Natural gas is a relatively safe, efficient, and convenient source of energy, providing more than half the homes in the United States with heat and the ability to cook food, dry clothing, and heat water.¹ But if your natural gas is improperly installed or maintained, gas leaks can become a health risk and source of danger in your home.
There are also other potential sources of poisonous vapors in your home, including fumes from improperly ventilated generators, furnaces, and even attached garages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate as many as 50,000 Americans visit the emergency room yearly due to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.²
In addition to the health risks, gas leaks carry explosive potential due to the highly flammable nature of the vapors. If you have gas installed in your home or business or are currently experiencing fumes inside the house that you can’t identify, we’ve compiled this guide to help you detect and prevent gas leaks.
Be aware that gas leaks aren’t the only potential source of gas in your home. Naturally occurring gas like radon can pose significant health risks in residential areas.
Signs and Symptoms of a Gas Leak
If you suspect a gas leak in your home, the very first thing you should do is turn off the pilot light or gas meter and alert your gas company or authorities. Because gas is odorless, suppliers add a potent smell similar to rotten eggs to alert occupants to the dangerous vapor and allow time for evacuation before symptoms become overwhelming.
In addition to an overpowering sulfur smell, there are a few other signs you might be experiencing a gas leak.
A hissing or whistling sound
Bubbles, dust, or a “cloud” in standing water
Visible damage to a gas line connection
House plants that suddenly die
One of the first early warnings of a gas leak or dangerous levels of gas in the home may be symptoms associated with carbon monoxide poisoning.3 This is because as the gas level increases, oxygen rates within the space drop. Symptoms of elevated carbon monoxide exposure include the following:
Breathing difficulties or chest pains
Lightheadedness or dizziness
Eye or throat irritation
Nausea or reduced appetite
Depression, irritability, or other mood changes
Ringing in ears
Pets, children, older adults, and anyone with asthma may be among the first to suffer from symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. Extremely high levels may cause loss of consciousness and, without prompt medical attention, even death.
Pro Tip: Radon is a naturally occurring gas, but unlike carbon monoxide poisoning, exposure doesn’t directly result in symptoms. Radon is, however, the second leading cause of lung cancer.4 It’s recommended you test and monitor your home with radon detectors for a build-up of this noxious gas, especially in areas of the United States where screenings routinely indicate higher than average levels of radon.
How to Check for a Gas Leak
In most cases, your nose will lead the way. Before carbon monoxide reaches dangerous levels, you’ll typically smell the odor associated with leaking gas. If you’re unsure, it’s still smart to turn off the pilot light on your stove, furnace, or water heater, open the windows, and get the folks who could be in danger out of harm’s way. Alert authorities immediately and don’t try to reenter the house until a professional deems it safe.
You can confirm or debunk a potential gas leak with the following tactics:
1. Listen for a hiss or whistling noise
Stop moving for a minute and focus on what you can hear. If you know where the gas line is, try to identify if it’s emitting any sort of noise. It’s not always the case that the gas is moving through a confined space, so don’t rely on this sound exclusively to determine the presence of a leak.
2. Check the stove or range top
When you turn on the burner, gas stoves will give off a blue flame. Blue indicates there is enough oxygen in the air for the gas to combust. Orange or red flames even after the stove has been lit spell trouble.
3. Try the soapy water test
It sounds like an old wives’ tale, but mix a concentrated solution of a teaspoon of dish detergent with one cup of water. Apply it to wherever you suspect a leak, like a connection or juncture, and look for bubbles to form that indicate escaping gas.
4. Use a gas leak detector
The surest way to find a gas leak is to use a gas leak detector. There are plenty of options out there, and you can read about our recommendations for the best gas leak detectors.
Carbon Monoxide Detectors
Early warning of a gas leak can be vital to avoid serious consequences, so the best approach is always a proactive one. Instead of diagnosing signs of a leak, monitor your home for the elevated levels of carbon monoxide that would indicate air quality problems and alert you to danger long before you risk exposure.
Gas leaks aren’t the only source of potentially dangerous fumes in the home. Generators used with improper ventilation indoors are a leading cause of carbon monoxide poisoning, especially during peak storm season in the fall and winter months.
Carbon monoxide detectors, while not designed to detect the presence of gas specifically, can alert you to potentially hazardous levels of air quality occurring in your home. We recommend Nest Protect, a smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector rolled into one that plays well with other smart devices in your home.
In addition to being proactive about detecting air quality problems in your home, you can also prevent gas leaks and other potentially hazardous sources of carbon monoxide by conducting routine maintenance on furnaces, stoves, fireplaces and other equipment that uses gas. Additionally, ensure you properly ventilate spaces where gas is being used, whether it’s a furnace, a stove, or a generator. Last but not least, establish a monthly cadence for testing your carbon monoxide and smoke detectors, and be sure to refresh batteries annually.
FAQs about Gas Leaks
Will a carbon monoxide detector detect a gas leak?
Technically speaking, a carbon monoxide detector is not designed to detect the presence of gas. Instead, these devices alert for elevated levels of carbon monoxide in the air that could be the result of toxic gases or air quality issues.
Is a gas leak from my stove dangerous?
Any gas leak is potentially dangerous and should be handled by a professional. If you think you have a problem, evacuate your home and alert authorities. You should turn off the pilot light or gas meter, open windows, and avoid using electronics nearby. While it might be a relatively minor issue that’s easily resolved, it’s best to proceed cautiously.
Is the soapy water gas leak test effective?
Applying soapy water to your pipes and gas line connections and looking for bubbles to indicate the presence of a leak can be useful, but it’s also not conclusive. Even if you don’t see visible indications of a leak, you should still treat the smell or other symptoms you’re experiencing seriously.
Kaz is a journalist who covers home security, parenting, and community and child safety. Her work and product testing in the security and safety field spans the past four years. You can find Kaz in HuffPost, SheKnows, Lifehack, and much more. Her degree in education and her background as a teacher and a parent make her uniquely suited to offer practical advice on creating safe environments for your family. Learn more