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House explosion highlights importance of gas safety

MARSHALL — The propane gas explosion that leveled a house and killed two people this summer was an unusual incident for Marshall. But it’s still important to know the signs of a liquid propane or natural gas leak, and what to do if you detect gas in your home, Jim Smith said.

“The number one thing is to get out of the house, plain and simple,” said Smith, state fire marshal and director of pipeline safety. Smith spoke to the Independent about ways people can help avoid gas explosions like the one in August.

Liquid propane or natural gas can be safely used for cooking and heating. In rural Minnesota, it’s more typical to see LP gas carried in trucks and stored in tanks for home use, Smith said. However, LP gas or natural gas can become dangerous if the gas leaks out of a tank or supply line. If enough gas builds up inside a building, it can cause a powerful explosion if the gas is ignited.

In the case of the house explosion near Marshall, investigators said it appeared LP gas had leaked into the basement from a damaged underground supply line. The gas fueled an explosion sparked by a dryer in the basement of the house. The blast completely destroyed the building, and killed residents Gail and Nancy Schipansky.

As of November, there had been five fatalities from gas explosions reported in the state, Smith said. In 2019 there were three fatalities reported.

“This year the number is unusually high,” Smith said.

The most important thing to do if you think you detect a gas leak in your home is to get out of the house and call 911, Smith said. Don’t try to locate the gas leak yourself, because it wastes time that you might need to get out of the house, he said.

Often people can smell gas leaks, because of a chemical called mercaptan that is added to the gas.

“People rely on that rotten egg smell,” Smith said. However, he cautioned that it’s not always possible to smell a gas leak. For example, he said, if the leak is underground — like the one that caused the explosion at the Schipansky home — the soil can leach the smell of the mercaptan out of the gas.

“It was a unique situation,” Smith said of the explosion near Marshall.

For additional warning of a gas leak in the home, there are combination gas detectors available in stores that can help, Smith said. The detectors are designed to go off before gas concentrations reach the point that they will explode, so people have time to safely get out of the building. Smith said it’s important to follow the instructions for installing and using a detector to make sure it works effectively. For example, he said, an LP gas detector may need to be placed at a different height on the wall than a liquid natural gas detector. Much like a smoke detector, gas detectors need to have their batteries changed regularly.

Preventing damage to propane tanks and gas lines is important for preventing gas leaks, although it’s a risk that’s more common for rural residents, Smith said. Homeowners should make sure they know where the underground lines on their property go. If there’s going to be excavation or construction work on the property, it’s a good idea to mark where underground gas lines are, he said.

Gas leaks can also happen around furnaces and appliances like stoves and water heaters. Most leaks come from the point where the gas connects to the appliance, Smith said. You should always be careful moving or installing gas appliances like stoves, he said — there’s a risk of crimping or puncturing the flexible pipe that connects to the gas supply.

“You always want to follow the directions when starting a furnace or water heater,” Smith said. And if a gas furnace or water heater experiences an outage, have a professional re-light the pilot light.

Smith said there are resources like gas safety tips available online, through gas service providers like CenterPoint Energy and Lakes Area Cooperative.

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