Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Whether or Not to Shut Off The Gas

By Matt Cantor
Friday May 05, 2006

I was speaking as a guest of my friend Howard at a local senior center the other day when a fellow stood up and told me that he did not agree with my position on the very contentious issue of whether to turn your gas off in your house after an earthquake. 

I tried to steady myself but I don’t do well with confrontation. I’ll not be running for public office any time soon. I made a face that probably looked something like a dead fish and stood silent as he shook his finger at me. Well, he’s entitled. It’s a touchy issue and I respect my learned opponents position on the issues (Look!, now I’m running for office). 

Let me back up a bit because some of you are sure to be completely confused at this point. One day this lovely East Bay of ours is going to have a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on and one of the things that is going to shake is gas piping. 

More to the point, all the things that are connected to the gas piping are going to shake and some of those things are going to move. When they do, some of them will tear open gas lines and let the gas out. This is what burned down most of the houses that caught fire in the Northridge earthquake and apparently in the 1906 one as well. 

P.G. & E. says that you should not turn off your gas as a rote matter, although I assume they do not mean to say that when your gas is leaking that you should let it run. I assume (please call them for clarification on this because I would like them to get 20,000 calls on the issue) that they mean to say that you should only turn off the gas to your home if you have smelled gas and not simply because there has been a big earthquake. I take issue with this position and I fear that it is largely self serving. 

Basically, they just don’t have the man-power (or woman-power, hear us all roar) to get out and turn Mrs. Fershshmukles gas back on after she’s turned it off and they know it. Personally, I don’t blame them for the lack of personnel and believe that another solution should be sought and that the solution not be to leave the gas on. I’ll get to that part later but for now, I’d like to see if I can convince you of my position on this issue. 

Los Angeles now requires the installation of an automatic seismic gas shutoff valve on the gas main of every home that sells there. It’s a point-of-sale requirement. Those are hard to pass and it must have been a big fight but the point is that they did it. This means that every home that has one of these things is not only going to have the gas shut off. It also means that the valve will have to be reset. It’s actually more complex to get the stove lit again than if you just turned it off at the main but hey, I’m not arguing. I think it’s great. Nonetheless, the point is that L.A. thinks P.G. & E. is wrong. 

They want the gas turned off when there is an earthquake without asking if there’s a leak. Now the only part of this that might not be in conflict, and I’d love for P.G. & E. to take this as their position, is that one might turn off their gas if there has been only a tiny shake or if they were too far away from the epicenter for it to have had much impact. They were just scared. The problem is that it’s just too hard for us to tell people when that is. We don’t have seismographs on our houses and we have to act quickly and based on the available data. 

It is very likely that our earthquake, when it comes, will result in tumbling water heaters, sliding dryers and broken gas pipes. It is also likely that we will suffer more from fires than from structural failures. 

It is my strongly held belief that everyone should have one of these inventive devices attached to their house so that they don’t suffer the consequences of a gas explosion or fire. Additionally, every person that does this is one less to contribute the overall outbreak of fire in our dear hillside. 

So here are a couple of the solutions as promised: The first is a mass effort to educate everyone on how to look for leaks and how to relight appliances. If we work together, block by block, we can get all the Mrs. Fershshmukles’ gas back on in a few days. 

Checking for gas is not arcane or complex. It involves thoughtful inspection before and after the gas is turned on. It involves checking under the house and everywhere the gas line runs. It also involves lighting pilot lights where they still exist.  

One reason that I think that the concern over turning the gas off and back on again is that, today, most gas appliances don’t require lighting of pilots. Most furnaces, dryers, stoves and gas fireplaces don’t have pilots any longer. Some old heaters and stove still do but they’re not very hard to light and we should all know how to do this. 

A 12-year-old could learn this. Most water heaters do need to be relit and most have a set of instructions on the front face showing the process. Again, it’s not that hard. Certainly there are risks on this end of the equation but it’s a no brainer for me that the gas should be shut off if we’re experiencing a lot of shaking. Most of the water heaters I see aren’t properly braced if they’ve been braced at all and that’s only the most likely point for a break.  

Here’s a last thought for today. Automatic seismic gas shutoff valves installed on a custom basis aren’t terribly expensive but just imagine if they were installed inside of your gas meter. I wonder how much we would have to pay to have these installed en mass inside PG&E’s meter as a part of the meter manufacturing process. Perhaps it would add another $20 to each meter but I think it might even be cheaper than that; they’re very simple devices. 

I for one would be happy to pay P.G. & E. to swap out my meter for one that contained such a device. How about you? 



Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor, in care of East Bay Real Estate, at realestate@berkeleydailyplanet.com.