CO Alarm 101: Does A Carbon Monoxide Detector Detect Natural Gas?

Indoor Air Quality, Safety

It gives you tremendous peace of mind knowing that you have carbon monoxide detectors all around your house. Sadly though, carbon monoxide (CO) is only one of the many dangerous gases that lurk in your home and can damage your health.

One of them is natural gas. What is natural gas? If it is indeed “natural”, how come it can pose a hazard to your family’s wellness? How can you identify the presence of a natural gas leak in your house? 

Some believe that a CO detector will also detect natural gas. But is that true? Does a carbon monoxide detector detect natural gas?

DP does a carbon monoxide detector detect natural gas

Can Carbon Monoxide Detectors Detect Gas Leaks?

No. Carbon monoxide detectors DO NOT detect natural gas, nor can they determine the presence of gas leaks. A natural gas detector or a gas leak detector is the most efficient device to detect gas leaks in your home. 

Carbon monoxide detectors detect dangerous levels of CO in a residence or office building. While natural gas can produce carbon monoxide if it goes through incomplete combustion, a carbon monoxide detector is not designed to detect the presence of natural gas because CO and natural gas are of different components and structures.

To protect yourself and your family from the dangers of carbon monoxide, natural gas, and smoke choose a multi-gas or hybrid alarm that detects both carbon monoxide and other explosive gases such as natural gas. 

What is a Natural Gas Leak?

We don’t need to be experts in chemistry to know about natural gas. People all over the world use it for outdoor lighting, cooking, drying clothes, power systems, and most famously, heating and air conditioning. In 2021 alone, America used nearly 30.28 trillion cubic feet of natural gas!

There is no denying that natural gas is essential to the commercial, industrial, and residential sectors of our society. But where exactly do we get such an important source of energy?

Its name may have clued you in because natural gas is literally found in nature. Also called “fossil gas”, natural gas came from the thick layer of dead plants and animals buried deep down the earth’s surface and ocean floors. Because of heat and pressure changes, natural gas is formed along with petroleum and coal.

What, then, is a natural gas leak?

Before it is ready for commercial or residential use, natural gas is first processed to become “pipeline quality” for safety reasons.

A leak happens when the natural gas escapes from the pipeline and onto the interior of a home such as a basement, backyard, and sewer lines. The gas leak typically occurs in older suburbs because old copper lines have not been replaced by more durable materials such as plastic or aluminum.

Besides normal wear and tear, pipes can also be poorly installed in the beginning. Faulty materials used can cause gas leaks or pipes to be disconnected altogether. 

Unfortunately, some natural gas leaks are caused by homeowners themselves. If not careful, digging too deep around your yard may lead you to hit a gas line. Some lousy repair calls to an unqualified technician may sometimes result in a gas leak. 

Broken and unmaintained home appliances may also leak natural gas.

The Dangers of Natural Gas Leaks

The question remains. “If natural gas is generally beneficial and very organic, how come a natural gas leak is said to be dangerous?”

The answer lies with the largest component of natural gas which is methane. When methane gets mixed with at least 5% to 15% of air it becomes explosive. 

By itself, methane is not poisonous but it has the ability to reduce the concentration of oxygen in your breathing air causing you to suffocate. If not harnessed, it can also contribute significantly to the greenhouse effect or intense warming of our planet more than carbon dioxide.

Because of the combustible property of one of its major elements, natural gas leaks can lead to fire and explosions.

Inhaling low levels of natural gas through a gas leak may not be that deteriorating to your health at first, but prolonged and high levels of natural gas inhalation may cause unpleasant symptoms. Headache, nausea, weakness, difficulty in breathing, itchy eyes and throat, chest pains, and in some cases, ringing of ears.

The latest research from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported that natural gas leaks in Boston may even cause cancer due to the volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) that the gas distributed there contains.

How to Detect a Gas Leak

Now that we know the true dangers of natural gas leaks, how can you detect a natural gas leak in your home and prevent gas leaks from devastating your loved ones’ health and safety?

Here are the signs there is a potential gas leak in your home. Use this as a guide to act quickly and avoid unnecessary harm to your family and property:

  1. Rotten smell. Upon discovery, natural gas does not inherently have an odor or color. So distributors of natural gas for commercial, industrial, and household use put chemical “odorants” such as mercaptan or methanethiol so it can be immediately detected if ever there is a gas leak. Mercaptan’s odor is often associated with the smell of a rotten egg, decomposing cabbage, or sulfur.
  2. Orange or red flames. Watch out if your gas stove’s flame turns from blue to orange or red colors. It is a signal that a gas leak is present and that fossil gas is taking some space meant for oxygen.
  3. Hissing or whistling sound. Such sounds are never good news, especially with gas-powered appliances. It may be symptoms of a natural gas leak, a refrigerant leak, or a leaking valve. Investigate the source of the hissing sound to prevent further hazards.
  4. Do the soapy water test. A natural gas leak can be revealed by dousing with water with a high concentration of soap. If bubbles start to form on the pipeline, a gas leak is present. 
  5. Use a natural gas detector. This is the most foolproof way to detect a natural gas leak. A natural gas detector will measure the level of natural gas in the air where the pipeline is installed, commonly in the basement of a house. When the level of natural gas in the area reaches a level where it shows a potential gas leak it will sound audible alarms and, in some designs, simultaneously contact the fire department.

Do I Need A Natural Gas Detector?

As mentioned above, some people mistakenly believed that their existing carbon monoxide detector will detect a natural gas leak.

In a way, this confusion is understandable since carbon monoxide is a byproduct of burning fuel such as natural gas. But what they don’t know is that gas-powered appliances will only produce carbon monoxide if incomplete combustion occurs. Additionally, the CO detector is specifically made to detect carbon monoxide and will only sound an alarm if the CO levels in the space reached hazardous levels.

But the presence of a natural gas leak is not part of the job of a carbon monoxide detector. And although natural gas leaks can potentially lead to explosions and fires, your smoke detector will not be able to alert you at the beginning stages of a gas leak, but only until the smoke has developed.

Natural gas detectors detect gas leaks by warning you about dangerous levels of natural gas. Plain and simple.

Choosing the Best Gas Leak Detectors

There are two basic categories of detectors, portable and fixed.

Portable gas leak detectors measure. the natural gas levels around the person wearing or holding the safety device. While fixed or hardwired natural gas detectors can sense gas leaks in the area where it is installed.

Natural gas detectors can come in single-gas or multi-gas functions. You may have guessed that detectors with a single-gas function concentrate on detecting the presence of natural gas only.
Meanwhile, multi-gas detectors can determine the presence of two or more gases such as carbon monoxide, natural gas, and smoke.  

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