My wife and I had everything planned for Halloween; I would take the girls trick-or-treating and she would hold down the fort. My first hint that the evening might take an unexpected turn was when she called to mention that she smelled something funny, and she thought that this time it probably was natural gas, not a stale dishrag like last time. I was skeptical, until she called me a few hours later to say that the smell was a lot stronger in the (gas) furnace room, that the kids were buckled into the car, and that I was going to be coming home to deal with this while she and the kids went to supper.

She was right. The smell was obvious. Being a hands-on kind of guy, I decided to investigate this myself. I made some soapy water and spread it on the place I thought was most likely to be leaking: a set of pipes around the main stepdown regulator. After half an hour or so of unfruitful exploration, I grew a clue, gave up, turned off gas to the whole house at the meter, and called in the gas company (PSNC).

I learned two new things:

  • If you just think you smell gas, they do not charge to come investigate, and they treat it as an emergency, even if you tell them that you have already turned off the gas at the meter. I don't know if that is true for every gas company, but it was true for PSNC.
  • This is the time of year to pay attention to your nose when you think you might possibly smell a gas leak. More on that later...

The technician called me to apologize for having to finish up one emergency call before coming to handle my emergency. Not a problem! He arrived just after the first trick-or-treaters came by. He “clocked” the leak by marking and watching the meter with no appliances running, and I got my first indication that this was not trivial when after only a minute his eyebrows went up and he said, “Oh, that’s really leaking!” I was gratified to see that the first thing he tested in the house was the exact same place I had started looking, but no bubbles showed up with his soap either.

The investigation continued for something like an hour and a half. We pulled out suspended ceiling. We turned different parts of the system on and off. Finally, he started putting high-pressure air into different parts of the system – and in the first place that both of us had looked, bubbles started forming as a joint started hissing. The leak was found!

Unfortunately, when the contractors (Yellow Dot, as far as I can tell) installed the gas lines in our house, they hadn’t followed code. And the Wake County inspector didn’t call them on it. There was no union joint to make it easy to fix the leak. So instead of the technician turning his wrench a few more turns and swabbing on some more joint compound, I paid for an hour of overtime to do the fix right and bring the house into compliance with code. A small price to pay for a fixed gas leak right away, and hot water in the morning! When he was done, the meter didn’t budge during a 20-minute test, whereas before it had moved perceptibly within a minute.

The technician explained to me that when the weather gets cold, they inject a lot more mercaptin oderant into the natural gas supply to make it more likely that people will discover leaks in time to fix them before they cause trouble. He said it makes for more repair calls as the cold weather starts – and they really don’t mind…

The fast response, the thorough investigation, and the quality fix done quickly and correctly made me feel good about paying the gas bill. As a bonus, while he was doing all this investigation and repair, he was assiduous about wiping off his feet to keep the carpet clean and closing the doors to keep out mosquitoes.