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Propane safety is on the front burner

In light of a recent fatal propane explosion in Connecticut, homeowners are being warned to be careful when it comes to handling propane gas.

A propane blast leveled a home, killed one man and injured two others — including a child — in New Milford on Wednesday, Aug. 29. The exact cause is still under investigation, but the man was reportedly helping the homeowner fix a leaking propane tank at the time of the explosion.

Following that incident, Joseph U. Rose, president of the Propane Gas Association of New England, issued a statement reminding consumers of the importance of using propane safely. “This is a very serious matter, and recent do-it-yourself incidents have resulted in an unnecessary loss of innocent lives,” he said.

Propane is a popular fuel used by more than three million homes across the Northeast for home heating, cooking, water heating, clothes dryers, fireplaces, pool heaters, and backyard grilling, according to Mr. Rose. But while propane is a versatile and safe fuel when handled properly, he stressed that technical work on propane tanks should be left to licensed propane service technicians.

Odor? Leave

Weston Fire Marshal John Pokorny said residents should not attempt to service or repair any propane leaks, or otherwise service propane equipment in their homes. “If you smell gas, leave the house and call the fire department and gas company,” he said.

Propane, which is a by-product of natural gas processing and petroleum refining, is about 1.5 times heavier than air and sinks. When there is a leak, propane tends to pool in low-lying areas, such as the basement of a home, Mr. Pokorny said.

That’s when things can become dangerous.

Propane is flammable when combined with air. A heavy concentration of propane creates an ignition point that can be triggered by open flames or even the slightest electrical spark, such as turning a light switch on or off. Static electricity can even ignite propane and air.

“That’s why the most important thing to do when there is a propane leak is to leave the house immediately,” Mr. Pokorny said.

In Weston, Mr. Pokorny said he didn’t recall any instances of propane exploding inside a home. However, he said there have been some outdoor explosions when propane and air ignited from pool heaters.

One way to tell if there is a propane leak is from the smell. Propane is naturally odorless; however, it contains an added odorant, usually ethanethiol (commonly known as ethyl mercaptan), which smells like rotten eggs.

 Grill tanks

In addition to propane tanks used for the home, caution is also advised for portable propane tanks used for outdoor grills. Because many grills sit outside in the elements all year round, the tank hoses take a beating. “That’s an area where we see more gas leaks,” Mr. Pokorny said.

He advises checking the gas tank hose for leaks before using it for the first time each year. “If you apply a soap and water solution to the hose, there will be bubbles if there is a leak in the hose,” he said. In that case, the hose needs to be replaced or repaired by a professional before it should be used.

Also, be careful when changing propane tanks, especially on older grills, and make sure the hose connecting to the grill is in good shape. If it is cracked or damaged, have it repaired professionally before using it. If there is a smell of gas while cooking on the grill, do not move the grill. Immediately move away from it and call the fire department, Mr. Pokorny said.

For more information, the propane industry has a website dedicated to safety. Click on the consumer safety outreach tab at propanesafety.com.

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