Gas Safety and Carbon Monoxide

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  • September 4, 2013

It kills silently, taking lives without pity or remorse. Young children and the elderly make easy targets, yet many Australians have no idea how to protect themselves and their families.

This year, unless the trend of the past decade is reversed, at least one person in Victoria will die needlessly – the victim of carbon monoxide poisoning. Next year will be the same …

Do you own or manage rented accommodation or multi-residential premises? Do you know what to do? If not, you need help … or your property could become a death trap and you could end up with a criminal record.

Gas Safety in Residential Premises

Mention gas safety and most people think of gas leaks, explosions and fires. A leaking gas pipe is certainly dangerous, but at least there’s a chance you’ll smell the gas and evacuate the area before any lives are lost. Carbon monoxide (or “CO”, its chemical formula) doesn’t work like that; it’s odourless, invisible, and poisonous, causing illness or death without warning.

So what is this silent killer, and how does it get into Australian living spaces? Most commonly, it’s produced when the fuel in a gas heater doesn’t burn completely because the appliance is faulty or incorrectly adjusted, or because the flue is partially blocked. These are all things that can be fixed easily, but tragically it’s not always done.

Appliances which aren’t in use all year round pose a particular risk, as dust and dirt accumulate and mechanical damage may go unnoticed. When one of your tenants turns on a gas heater as the winter evenings draw in, you want to know that it will work safely, first time, every time. That’s where we come in.

Let’s Get Technical … Just a Little

Gas appliances are designed to draw in the right quantity of air so that the fuel burns completely (known as “complete combustion”). When complete combustion occurs, the main products are carbon dioxide and water vapour – both harmless – but if there isn’t enough air, an amount of carbon monoxide is generated as well. How much CO depends on the level of the shortfall, and that’s when problems arise.

This may not sound like a big deal until you know that it takes nine litres of air to burn one litre of natural gas completely and 24 litres of air to burn one litre of liquid petroleum gas (or LP gas – usually Propane). It doesn’t take much of a fault to prevent complete combustion occurring and for a heater to start producing CO.

What’s more, a poorly adjusted heater will get worse with time, as another by-product of incomplete combustion is carbon – that’s soot to you and me. As soot deposits build up on and around a faulty appliance, the amount of air is restricted further, making the situation increasingly dangerous. The only solution is to stop using the appliance and have it serviced by a professional gasfitter.

Recognising Carbon-Monoxide Poisoning

Often, people don’t recognise carbon-monoxide poisoning as the low-level symptoms are similar to those of the ‘flu. In the winter months, it’s easy to assume someone is suffering from a seasonal illness, but any symptoms that appear worse when the heating is in use should be treated seriously.

In Victoria, the government-funded Better Health Channel lists the following symptoms of CO poisoning:

  • Tiredness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Chest pain

Young children and the elderly are high-risk candidates, as they have a lower tolerance to CO than the rest of the population. If any of your tenants or residents reports persistent illness that fits the symptoms above, turn off any gas appliances in the property, ventilate the area thoroughly and get them to seek medical advice.

It’s essential not to become complacent. Most of the high-profile cases of CO poisoning involve children, typically killed in their sleep by carbon monoxide from faulty gas heaters. If you have any doubt, take action.

Identifying Faulty Appliances

Although CO is invisible and odourless, a badly adjusted gas heater will display some telltale signs. Look out for any of the following:

  • Soot stains on or around the heater
  • A gas flame that is mostly yellow (rather than blue with a yellow “core”)
  • A pilot light that won’t stay alight
  • A gas burner that doesn’t catch easily
  • Heater casings that get very hot during use
  • Visible blockage or traces of vermin in the flue
  • Obvious damage to the flue pipe

If any of the gas appliances in your premises display these or any other signs that they aren’t working correctly, stop using them and get them inspected and serviced by a qualified gasfitter right away.

Inspection and Servicing Gas Appliances

Under Australian law, landlords and property managers have a duty to ensure the safety of their premises. This includes all gas appliances provided in properties, which must be “safe to use and properly maintained”. Energy Safe Victoria recommends that all types of gas heater should be inspected and serviced at least every two years – more frequently if the operating conditions are severe.

Maintenance and servicing must be carried out by a suitably qualified gasfitter, and details of all safety checks recorded. At Reliable Plumbing, we’re qualified to do all gas safety inspections on behalf of landlords and facilities managers who are responsible for multiple properties or multi-residential premises.

It’s also essential to have an agreement with a company that can respond promptly in case of problems. If a resident reports a fault with a gas heater, you need someone there to check it out without delay. Whether you are responsible for large multi-residential establishments or a number of smaller dwellings, we can arrange to respond urgently on your behalf.

Are My Premises Protected? Get your Gas Appliances Checked Now!

At Reliable Plumbing, our qualified gasfitters carry out hundreds of gas safety inspections every year. Whatever the size of your property portfolio, we can help. If you need further information or advice, or if you need an urgent response to a reported gas fault, call us on 1300 78 20 40 any time. We’ll make sure your premises stay safe and keep the silent killer at bay.