Is this a déjà vu from the antiquated natural gas distribution lines infrastructure?
By Richard Xu
Helicopter view showing the widespread damage at and around the explosion source.
Just recently, as of August 12th, 2023, a small neighborhood in Plum, Pennsylvania experienced a house explosion flattening multiple houses, lighting others on fire, and shell-shocking the entire neighborhood. With six fatalities, including a child and his father, officials are attempting to find a cause of the explosion.
Though officials report that the couple owning the house were having issues with their hot water heater, an explosion of this degree is not characteristic of solely a water heater explosion, but rather one of a natural gas explosion. The neighborhood's history with gas issues is very prevalent. This Plum neighborhood has experienced two gas leak explosions in the past, with a 2008 house gas explosion killing one person, and a 2022 house gas explosion destroying a house luckily with no casualties. Even more alarming is that following the most recent explosion, officials found gas leaks ten minutes away from the explosion site.
Ring camera perspective showing the house exploding.
With gas leaks, natural gas seeps from a crack in a pipeline and can fill enclosed spaces within a house. Natural gas that is distributed via pipelines to residential neighborhoods has sulfur (mercaptan) added to it to yield a pungent, rotten-egg smell for olfactory sensitivity to potential leaks, but is colorless and highly flammable. A spark setting off in a gas-filled room could lead to such an explosion experienced by the Plum neighborhood. Depending on what the investigation reveals, there could be another case of a completely preventable gas explosion that was caused by faulty gas lines.
This tragedy is reminiscent of the 2010 San Bruno, California pipe explosion that killed eight and injured many more. That incident was due to gross negligence by the gas supplying utilities company in the adequate maintenance and upkeep of their gas pipelines causing a major leak that eventually leveled the neighborhood.
How can we protect ourselves from gas leaks? For one, if you smell an abundance of gas, similar to a rotten-egg smell, immediately contact your gas utilities company and exit your house to get a safe distance away from harm’s way. Do not perform any action that could start a spark. Hopefully with your alert, your utilities company should be able to root cause the problem and resolve it swiftly.
However, a more preventative solution is determining how to detect and repair gas leaks swiftly as they arise. Typically this means routine leak surveys and maintenance of the pipelines by the utility companies in charge. At Nikira Labs, we have developed a proactive approach to monitor and detect methane leaks from natural gas distribution lines in real-time. Our lightweight and portable methane gas analyzer (PMA) can be either handheld or carried in a backpack to perform 24/7 real-time leak surveys with actionable data. With Nikira Labs technology, communities can be continuously reassured that natural gas pipes are continuously monitored to provide safety and peace of mind from any explosive harm. This way, utilities companies can be regulated and kept accountable and compliant while the residents feel safe and protected.