Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Alarming Situation

By Chester Campbell

While writing my first Sid Chance mystery, I decided to complicate matters for my PI and his sidekick by blowing up a small house. I chose natural gas as the explosive and turned to Google for information on the prospects. I found plenty of references, including one that cited a variety of cases in which gas leaks resulted in the demolishing of houses. It went into great detail on the causes and outcomes. I also read up on how natural gas explosions occur.

It made for a great chapter or so in the book and provided a thread that continued nearly to the end. I didn't consider myself anything near to an expert on the subject, but I did feel fairly knowledgeable. Then, a couple of weeks ago, it came back to haunt me.

In the middle of the night, shortly after 3:00 a.m. to be somewhat exact, our carbon monoxide alarm went off. It kept repeating its warning with four beeps, pause, four beeps, pause. I climbed out of bed, trudged to the alarm mounted on the wall, and punched the reset button. The instructions said to try that first to be sure the alarm was for real.

It was.

But I smelled nothing, didn't feel light-headed or dizzy. At this point, we need a little background note. Call it a flashback. The previous week our old CO alarm had beeped one afternoon for no apparent reason. I was aware that carbon monoxide has no odor, but natural gas certainly does. They put a rotten eggs smell in to keep people on their toes. Or is it nose? Anyway, I smelled nothing and finally decided the alarm was too old and had gone bonkers. So I bought a new one.

My early A.M. wakeup call came from the new one. And this one had an enlightening feature, a readout that showed the CO present in parts per million. The digital figures danced around from 54 to 59. From my research, I knew that natural gas required a concentration like from a broken pipe before a spark would set it off, but I had no idea how much monoxide was required to do in a human. I decided it was time to get out that card from Piedmont Natural Gas and punch in the emergency number.

The fellow who answered my call listened to my description of the problem and said, "We'll send somebody out to check it, but I'd advise you to vacate the premises."

My wife and I got dressed and hauled out grandson out of bed, into his bathrobe and shoes. We got in the car and pulled out of the driveway into the street. Some twenty minutes or so later, a gas company truck arrived. One of the guys got out with his detector gadget, and we went inside. He swung the probe around and said, "Yep, you got it."

He pointed out that cafbon monoxide attaches to your blood cells and continues to build up in your body. It takes a while for it to wear off. He advised us to stay out of the house for at least a day. He also said we should open up the house to get rid of the accumulation of the lethal gas. With his help, I opened windows and doors. A strong breeze quickly began clearing the air. The alarm stopped its incessant beeping, and the CO detector showed the level dropping. I was advised to leave it open for an hour, then I could shut up the place and leave.

Outside, the other gas company technician had been checking our heating unit. He said the leak appeared to be coming from the heat exchanger, that I should contact my heating guy. My wife and grandson had already headed off to her daughter's condo. I finally closed up and joined them. The next morning, my heating and air conditioning man said we needed a new unit to replace out tired and worn out thirteen-year-old device.

Who knows how long it would have taken to overcome us one night if we hadn't had the CO alarm as a warning. If you have natural gas as a fuel in your home, my advice is to be sure you have a working alarm. Hmm, I wonder if a killer could tamper with a heat exchanger and...


Bill Kirton said...

Scary, Chester. I've just written a safety thing for an offshore company about gas testing and the fragility of our systems when they're affected by the stuff is frightening. Nice, though, to read how, in the end, the writer took over again and started musing on the experience as a potential plot device.

Chester Campbell said...

Thinking back on it, I used carbon monoxide poisoning in a book I wrote back in the nineties that still languishes in my computer. In that one I fed the exhaust from a gasoline-powered generator into the air conditioning system.

Jaden Terrell said...

Yeegads, Chester. What a scary adventure. I think I speak for us all when I say I'm glad you got that CO detector.

Unknown said...

The more I read this, the more I think it would make a great short story, something along the lines Hitchcock might enjoy. I can just see the long camera lines, the build up of suspense and the final irony. Man, I miss Hitch and stories like that.

Chester Campbell said...

You have my permission to write it, Ben. Hitch up your writer pants and go for it.