combustible gas leak detectors should be required by code is to detect gas that has lost odorant.With a leak or break in a line outside the building and underground, the gas will follow its available pathway and the soil may cleanse the gas of odorant. By the time it reaches a building foundation, finds a crack and mixes with air, the odor may be undetectable.

In theory and in function, a combustible gas leak detector is designed to detect the gas, not the odorant. Gas leak detectors would be a great first step in the prevention of injury or death due to a gas leak. But we can’t stop there.

For years I have been preaching about customer safety communication. Plaintiff attorneys call it “Duty to Warn.” What if, during your Gas Check or equivalent service documentation, you included information regarding combustible gas leak detectors and reference the code recommendation? Do you think we might facilitate advanced warning and injury prevention?

I am not recommending that you sell or distribute combustible gas detectors. You should recommend that customers purchase and maintain their own equipment. Smoke and CO detectors are readily available at most hardware stores and retail outlets. Combustible gas detectors, which cost $35-40, could become just as common if the building and fire codes required them.

Changing the code also would address the misguided notion that a gas company is responsible for any financial liability because it did not provide such equipment. The only ones with that kind of control are the building occupants.

These code changes won’t happen overnight, if at all. But we can lobby for it just as hard as we do for other legislative change. I think it’s the right thing to do.

Every time you roll your eyes and dismiss the idea, visualize accidents prevented, injuries avoided and lawsuits never finding your doorstep.

Until next time – be safe.

Jay Johnston (www.TheSafetyLeader.com) is president of Jay Johnston & Associates, Inc., an independent consulting firm specializing in insurance audits, safety communications audits and high impact safety presentations. He is also the editor of The Safety Leader newsletter, a forum for leadership development for the propane industry and can be reached at 888-725-2705 or

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