The risk of catastrophic gas explosions is heightened by cash-strapped homeowners skipping checks for life-threatening glitches, security experts have warned.
Unchecked stoves, fires and boilers can cause leaks, which “lead to fires and explosions that cost lives and rip apart neighborhoods,” said Bob Kerr, director of gas services for the Gas Safe Register.
The body, which operates under an agreement with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), found that nearly one in three households will skip booking an annual gas safety check this year, due to the cost of living crisis. A boiler service costs around £80, while a gas safety check for three appliances costs around £60.
The warning comes as investigators have concluded that a gas leak from an internal pipe was responsible for a huge explosion last Sunday at a house in Kingstanding, Birmingham, which killed 79-year-old Doreen Rees-Bibb and seriously injured a a man.
The incident is the latest in a series of rare but devastating explosions in the past two years caused by faulty appliances or burst gas lines from Portsmouth to Yorkshire.
Four gas explosions that destroyed houses examined by The Guardian have been caused by faulty appliances or cartridge supplies inside the houses. Three more were caused by gas seeping into properties from cracked or corroded main supply lines, a problem being addressed by a national gas main replacement program, which has another 10 years to run.
The Birmingham explosion adds to a further 12 deaths and 179 injuries caused by gas explosions and fires in Britain in the last five years, according to figures from the HSE. On average, there have been 31 explosions a year, often leaving communities and homeowners traumatized.
“There should be help for those struggling [to afford gas checks]this is a very important thing that has been done,” said Darren Cornish, who was inside his mother and father’s home in Bude, Cornwall, when a gas explosion ripped through the property in January 2021.
“People now have less money to spend on maintaining these important appliances, so leaks are becoming a bigger problem.”
A pipe leading to the house from two gas bottles had snapped and leaked into the wall cavity.
“I checked the gas plate. Unfortunately mom wasn’t thinking and lit a flame to check the furnace for leaks and ignited the gas around us which went to the walls to find oxygen outside therefore all the walls exploded and three tons of roof rested on one inner wall,” he said. “We were so lucky to be alive.”
One problem has been corrosion or cracks in main pipes that leak gas into the ground, making its way under houses and into wall cavities. Since 2002, gas network companies, including Cadent and Southern Gas Network, have been replacing 300,000km of decades-old cast-iron mains with plastic and narrower steel branch lines, supplying gas to individual homes. Cadent said that he has completed 75% of his program.
Michael McCormick survived a huge explosion last year at his Portsmouth home caused by a leak in the branch line, which was so corroded it snapped in two. The gas flooded the cavity below the ground floor and was ignited by a candle.
“I felt the shock wave flying next to me,” he said. “It was like two hands [pushing] in the middle of my back. My wife [who was upstairs] I felt the floor go up and go down again.”
Records show the gas main was changed to plastic in the 1980s, before SGN took over the network, but the service pipe was left, he said. SGN said an investigation by HSE found that “SGN did not have any cases to answer.”
“I am very concerned that there are other houses out there,” McCormick said. “We were very lucky. They definitely need to speed up [the mains replacement programme]. They need to do something to prevent people from being hurt and killed.”
Hazel Wilcock, 61, was killed in an explosion that demolished her terraced house near Bury in February 2021 while on a video call with her partner.
The coroner, Joanne Kearsley, concluded: “On the balance of probabilities, the explosion occurred due to a buildup of natural gas in the basement of the property, which had collected there due to a fracture in a gas main about 35 meters away… The gas likely traveled from the site of the broken pipe through a channel of water… It reached a level number five, which was explosive, and it was likely ignited due to electrical appliances, which were present in the basement.”
An HSE spokesman said: “We take gas safety very seriously. There are more than 22 million homes connected to the gas network, so these incidents are rare, although they can be very serious. The gas networks have the responsibility to maintain the pipelines, while HSE monitors compliance and investigates incidents in certain circumstances.”
The Energy Networks Association said: “Our members have already replaced more than two-thirds of their gas mains within 30 meters of any building. Steel and metal pipes and plumbing are now being replaced with polyethylene, the safest and most durable modern plastic replacement material.”