A gas leak is a serious business. Dreadfully serious business. Knowing how to properly identify a gas leak and being crystal clear on the steps you should take once you have confirmed one is key to avoiding and preventing a potentially deadly incident.

Natural gas is a highly flammable and toxic substance that is commonly used by hundreds of millions if not billions of homes around the world to cook, bathe, and for heating. However, it is combustible and has the potential to ignite fires and explode violently.

Therefore, safety should be prioritized above all else when it comes to using natural gas. If you or someone around you detects a gas leak at your home, workplace, or anywhere else, you must act quickly and decisively to prevent injury.

Thankfully, special tools are not required to detect suspected gas leaks; in fact, all you need is a working sense of smell. Furthermore, preventing a gas leak is not as complicated as some of you may be thinking. So let’s talk all about gas leaks, how to detect them, what to do when you have one, and how to successfully prevent them.

How Do You Recognize A Gas Leak?

If you use natural gas for your gas range or gas-powered water heater, you should know how to recognize and detect a potential leak. Thankfully, doing so is rather easy and only requires that you pay attention to your environment using some common sense and your sense of smell.

What Does A Gas Leak Smell Like?

Natural gas does not have a natural smell. Suppliers of natural gas add a substance called Mercaptan (also known as Methanethiol) to the gas. It is a colorless gas that has a sulfur-like smell that most people describe as that of rotten eggs.

Thus, when natural gas leaks it gives off an instantly recognizable putrid smell that warns people of its presence. So, what does a gas leak smell like? It smells of rotten eggs.

A gas leak smells like rotten egg

Another useful thing to look out for if you suspect a gas leak is an unexplained hissing or whistling sound. Since gas is stored and delivered through pipes at high pressures when it leaks it produces a very faint but distinctive hissing sound.

So, if you get a whiff of rotten eggs or sewage, and hear a faint hiss, you can be fairly certain that a gas leak is taking place.

Why Are There Gas Leaks In The First Place?

Gas leaks are the result of failure in important safety and environmental factors. In other words, gas leaks are caused by a lack of maintenance and proper usage of gas-powered equipment and accessories.

This includes gas cylinders, stationary tanks, gas pipelines, gas hoses, stoves, water heaters, and gas-powered auxiliary heaters.

On average, around 17 people die from explosions and fires caused by unchecked gas leaks. Compared to deaths by automobile accidents, which count in the hundreds of thousands, gas leaks may seem inoffensive.

A natural gas furnace can cause a leak

The truth, however, is that these sorts of incidents, of which there are thousands per year, cause millions of dollars in property damage and injure hundreds of people.

Even if the gas leak does not result in an explosion or fire, exposure to natural gas in high concentrations can cause a wide number of side effects to your health. Symptoms include headaches, nausea, vomiting, cough, difficulty breathing, drowsiness, loss of vision, and loss of consciousness.

And, if enough gas leaks into a given space, it can displace all of the oxygen in the room causing people to asphyxiate and die.

Responding To A Gas Leak Appropriately

The priority when acting in the face of a confirmed gas leak is to assess the seriousness of the situation. Before you take any action you must determine which actions must be prioritized to minimize damage and the risk of injury and death.

For example, if the smell of rotten eggs (accompanied by a slight hissing sound) is detected but is very faint, the leak might be small and easily manageable by airing out the area.

However, if you find that the smell of rotten eggs is so strong and overpowering that you find yourself experiencing difficulty breathing, then you have a major leak that requires more immediate and urgent actions.

Before we start, I want to say, If you are in a confined space or are uncertain of the extent of the leak. Get out. It’s always better safe than sorry.

If you find yourself dealing with a mild gas leak, here is what you should do:

  • Ventilate the location by opening all possible windows and shutters. You may remove any curtains or blinds to make sure that the flow of air is maximized as much as possible. In case of a probate or butane leak, you may also want to open all doors that lead out because these are heavier gasses that stick close to the floor and will not easily exit the house through open windows.
  • Next, close the gas shut-off valve. Most people don’t realize how important it is to know exactly where the gas shut-off valve is located in their house until they have a gas leak. If you can locate and close the gas shut-off valve you will eliminate the source of the leak and significantly reduce the risk of any potential explosions or fires.
  • Additionally, you must make sure that all burners in the kitchen are turned off and that the pilot light in your water heater is also turned off.
  • Avoid as much as possible using any electrical appliances or turning on any lights that are off. Even the tiniest electrical spark produced by any of these things can be enough to ignite the concentrated gas and set in motion an explosion or fire.
  • Finally, contact your gas provider and report the leak. If your gas company does not send a technician, you should call a licensed technician to address the situation and determine the best course of action to resolve the leak.

When you place these calls make sure to not use a landline and step outside to place the call on your mobile phone if possible, as it can also produce tiny sparks that can ignite the gas.

In case you have detected a significant leak, follow these recommendations:

  • Evacuate the location immediately, or as soon as possible.
  • Do not waste time trying to find the source of the gas leak. Doing so could result in you passing out from gas inhalation or lack of oxygen.
  • Once outside, call your gas company, as well as the fire department. They will determine the best course of action to resolve the leak safely.
  • Do not attempt to re-enter the premises until you have been given the full clear by the authorities.

Preventing A Gas Leak

Thankfully, prevention of a gas leak is very simple and only requires that you follow some common-sense precautions.

Whether you do this yourself or seek the aid of a certified inspector, gas safety inspections should be performed to reduce the risk of injury or death.

A gas line inspection is a good way to prevent a gas leak

A gas inspection should cover the following items:

  • All gas-powered appliances and devices must be inspected for signs of wear and should be upkept with regular maintenance.
  • All gas supplying lines must be checked to make sure they can safely withstand the pressure applied by the gas within.
  • If a new gas-powered appliance needs to be installed, the installation of the device and its corresponding gas lines and connector should be done by an accredited engineer.
  • Contact your gas supplier or utility company and request an official gas line inspection for your house. These are generally performed every 2 to 5 years. 

Additionally, you can follow the tips below to further minimize the risk of unnecessary gas leaks:

  • Make sure that all burners are completely turned off after using. Do the same with the oven. 
  • Make sure that any pilot lights are on. If one of your pilot lights is found turned off, make sure the gas supply is shut off.
  • If you are going to be absent from your home for an extended period, make sure to close off the gas shut-off valve during your absence.
  • Maintain good ventilation.
  • Do not make repairs yourself on your installation. Leave this to the professionals.
  • If you have a large number of gas-powered appliances and devices, you would do well to install specialized natural gas detectors in the house.

More Information About Gas Leaks

Here are some frequently asked questions about gas pipe leaks.

Is it normal to smell gas near a furnace?

When you first fire a gas-powered furnace you may catch a slight whiff of gas. This is normal because even small traces of natural gas give off the characteristic rotten egg odor. 

This smell should dissipate shortly after the furnace fires up and the gas starts to be consumed. If you continue to smell gas standing near a lit furnace, you should immediately turn it off and seek professional help.

Does a gas leak smell like burning plastic?

A gas leak does not smell like burning plastic. The smell of leaking gas is very specific, and it can best be described as sulfur-like.

A burning-plastic smell is most likely related to electrical issues. If you suddenly find yourself smelling burning plastic inside your home, it is possible that one of your appliances is overheating or you have a wiring issue.

This should be addressed as soon as possible because electrical problems can result in fires as well.

What does a propane gas leak smell like?

Propane gas, a green and eco-friendly alternative to natural gas, shares several characteristics with its lighter cousin. One of these characteristics is its odorless nature. However, just like with natural gas, suppliers add mercaptan to provide the propane gas with an instantly recognizable unpleasant odor.

Can a dead animal smell like a gas leak?

The artificial odorant added to gas smells distinctly unpleasant. While most people would describe it as that of rotten eggs, some people liken it to that of death or decay. As such, a dead animal such as a mouse or rat may be confused for a gas leak and vice versa.

A dead animal can smell for several weeks, and you shouldn’t wait that long to rule out a gas leak.

Can the rotten eggs smell fade over time in a gas leak?

Yes, the added odorant can disappear over time. This phenomenon is called odor fade and can be caused by many factors, including the presence of rust, moisture, oil, low gas pressure, etc.

Will Carbon Monoxide detectors warn of a gas leak?

No. Carbon Monoxide detectors will not detect a gas leak. Carbon Monoxide detectors should be installed in every home, as they can save lives. Unfortunately, they will not detect natural gas leaks since carbon monoxide and natural gas are different chemical compounds with completely different physical and chemical qualities.