A few days ago, my dog and I arrived home from an hour-long walk to find New York City Fire Department trucks in front of my neighbor’s house, two houses north of mine. The sidewalk had been opened and several workers were examining the gas supply lines below it. Several days later, the work having been completed, two fire trucks and a Con Ed van visited the site, officials performed an inspection and tests, and pronounced that gas could be restored to the premises. If you find yourself in a similar situation, go to Con Ed’s gas leak map, enter the address of the building in question, and you will see the status—updated every 24 hours—of leaks reported and already made safe. A green dot on the map means “poses no threat. Crews monitor to keep area safe.” A blue dot means “immediately inspected and made safe.”
Gas leaks are serious business, in terms of both public safety and the environment. Interior and exterior gas leaks can be caused by cracks and corrosion of the pipes and by contractors’ accidental damage. Indoors, faulty appliances and leaky pipe fittings may also be the culprits. Because methane, a greenhouse gas, is a primary component of natural gas, leaks release methane into the environment. Therefore, Con Ed repairs pipes and replaces gas mains so as to reduce emissions, and now reports a 27.5 percent reduction in methane emissions since 2005. Con Ed has also been replacing all old cast iron and steel mains with plastic that is less prone to leaking. Con Ed also advises that in order to avoid damage to underground gas equipment, call 811 at least two days before you break ground and Con Ed will mark the approximate location of all gas lines, at no cost to you.
Natural gas is odorless, so methyl mercaptan (methanethiol), which smells like rotten eggs, is added to gas so that you can smell it if gas is leaking. If you suspect a leak, exit the premises immediately and call 911 (which can also be done anonymously) when you are at a safe distance. Don’t assume that someone else has already reported the leak. When near the suspected leak, do not activate anything that could cause a spark, such as lights, flashlights, car ignition, matches, turning electrical equipment on or off, doorbells, telephones, pulling plugs from outlets, and lighting a cigarette or pipe. Make sure that your gas oven controls are turned off and extinguish any open flames such as lit candles.
The odor of rotten eggs is not the only sign that the situation is dangerous. You may hear unusual noises in your gas pipes—hissing, roaring, whistling. A white cloud, bubbles, or mist may be present in standing water. Unexplained presence of dead vegetation may indicate a leak. Your gas appliances may not be producing gas or may have abnormal pressure as in a high or low flame, or you may not be able to stop the flow of gas when you shut off a heating unit or other appliance. Water that is continuously leaking from your heating unit could be another sign of a gas leak.
Since 2014, the NYC Fire Department will respond to all reports of suspected gas leaks. Even if you call 311, you will be transferred to 911. NYC’s official website instructs you to call 911—it does not even mention calling Con Ed. Previously, Con Ed was called, but the city maintains that FDNY trucks can respond in about eight minutes whereas it can take Con Ed as long as 20-25 minutes. As was shown in the massive explosion in East Harlem in 2011, the time differential can be crucial because the explosion occurred 20 minutes after the initial report of the gas leak.
In response to the 2015 East Village gas explosion, New York City enacted 10 bills regarding gas safety. Now, as of June 4, 2017, tenants must be notified by the landlord what tenants must do in the event of a suspected leak (“Gas Leak Notice”). The notice must accompany leases and be posted in a common area of the building. All work on gas piping systems must be done by a licensed professional or person with gas-work qualifications issued by the Department of Buildings. The DOB must conduct the final inspection of gas pipe systems in the presence of the building owner or building superintendent. When the building’s gas is turned off due to a leak, the building owner must hire a contractor to do the repairs. When the repairs are completed, the contractor obtains a certification from the DOB and submits the paperwork. Then Con Ed performs a pressure test, and if there are no pipe leaks then the gas goes back on. Building owners must have their gas piping systems inspected every five years by the DOB. Owners and gas service operators must notify the DOB within 24 hours if gas is shut off in a building, and notify the DOB if gas can’t be restored due to safety concerns.
Con Ed has 4,300 miles of gas mains in New York City. Following state and federal guidelines, Con Ed checks all gas mains about once a month and all streets once a year. Con Ed also has a mobile leak detection truck that conducts 12 additional surveys per year of all 4,300 miles within Con Ed’s service area.
Is this reassuring? Maybe not, for apparently not all leaks are repaired. Con Ed divides leaks into three categories. Type 1: “Leak requires continuous attention until the leak is made safe, and daily inspection until permanent repairs are completed.” Type 2: “Leak poses no immediate threat to people or property. Frequency of further inspection is dependent on the amount of gas and the location of the leak. Repairs must be made within six months to a year.” Type 3: “Leak poses no hazard to people or property. Inspection must occur annually to ensure safety but no repairs are required.”
By Vivian J. Oleen
Vivian J. Oleen is an associate broker with Sopher Realty.