What causes homes to explode? Expert says gas often to blame
MADISON, Wis. — While the cause of Wednesday’s house explosion on Madison’s west side was still unknown as of Thursday evening, an expert at Madison College said gas is by far the most common reason why houses explode.
Randy Way, who’s been a firefighter since 2002, teaches at Madison College’s fire protection technician program.
“The most common mechanism is that some type of fuel gas is ignited,” Way said. “The National Fire Protection Association estimates that over 20,000 fires are fueled by fuel gas, which would typically be natural gas or propane.”
Way said gas tends to get into buildings one of three ways: first, an inherent discharge of gas.
“Someone opens a valve inappropriately or a technician who services the equipment doesn’t appropriately reassemble the components and gas is allowed to leak,” he said.
Second, Way said equipment can be damaged.
“A good example is a flexible gas line,” Way said. “(It) has to be appropriately grounded and if it ‘s not, in a lightning strike, it will develop a hole and leak gas.”
Third, outside infrastructure can be damaged, which can allow gas to migrate into a basement.
Way said in explosions, gas is often ignited by appliances. He said while most modern appliances have done away with pilot lights, any appliance with a gas burner can be an ignition source.
“For instance, a water heater that kicks on, even in the summer time, could serve as an ignition source,” Way said.
Way said electrical arcing can also ignite gas, leading to an explosion.
Gas was determined to be the cause of the Fitchburg home explosion in 2016, which injured one person, as well as the 2010 explosion of a house in Sun Prairie , which killed one person and injured two others.
Officials have not officially released the cause of a July house explosion in rural Marquette County , which injured two people in the town of Montello.
Way said people can protect themselves by installing gas meters in their homes, which are similar to carbon monoxide detectors. He said it’s important to evacuate right away if gas is smelled.
“One key thing is, if you smell gas, get out of the house, call 911 immediately,” Way said. “People lose their ability to detect the smell of gas due to olfactory fatigue after a few minutes. If you stay in the house and don’t smell it anymore, there’s still gas in the house.”
Way said besides fuel gas, an occasional cause of house explosions is criminal activity. Usually, he said, that will involve the illegal manufacturing of drugs, fireworks or weapons.
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