Tubing for Natural Gas Linked to Iowa Fires

July 25, 2011

A flexible tubing for natural gas has been linked to at least 24 house fires in the Des Moines area since 2007.

Officials told The Des Moines Register that the tubing is vulnerable to damage from lightning. The officials say thousands of homes could be at risk, especially homes built in the past 20 years.

The yellow corrugated stainless steel tubing has been around since the 1990s, and it’s often used instead of black, threaded piping made of iron. Until last year, there was no requirement that installers bond and ground the yellow tubing.

Manufacturers say the yellow tubing is safe when installers follow manufacturer instructions. But State Fire Marshal Ray Reynolds is so concerned about the tubing in his Indianola home that he is planning to install a residential sprinkler system.

“When a storm hits, I do wake up and worry,” Reynolds said.

In the fires linked to the tubing in metro Des Moines, electricity from a direct or indirect lightning strike entered the house’s gas line and went through the yellow flexible tubing to a nearby metal object. That punched a hole in the gas line, which helped fuel a fire sparked by the lightning.

None of the tubes had been bonded and grounded, which was acceptable per code requirements at the time the houses were built.

Shawn Peterson of Urbandale was able to put out the gas line fire at his home in June before fire officials arrived. His wife was awake because of the storms and smelled smoke immediately after lightning struck.

“It was like a little blowtorch, blowing on my floor joists,” Peterson said.

Jeff Cullen, an investigator with the state fire marshal’s office, said there have been about 200 gas line fires statewide in recent years. Cullen said the state office does not have jurisdiction over residential homes but has begun collecting data on these types of fires.

“We’re only seeing a fraction of the ones reported,” Cullen said. “Some are going down as undetermined fires. … The numbers are being skewed.”

The increase in reported incidents has spurred the fire marshal’s office to educate fire departments, homebuilder associations and homeowner associations of the fire risk.

Cullen believes most homeowners are unaware of the potential hazard.

He recommends people with the tubing in their homes have it checked by a professional electrician.

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