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Today’s post actually started out to be a comparison of generators: Gasoline vs. Diesel vs. Propane. They all have their merits, and if you go online to make comparisons, you’ll discover that people can become passionate over which type of generator is best.
I intended to kick off this post by discussing tri-fuel generator conversion kits (that will allow generators to run on propane, natural gas and gasoline), which thwarts Murphy’s Law by not having to depend upon a single fuel source to run a generator.
That’s where I ran into a snag of nearly Biblical proportions. One of the first discussions I stumbled upon went something like this; “Because I have natural gas coming into my home, I’m going with a tri-fuel convertor that will run off the natural gas that feeds into my home–it’s dependable, folks!”
Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Years ago, I dispatched for a natural gas company in Anchorage, Alaska that supplied natural gas to customers, which covered a large portion of the state. These years of experience had me switching gears quick with regards to the direction of this week’s post! While reading about tri-fuel convertors for generators, I didn’t see anything that mentioned safety issues, nor did I see any discussion about what could stop the delivery of natural gas to homes–and there are several.
This subject is important enough that we’re diving into it today, and we’ll pick back up a comparison on generators next week. You’ll need to bear with me, though. This post will include how natural gas is distributed, and progress to the natural gas that feeds into your home. It will cover safety issues and availability–all extremely important for anyone depending upon it’s delivery or for those who are unaware of natural gas’ volatility.
As a dispatcher for this gas company, the number one priority, other than taking an hourly reading of the pressure levels that fed natural gas to our customers, was dispatching servicemen to gas-main hits. At that time, homeowners and construction companies were given Free locates to avoid hitting gas mains. But because there were no financial repercussions for homeowners or construction companies hitting a gas main back then, few ever bothered getting a locate!
Needless to say, we were kept very busy during the Alaskan construction season (late spring to late summer–Alaskan construction has a notoriously short shelf-life).
There were rare occasions when all available servicemen were risking their lives to repair blowing gas lines (I recall one nightmare day when we had 19 main hits!)–cave-in’s were known to happen and explosions were always on the mind of any prudent serviceman. Line hits always flooded dispatch’s phone lines with calls from concerned homeowners. Most were calling to report a suspected gas leak, presumably coming from a faulty appliance fitting or a split in the line-feed at the meter or into the home.
It was left up to the dispatcher whether or not the odorant (that obnoxious, egg-smell added to natural gas in order to detect a gas leak) the caller was smelling was an actual natural gas leak coming from a faulty appliances hook-up or line-feed into their home, or if they were picking up the odor of a line-break that was blowing from miles or blocks away (depending upon the severity of the break and the size of the gas main break).
This was a tricky determination for a dispatcher to make. Just because there may have been a main break in the vicinity of a caller didn’t necessarily mean that the caller didn’t also have a leak at an appliance or the gas line coming into their home.
One fateful day, the danger of a gas leak was brought front and center. I was off-duty that particular day. My fellow dispatchers had sent a serviceman to a home after the owner complained of the strong smell of gas. Readings at the foundation were alarming–enough so that the occupants were evacuated and several more servicemen were dispatched to the site.
While several servicemen were digging at the foundation of the home to find the source of the leak on the north side of the home, the south side blew. By blew, I mean BLEW–it could have killed the occupants had they not been evacuated from the home. Had the explosion occurred on the north side, where the service men were digging, their lives could have been lost. As it was, the home was destroyed and it made headline news.
(David’s note: It’s really hard to do an apples to apples comparison, but just so you have an idea of the power involved, 1 gallon of gasoline, mixed at a 1:14.7 fuel:air ratio is (VERY ROUGHLY) equivalent to 13 sticks of dynamite. CNG has a lower energy density than gasoline, but the explosive output is similar enough to power cars and/or cause damage.)
I didn’t share this story to frighten you. I have shared it to highlight the importance of knowing where your natural gas main is located, how much respect it deserves, and how to shut it off in an emergency.
We’ll start there and move on to why depending upon the delivery of natural gas in a disaster is not the best practice.
Learn Where Your Natural Gas Meter Is And Know How To Turn It Off
Natural gas meters (if you’ve got one) are typically mounted outdoors against the side of homes, either the back, front or side–but there is no way to be certain until you do an investigation of your own. In some cases, they can be found behind a panel or a breezeway. For multiple meters (for instance an apartment building or a business), the shut-off location may be indoors or out. Shutting off natural gas is done at the shutoff valve, which is typically located near the gas meter, and requires the use of a 12 to 15 inch adjustable pipe or crescent-type wrench.
Notice the words typically, some, and may used above? This is because there are no uniform rules and regulations over changing out old meters or on where they must be located. Some natural gas providers have their own rules and regulations. What it all means is that a meter can be located anywhere and it’s possible the shut off may require one of several possible tools. It’s important to know where your meter is and how to turn it off. If in doubt, make a call to your natural gas provider. They will be able to help you locate the meter and they can show you how to get the meter turned off. In the meantime, check out PG&E’s instructions, titled Turning Your Gas Off, which offers photographs of different styles of natural gas meters, explains where they are typically located, and offers diagrams on how to turn natural gas to the off position.
Disaster’s Can Split or Displace Natural Gas Lines!
Just as an earthquake or a mudslide can shake the earth and the foundations of homes, they are also capable of damaging natural gas lines and displacing the gas line feeding into your home or interior lines running to gas-run appliances.
Never do a home inspection by lighting a match, or candle, or by using a lighter to make an inspection of a dark interior where you smell gas. Always keep a flashlight near your bedside for safe inspections.
If you smell gas or hear it hissing from a displaced gas line, turn off the electrical breaker to your home. A spark from something as simple as switching on a light switch, or a ringing land-line phone when concentrations of natural gas have reached dangerous levels can potentially cause an explosion. Next, turn off the gas that feeds into your home.
Never place a call for help from a location where you can smell gas! Get away from the location, away from the smell of odorant,, before placing a call to avoid a spark igniting built-up gas.
If leaking gas has ignited, vacate the building, pronto! Do not try to put it out and do not delay vacating the premises. On your way out, allow any open doors or windows to remain open–it will help to dissipate the built-up gas.
Gas Companies Care About Lives, Not Your Generator
Another important thing to remember about natural gas is that some or all zones in an area may be shut down pre-emptively in the event of an earthquake, tornado, or hurricane…sometimes automatically.
Gas companies want to keep their customers and employees from getting blown up more than they want to ensure that you have seamless access to fuel for your appliances and/or generator.
Because of this, they may have automatic shutoff valves that are triggered by seismic events, protocol in place to shut gas off to flood prone areas, or do a blanket shutdown of an area when linemen are overwhelmed with line breaks.
In all of these cases, if you’re depending on natural gas for your power, you’re going to be in trouble.
How Natural Gas Can Be Disrupted During An Electrical Outage
After spending hour upon hour on the phone with customers who wanted to know why their gas appliance didn’t work during an electrical outage, I can tell you that your ability to use a gas range or a furnace or hot water heater during an electrical outage is tied directly to the appliance. A gas range with an electronic ignition on surface burners may be able to be overridden with a match–but you must know what you’re doing before attempting to do this! Some furnaces will not operate in an electrical outage because the entire heating system may require electricity to run it.
Before depending upon natural gas being able to run a hot water heater, or range, a fireplace, or furnace during a power outage, it requires contacting the maker to see if it can be safely overridden in an electrical outage. If you haven’t yet bought a gas-run appliance, then look for models that aren’t dependent upon electricity to run them. But always remember that if the natural gas feed to your home is damaged, these appliances will not work.
Why You Shouldn’t Depend on Natural Gas In A Long-Term Grid-Down Scenario
Unlike a short-term electrical outage, in a long-term, grid-down scenario, it’s possible that natural gas will no longer arrive to your home for one of several reasons. To start off, compressor stations used across the nation to deliver natural gas are unmanned, run from off-site SCADA systems (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition). For some time, SCADA systems have been under the gun for their inherent weak points–namely being vulnerable to outside attacks.
Note: For more information on the vulnerability of SCADA systems, read eWeek June 20, 2011 article, written by Fahmida Y. Rashid; SCADA Vulnerabilities Patched in Industrial Control Software From China
Natural gas is piped long distances at pressure to reach its destination. Some compressor stations use natural gas to fuel them, and others depend upon electricity. For distribution that depends upon electricity for compressor stations to deliver natural gas, there’s bad news; no electricity means no pressure. No pressure means no natural gas distribution.
To find out more about natural gas distribution, read Natural Gas Compressor Stations on the Interstate Pipeline Network: Developments Since 1996, James Tobin.
Next week, we’ll get to generators, including Diesel, Gasoline, Propane, multi-fuel, and their pluses and minuses.
Are you depending upon natural gas to heat your home or to cook? Or have you discovered gas appliance’s vulnerability to the gird and have set up back-ups? Have any good tips on alternate heat or cooking devices? Please sound off by commenting below!
And, if you haven’t checked out Former Force Recon Marine, Chris Graham’s at-home 30-10 pistol training, please do so now by clicking >HERE<!
God bless and stay safe,
David Morris and Survival Diva