Why Didn’t We Smell Propane Gas before the House Exploded?

Your family likely didn’t smell propane gas before the house exploded because of one of the following reasons:

  1. The propane was under-odorized
  2. There was odor fade

An odorant called ethyl mercaptan is usually added to propane gas, which gives the gas its signature rotten egg smell. Odor fade happens when there is either:

  1. Oxidation of ethyl mercaptan caused by iron oxide in a storage tank
  2. Absorption into the lining of the tank

The oxidation and absorption are faster with a new tank and slow down after several fillings. Because of the risk of odor fade, the following must be done:

  • When a tank is filled, particularly a new tank, it must be filled to about 80%
  • The propane must not be allowed to sit unused
Attorney Eric Hageman
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Propane Explosion Investigations Uncover Important Evidence

The negligence of a gas company can lead to severe injuries and wrongful death. When this happens, it is important to vigorously pursue the truth to find out which companies are responsible for the explosion.

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Burn injury attorney Eric Hageman investigating the site of a gas explosion in Minnesota.

When you hire Pritzker Hageman law firm, our legal team starts an investigation to determine the cause and origin of the explosion. A propane explosion investigation will get answers to the following questions.

  • Was the correct amount of ethyl mercaptan added to the LP gas?
  • How was the LP transported and stored prior to being used to fill the tank that exploded?
  • What kind of tank was it and how old was it?
  • Was the tank examined for problems that could lead to a leak?
  • How was the tank filled?
  • How much propane was put into the tank?
  • How much training did the technician who filled the tank have?
  • How long had it been since the last filling?
  • Were the valves working correctly?
  • Was the tank serviced enough and carefully?
  • At any time did someone call the company about a strange odor?

These are just a few of the multitude of questions that need answers when someone is critically burned in a propane house explosion.

What is Odor Fade?

Because propane gas (also called liquid petroleum gas) in its natural state is odorless and undetectable, un-odorized gas presents an exceptionally high explosion risk in the event of a leak. To combat this risk, a “stench gas” (ethyl mercaptan) with an instantly-recognizable rotten-egg-like odor is added to the propane gas as an odorant.

Maintaining odorant in propane is crucial, so there are basic steps that must be taken to prevent odor fade. Odor fade is a known risk in tanks that are new or are not in continuous use. In these situations, ethyl mercaptan in the propane gas can bind to the interior surface of the tank, decreasing the amount of odorant. If enough odorant is absorbed by the tank surface, the gas again becomes odorless.

$10 Million for Man Who Could Not Smell Propane Leak

Our law firm recently won $10 million in a propane explosion lawsuit for a man who did not smell a propane leak before a house exploded.  Our client was severely burned in the explosion, with third-degree burn injuries on about 60% of his body.

When our legal team got the case, they found that a new tank delivered to the residence had only been filled to 30% (instead of 80%). The propane was allowed to sit unused, increasing the risk of odorant fade.

At some point, the propane gas escaped, although the source of the leak has never been determined. By the time it leaked, the gas’s lack of odorant made it undetectable and deprived all those in its vicinity of any warning of its presence.

When our client lit a match, he had no idea of the danger he faced due to the presence of odorless propane gas. As a result, the gas ignited, causing the explosion.

Pritzker Hageman lawyers argued that our client could not smell the gas around him as he struck a match. Although the specific cause of the propane leak was not found, our lawyers found evidence that the gas company was responsible for the explosion and sued the propane gas company that had under-filled the tank.

Are There Steps That Should be Taken to Prevent Odor Fade?

As any reasonable propane company knows, odor fade is a common risk in new tanks, but two primary precautions can greatly reduce that risk:

  1. Purging the tank (which removes moisture)
  2. Filling the tank to the maximum level at the first fill

Industry-standard educational courses require employers to make it abundantly clear that odor fade presents a substantial risk to consumers, which personnel must actively work to prevent.

The National Fire Prevention Association’s liquefied petroleum gas code (NFPA 58) sets the codes, guidelines, standards, and practices applicable to the industry. Many states have statutorily adopted NFPA 58, meaning it is the law in those states.

Among other things, NFPA 58 requires that “persons who transfer liquid LP-Gas shall be trained in proper handling and operating procedures.” The industry standard is the National Propane Gas Association’s Certified Employee Training Program (CETP).

CETP training begins with the most essential module: Basic Principles and Practices. Unsurprisingly, odor fade is a prominent part of the basic training. In fact, the very first chapter of the first CETP training unit includes odor fade prevention training. And at the bottom of one of the first pages is “Note: It is important to guard against odorant fade in new containers.”