How to Detect Poisonous Gas in Your Home

Written by | Updated March 9, 2017

Carbon monoxide poisoning sends more than 20,000 Americans to emergency rooms each year, so detecting gas leaks in your home needs to be a top priority. Poisonous gases present serious danger to health and safety because they are invisible, which makes it difficult to know if you and your household are at risk.

Early detection is your best bet to stay out of danger, because failure to identify a high level of gas in your home can cause illness, danger of explosion, and death. Keep your home and family safe by following these tips to detect a gas leak before it’s too late.

1. Follow Your Nose

In their original state, gases like carbon monoxide, radon, and methane are colorless and odorless, making them nearly impossible to detect. Thankfully, though many household appliances—such as stoves and hot water heaters—operate on natural gas, a harmless chemical called mercaptan is added to give the gas an odor.1 This odor is often the first and only warning that you might have a gas leak.

If you smell gas, don’t ignore it: immediately turn off the source of the gas. Next, air out your home. Open the windows and doors and get your family and pets out of the house. If there are any open flames from candles or pilot lights, extinguish them right away. Finally, contact the gas company. It will send someone out to check for a gas leak and let you know when it’s safe to return to your home.

2. Install a CO Detector

Carbon monoxide (CO) is just one poison your home may be exposed to, and inhaling too much can cause illness or even death. Unlike natural gas, there is no smell added to this odorless toxic gas. The only way to detect carbon monoxide is with a CO detector. Carbon monoxide detectors and alarms let you know if there are dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in your home. This alert lets you get your family to safety as quickly as possible.

Today, there are smart CO detectors that send alerts to your smartphone so you can immediately know of any danger, no matter where you are. We like Nest Protect, which is a smoke alarm and carbon monoxide detector in one. Not only does Nest Protect alert you to smoke and carbon monoxide, but it also tells you exactly where in your home it is detected. It also works with other smart devices in your home to help keep your family as safe as possible.

3. Watch the Flame’s Color

Another way to detect a natural gas leak is to pay attention to the color of your stove’s flame. This is a safety check you can conduct every time you turn on a burner. When you cook, get into the habit of looking for changes to the color of the gas flame. You want a crisp, blue flame that indicates everything is working properly and the gas is getting to the flame as it should.

If you see less blue and more orange or yellow, you might be in trouble. An orange or yellow flame indicates a problem with the flow of gas, which often means there is a leak. In this case, turn off the stove immediately, shut off the main source of gas, and follow the steps above to rid your home of gas fumes. Then, call the gas company to have someone come out and check for a leak.

4. Use a Radon Gas Detector Kit

Radon is another odorless gas, but this one is radioactive. It naturally occurs in soil and rocks, and it can enter your home through well water and cracks in foundations, walls, and pipes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, radon is the second-greatest cause of lung cancer, leading to about 21,000 deaths each year.2 The only way to find out if your home has concentrated levels of radon is with a radon gas detector kit.

There are short-term and long-term detectors, which measure radon levels for forty-eight hours up to ninety days. After the testing period, the kit is submitted to a lab that calculates levels of radon. Most homeowners start with short-term kits to get an initial reading of radon levels. The First Alert Radon Gas Test Kit is affordable and easy to use, and it delivers results as soon as seven days after submitting the test to the lab. One of the best parts about this kit is that the lab test fees are included with the purchase.

5. Conduct an Incense Test

If you think you might have a small leak from an appliance that uses gas, you can test for a leak using a simple stick of incense. Choice of incense doesn’t matter, as long as you use sticks instead of cones. One of our favorites is traditional Nag Champa incense. First, turn on the device that you want to test, like the stove. Next, light a stick of incense.

Once it is smoking, hold it next to the damper or hood of the appliance. Follow the path of the smoke coming from the incense, paying attention to which direction it blows. If the smoke blows away from the appliance and back into the room, that can mean there’s a leak. You can double-check your results by repeating the test with the exhaust fan turned on. Again, smoke blowing into the room instead of up the exhaust can indicate a leak.

How to Prevent Gas Leaks

In addition to putting detection devices and procedures in place, it’s also important to try to keep a gas leak from happening in the first place. There are many common maintenance practices that will help you minimize the odds of a gas leak in your home.

Regularly inspect gas-operated appliances: Make sure furnaces, stoves, and water heaters are installed, vented, and adjusted properly. Make inspection a regular part of home maintenance by adding it to your other routine tasks, like changing out air filters.

Use appliances as directed: Whether it’s a stove or a space heater, always use gas-operated appliances as intended. Never use a stove to heat a room or leave space heaters and other mobile appliances unattended.

Maintain gas-operated appliances: Follow recommended guidelines for maintenance and adjustments and always use a trained professional to repair, maintain, and adjust anything in your home that uses gas.

It can be daunting to protect your family from an invisible threat, but it has to be done. You can keep your family safe by following the suggestions on this list and staying educated and aware about poison gas threats. If you don’t have a CO detector or have never had your gas appliances inspected, there’s no time like the present to get started. These small steps can save you and your family from an unnecessary tragedy.

1., About Natural Gas
2. Environmental Protection Agency, Health Risk of Radon

Written by Rebecca Edwards

Rebecca has honed her safety and security skills as both a single mom and a college director. Being responsible for the well-being of others helped her learn how to minimize risk and create safe environments. Learn more

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