How to Blow Up Your House: A Crash Course

It’s 1:37 a.m. as I write this.  I am happily wide awake. It feels good to be writing again on this blog as it has been over a year since I last wrote a real entry.  (Has it really been that long?)

For those of you who know me, I got married sometime last year.  And the preparations for the wedding itself on top of my day job, forced me to put other items in the back burner.  I thought that things would be back to normal after we tied the knot.  But we turned the leaf again to another chapter — building house and moving into it.

I’m in the kitchen as I write this, and it’s a wonderful feeling being seated at the dining table, knowing that finally, I am in our very own kitchen.  My wife and I moved a little over a month ago, and we are getting settled.  I once thought that getting settled would only take a week or two.  I realize now that we have to enjoy it one day at a time, which is what we have been doing.

As I write again, I thought long and hard about what I would write.  Then I realized it right away.  It took us over six months to build our home (which happens to be at a condo in the suburbs).  Yet, we almost lost it just a week after our move. And so, this is how it happened…

It’s our first home.  It was like Christmastime — opening boxes that contained a lot of kitchen stuff.  Assigning items and arranging furniture.  Likewise, it meant installing and trying out new appliances.  The stove was one of them.

The thing about our condo (which I heard is common in many condos) is that each unit allows 50 amperes worth of electricity.  In watts, I believe that’s around 12,000.  Now, just imagine that an oven can easily take 2,000.  The dishwasher, another 1,000.  the oven toaster, more than 1,000.  On top of these usual appliances, I wanted a 4 or 5-burner induction cooktop.  Well, it consumes 1,500 to 2,000 watts — per burner!    So, we hesitatingly settled for a gas, which the condo allows.

I wanted induction and still do.  It’s easier to clean.  It works much more efficiently.  Never mind if you can’t flambée. Despite the initial disappointment, we ended up getting a five-burner stove from La Germania.  It was mounted onto our kitchen island/counter. (We have a peninsula setup at the kitchen) With all the unpacking, it took a week before we decided to use the gas stove.

In our first few days, we used a 1-burner induction stove — a gift from my dad. So 6 days after we moved in, we ordered our first LPG tank.  We called Solane (previously known as Shellane when it was still owned by Shell).  It was Saturday afternoon and we wanted to get our tank as we were hosting lunch the following day for my wife’s parents. It was our first time to order LPG on our own.  Previously, my wife and I lived with our respective families.  In my parents’ house, I’d delegate all LPG-related tasks to helpers. In college, I used a low-tech electric stove — I also lived in a condo for 4 years with a good friend.  That condo didn’t allow LPG.  So the big picture: my wife and I were new at this.

Anyway, the delivery man came late that Saturday afternoon.  Before installing the tank, he first said that the regulator I had bought was substandard.  He said that it would eventually get busted, and we’d have to replace it.  He recommended a replacement, which he had brought with him.  While I felt a bit miffed and hesitant, I bought the replacement.  Safety does come first, after all.  So after this, he installed the tank, tested the stove in front of me, and left.

Why Solane?  My parents have been using it for the past three decades.  The company has not had a single accident.  So these seemed good enough.

Fast forward to Sunday morning, 10 o’clock.  I was sweeping the floor or something to that effect when my wife was figuring out how to work the stove for a dish she was making. Looking back, my attention was more into the sweeping as I knew my wife had prior experience using a gas stove.

Then, I saw one of my worst fears come alive . While my wife was 2 or 3 minutes into cooking her dish, suddenly, there was a very brief and small blast in the kitchen.  Simultaneously, I saw a straight line of blue flame emerge. It quickly ran parallel to the 2-meter counter.  I was stunned.  We were in an enclosed space, and immediately, I was worried that the same thing that happened to that poor fellow at Serendra would happen to us.  All of these — the adrenaline, the flame, our lives flashing before our eyes — happened in less than a minute.

My instinct was for us to get out of our place.  And oops, having just moved in, we didn’t have a fire extinguisher yet. Lucky for us, the flame that ran parallel to the counter immediately died down and didn’t cause a fire.  However, the stove (my wife turned one burner on) wouldn’t turn off.  We ran to the condo security to ask for assistance.  They quickly accompanied us with their fire extinguisher.  But they didn’t need to use it as the stove finally turned off.  The good guards also helped us remove the regulator from the tank itself.

The unfortunate part in all of this was seeing my wife having some burns on her arm and wrist. I still feel horrible and sorry about this, and how I wish the incident didn’t happen. It was painful for her but thank God, the worst did not happen.  As I ran to the nearby drugstore to buy ointment for her burns (another strike for us after not having the fire extinguisher), we asked my mom — a doctor — to come over.  On the phone, she said that we might have to go to the emergency room.  But thank goodness, the burn wasn’t so serious, it just needed ointment.  Still, my poor wife had to suffer the inconvenience for a few days.

So what exactly happened?  We called Solane, complained, and told them about what had happened.  Initially, I didn’t like how my call was handled.  The agent didn’t seem to see the urgency of my complaint.  She wanted to report first and verify with the distributor, yada-yada.  On our end, we felt strongly about getting one of their people to our place to check.  They did send someone within an hour or two.  The guy just blamed us, and by examining the regulator only, he carelessly concluded that our stove has a problem.  Still upset, I just told him to disconnect the regulator/stove from the tank.  We didn’t use the stove for the entire work week.

Our stove under scrutiny…

We asked Solane to send someone again the next Saturday.  But we had two requests.  First, they had to replace our tank.  Second, they should send someone new.  Well, we didn’t want to see the same people again as we felt that we really wouldn’t get an objective assessment of what really happened. Thankfully, a new fellow came.  And that’s when things finally started to make sense.  He volunteered to check the stove, and that made the difference.

  1. True enough, there was nothing wrong with the tank itself — although they still did change it without any cost.  There was no leak in the installed regulator either.  [By the way, they did tests by getting a dish cloth wet with soap, which they put on top of the regulator.  If the soap suds and bubbles started flying, then Houston, we do have a problem.]
  2. So where was the leak?  The other end of the hose! — the one that’s actually connected to the stove itself.  Conclusion: either the electrician or the people installing our granite counter were not able to securely fasten the hose into the stove.
  3. The Solane fellow who installed the tank left the tank switch on from Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning.  Imagine that!  Unfortunately, we didn’t know any better.  Still, the person who came to fix the problem said that the other guy should have turned off the switch, which he didn’t.So given that the switch wasn’t turned off plus the hose wasn’t securely fastened to begin with, the tank had leaked 15 or 16 hours.  Thank goodness we decided to host lunch and not dinner.  Hosting dinner would have meant allowing the gas to leak longer.  The guy brought a new hose with him, which we purchased, and he made sure everything was connected and fastened securely.
  4. The Solane installer who did fix the problem (he was much, much better than the others) coached us and in doing so, we found some additional lapses. It is standard procedure for Solane installers to also check for any leaks on the regulators and hoses.  If they fail do that, the lesson is, do insist on  a check.  They should do these tests as part of procedure every time a tank is replaced.  The valve/regulator and hose are also replaced regularly.  I believe this would be every quarter to ensure safety.

I write this piece not to complain about or attack Solane.  While there were lapses that management should look into, we should have known better.  After all, the saying goes, ignorance is not an excuse.  We should have done our homework by reading, asked more questions prior to installing our gas burner.  And because we are alive to share the story, here are a few tips to ensure that you do not blow your house into smithereens.

  • Have the cooktop installed by the right people: If you’re building a home, do not leave the installation to just anyone.  I discussed what happened with my contractor [incidentally, this is an aunt/godmother who worked her magic in constructing our home and we are eternally grateful 🙂 ]  The key learning point: get the store or manufacturer to install it for you.  This ensures not just your safety.  It also ensures that you don’t void your warranty.  I’ve wondered why Anson’s Makati at the Link nor La Germania never bothered to offer installation.  In fact, when I bought the stove, I also bought our washing machine.  Just days later, an agent from LG called me up to set an appointment for the installation of the unit.  With La Germania?  Nada.As I didn’t know any better, I left the job to the electrician.  I’m not even sure if it was he who installed it, for it might have even been the granite providers who installed the stove.  So do make sure you also know who exactly is doing the installation.  I didn’t, and boy, we paid a price for it.
  • Choose your brand wisely: While I am not endorsing any specific brand, do choose a brand that has an exceptional track record.  Don’t go for unknown brands.  When I was still a journalist, all of the reported LPG explosions we covered happened to families that used unknown brands.  When I’m on the road, I also check how LPG deliverymen put the tanks on their motorcycles.  The tanks are supposed to be upright and not lying horizontally, which I have seen from time to time.  If I see wrongly-transported tanks, I take note of the brand and it out of the list of trusted brands.
  • Make sure the installer does his job completely: As I mentioned, make sure your provider checks everything: the tank, hose, regulator, and stove itself.  Make sure that the tank is also in a secure, well-ventilated place.
  • Do routine checks: Do your own checks, of course.  I check for leaks by putting a dish cloth on top of the regulator to check for leaks.  In fact, I make it a point to leave a damp cloth there (and I make sure it’s always damp).  In case of a leak, the cloth should absorb the gas instead of allowing it to circulate freely throughout the kitchen– and the house.
  • Replace the hose and the valves regularly.  There, I said it again as it cannot be overemphasized.
  • Be vigilant for problems: Liquefied petroleum gas is in itself odorless, but manufacturers do put a strong odor to it to help people immediately detect leaks.  Well, we didn’t get to smell anything.  It also is good to have a well-ventilated kitchen.  Open the window before cooking, or open the exhaust fan.  I do both.
  • Turn off the LPG switch after cooking: Aside from regularly checking for leaks, make sure that you are able to turn off the tank after you are done cooking.  Always check the tank before leaving the house.
  • Have a fire extinguisher and burn ointment/medicine on standby: just in case.  Should you get a burn, immediately wash with cold, running water.  Put ice.  See a doctor if the burn is serious.
  • Get an LPG Leak Detector: I just got one from ebay and I think it’s doing a great job of detecting LPG and other flammable gases. I bought it for peace of mind.
    Trying out this LPG leak detector. So far so good.

    I bought the gadget from a China-based merchant for $20.  It runs on electricity at just 4 watts, and so far so good.  It’s sensitive enough that it beeps when it senses me spraying isopropyl alcohol on our counters as part of our daily cleanup.

Since then, we have been cooking and cooking happily.  I want to end not just with tips but more importantly, with a thanksgiving. When I replay the scene over and over in my head, I realize that we were not just lucky.  We could have lost our lives.  I could have lost my wife.  But we were protected.  We were blessed and we still are on a daily basis.  For this, we are indeed grateful to the Lord.  Amen to that!

– 1 September 2014

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