Propane leak just another day down on the farm

Julia Bayly
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Julia Bayly
By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 10, 2013, at 6:16 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — Eventually there will come a week wherein nothing calamitous happens on Rusty Metal Farm and we shall all actually be quite bored.

This was not that week.

On Sunday I found myself feeling a bit under the weather following a pretty insane spin-cycle workout. Chalking up the shortness of breath, dizziness and slight nausea to overdoing it and improper hydration, I hit the sack early figuring a good night’s sleep would set all to rights.

At some point during the night, I woke up and noticed a somewhat unpleasant odor in the house, but garbage day was coming up, so I made a mental note that taking out the trash the next morning was job one.

Come Monday morning, feeling worse than the night before, I was not in the mood to chase down the source of what was becoming more and more of a foul smell, but ended up spending a good hour doing so.

It was not the trash and nor could I locate anything nasty the cats may have brought in behind my back.

Pondering the odiferous mystery, I set about building my first fire in the woodstove that morning, and then it struck me sort of out of the blue.

What, I wondered, does propane smell like?

Turns out, propane is odorless, but not so a chemical additive mixed in solely for the purpose of alerting any nearby nose to the presence of leaking fumes.

According to one website, “Propane has a strong, unpleasant smell like rotten eggs, a skunk’s spray or a dead animal. Propane manufacturers add the smell deliberately to help alert customers to propane leaks, which can create a safety hazard. Simply ask [the supplier] for a demonstration of the smell of propane if interested.”

Trust me, even if you are interested in a sniffing demo — don’t do it.

However, that additive is there for a reason — a very good reason since the build up of propane in a home can cause everything from that nasty odor to — in the words of Looney Tunes’ Marvin the Martian — an earth-shattering kaboom.

And let me just say on the record, if you want to get your friendly propane supplier to your house quickly, just call and say, “propane leak.”

The serviceman from Daigle Oil Company was here in record time, carrying a super-sniffer device resembling the gizmo used by the Ghostbusters, but to detect propane, not paranormal activity.

I had turned off the gas-shut off valve leading from the tank, but still, when the technician walked in the sniffer went off like a pinball machine, eventually leading him to a slowly leaking faulty valve on my cookstove — the only thing which runs off propane in the house.

A cook stove that was born, pointed out my friend Kim, the same year she graduated high school — 1989, so perhaps it has done its time.

Given that replacements parts are no longer available, I would have to agree.

But stove shopping was the least of my problems.

Remember that nasty, additive smell? Well, it lingers. In point of fact, it does more than linger. Given that propane is heavier than air, it settles — along with that additive — on pretty much everything in the house including furniture, carpeting, clothes and small pets who do not move fast enough.

My first line of defense was opening windows to let as much good air in as possible to replace the bad.

The flaw in that plan was the fact that early this week temperatures in northern Maine were below zero — way below when factoring in the wind chills.

So for a time on Monday it really was a toss-up what would get me first — the fumes or hypothermia.

Luckily, the actual propane dissipated rather quickly, leaving me in no danger of blowing sky-high or asphyxiating. Sadly, not so that nasty smell, which, according to our local fire chief, is the chemical ethyl mercaptan.

According to some of the online literature I found, ethyl mercaptan, found in the aroma of skunks and rotting meat, is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as one of the smelliest substances known.

No argument there.

Since it settles as opposed to wafting about, no amount of airing out of the house was going to help and by Wednesday, my eyes watering from that smell, it was clearly time to call in the big guns.

One phone call and a trip to town later, I was in possession of a “San Air” ionizer, complements of Jake Robichaud of Jake’s Cleaning Service in Fort Kent.

About the size of a toaster oven, the San Air is a rather unimposing device with technology that can best be described as “bad air in … good air out.”

Don’t ask me how, but somehow it manages to pull all the nasty, imbedded smelling particulates out of the air and surfaces, clean them and leave a room almost as fresh as a spring day.

So, between the San Air, ripping up the carpet on the stairs, removing the curtains and washing about 20 loads of laundry representing blankets, towels, coats and clothes, the smell in my house is slowly returning to normal as I begin stove and curtain shopping.

I’m laughing now, but all joking aside, I am well aware of how lucky I was.

Propane is nothing to mess around with — as evidenced by Daigle Oil Co.’s rapid response.

If propane is smelled — or suspected — Daigle Oil recommends the following:

  1. Do not turn any devices ON or OFF. This includes light switches, phones, computers, flashlights or appliances.
  2. Immediately instruct all inhabitants to leave the home or commercial building.
  3. Do not try to find the source of the leak.
  4. Use a phone or cell phone outside of the building area where the propane was detected, and notify [your propane supplier], ASAP.
  5. If the propane is detected outside, preferably move upwind from the detection location.

As I begin shopping for a new stove and curtains amid the buzz of the ionizer, I am left to consider this most recent close call here at Rusty Metal farm and to ponder what could be the overriding question as posed by Kim.

“If they have to make propane smell so you notice it,” she asked, “why can’t they make it smell like flowers or even pizza?”

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbayly@bangordailynews.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/01/10/living/blogs-and-columns-living/propane-leak-just-another-day-down-on-the-farm/ printed on July 31, 2014