The official cause of Tuesday morning's fire at 1011 W. University Avenue in Urbana that shut down University Avenue is under investigation, but early indications are a natural gas explosion may be behind it. The News-Gazette checked in with three area specialists to find out what we need to know about natural gas leaks.
1 Natural gas does not have an odor. The chemical mercaptan is added to allow people to detect natural gas leaks. It is mercaptan that gives gas that rotten egg smell, said Bill Rose, research architect with the indoor climate research and training program in the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.
2 If you smell mercaptan, it could indicate a sudden, large natural gas leak or a small leak that has built up over time, said Brian Brauer, associate director at Illinois Fire Service Institute. Firefighters have equipment that can measure the leak. You, however, should leave the residence and call 9-1-1 from outside the building. And by outside, Brauer does not mean the porch, but on the sidewalk where you can flag down the fire department or gas company. Use your cell. Landline phones could cause a spark, he said.
3 Natural gas leaks can be caused when a part in an appliance (gas water heater, gas stove, furnace) has failed or by leaks that develop over time in gas line hoses or loose fittings, for example. That's why Richard White with the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center recommends people have qualified individuals inspect furnaces annually. There's also the possibility a leak and gas buildup occurs when someone turns on a gas stove, the pilot light does not light and the person walks away from the stove, rather than turning off the burner.
4 As far as how the gas becomes ignited, you might imagine a movie scene in which the character flips a cigarette into a gas-filled room. "Usually it's a lot more subtle than that," said Brauer, who stressed that he was speaking generally.He knew of one fire caused by gas building up due to a faulty water heater and then the dryer was turned on. In an industrial setting, it could be a spark from grinding metal that prompts the blaze.
5 "It is possible for a leak to reach a concentration where a spark or flame could ignite and it would be devastating," Rose said. Adults know that rotten egg smell can signal a leak, but do children? Next time you practice stop-drop-and-roll with the kids, talk to them about recognizing that smell. Scratch-n-sniff mercaptan stickers, anyone?