This article hits home for me in a very real and personal way. A couple short years ago, a friend of mine died as the result of a gas leak in his home. This friend was the older brother of a very good, life-long friend of mine. He was a bright and very funny guy who had many friends and was loved by many family members and others who knew him. Like me, he served in the military, and (unlike me) he met his wife while deployed overseas. They started a family, had children, and settled down once his tour of duty concluded.
While doing laundry in his basement one day, a gas leak that had developed slowly and gone undetected was ignited by a spark from a system in the basement. This caused an explosion that immediately knocked my friend unconscious. Some time later he woke up and realized he was on fire, and he ran frantically outside into his backyard. His neighbors, hearing his screams and seeing the blaze, rushed to get over his fence to help, but by the time they got to him he was burnt beyond recognition. He spent the next couple days in the ICU, unconscious, and passed away, leaving his wife and small children behind. Needless to say, I carry this tragic story with me every time I perform an inspection where gas is present.
At every inspection, I carry a state-of-the-art carbon monoxide detector on my belt the entire time I am performing the inspection. The detector vibrates and emits a loud alarm if the level is 35 parts per million (ppm) of carbon monoxide or more, and I frequently check the detector’s digital screen even if the alarm does not go off. Carbon monoxide is most common when combustion sources (furnaces, fireplaces, gas stoves, vehicles, etc.) are in operation, but it can still be present in higher than expected levels, even in homes with few sources of combustion.
Another tool in my tool bag that is frequently used is a combustible gas leak detector. This tool is used to check for gas leaks along gas pipes – primarily with furnaces and gas fireplaces.
The main purpose of this article is two-fold: to clarify the effects of carbon monoxide and gas leaks on people at varying levels, and to stress the importance of hiring a home inspector who uses advanced tools to check for gas and CO leaks that could cause great harm, if not death, like in the case of my friend.
The effects of carbon monoxide are as follows: 35 ppm – maximum allowed exposure for a one hour period; 200 ppm – headache, fatigue, dizziness and nausea after 1-2 hours; 400 ppm – headache in 1-2 hours, and possible death after 3 hours; 800 ppm – dizziness, nausea and convulsions, and possible death within two hours; 1,600 ppm – headache, dizziness and nausea within 20 minutes and possible death within one hour; 12,800 ppm – death within 1-3 minutes.
Since carbon monoxide can not be seen, smelled or tasted, it is impossible to determine the levels without a detector. If your home inspector doesn’t use a high quality CO detector and existing detectors in the house are far from the source or not working properly, you are at a great disadvantage and may be purchasing a home with an existing and potentially life threatening problem.
Likewise, if your inspector does not check for gas leaks you may be unaware of leaks that are small but increasing over time and could even find yourself or a family member in a position similar to my friend who lost his life from a gas leak explosion. Natural gas is highly flammable (which is why it’s used for combustion), and an ignited leak can cause an instant and potentially fatal explosion.
Please be sure to ask any inspector you are considering hiring if he or she checks for gas/CO leaks during the inspection, and ask for those results at the end of the inspection. Most homes I inspect average between 1 and 5 parts per million for carbon monoxide, and most often there are no natural gas or propane leaks detected. Still, it only takes that one time for an injury or even death to occur, and every good inspector should be checking gas levels at every general home inspection to verify safety and provide their client with this important information.
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