Fire investigators and relatives of one of the victims look around the scene of a devastating explosion and fire on Darci Lane that claimed the life of one person and left two others in the hospital with critical injuries. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

A gas leak from a propane appliance is believed to be the cause of an explosion and fire in Montville that claimed the lives of three men this week.

Over the last 20 years, the number of propane-fired appliances used in Maine has grown exponentially, according to Dale Hersey, a Senior Fuel Inspector with the Maine Fuel Board. Two decades ago, the most common propane usage was for cooking, water heating, camp and gas grills. But today, the range of propane-fired appliances is broad and includes kitchen ranges, clothes dryers, furnaces, boilers, water heaters, fireplaces and electrical generators.

“The Maine Fuel Board is seeing more instances of leaks leading to fires or explosions but only because there are more gas and propane-fired appliances being used in Maine. Explosions and fires are rare when appliances are installed and maintained by a licensed gas and propane technician,” Hersey said.

While the exact cause of the gas leak in this tragic incident remains unclear, fuel experts say making sure that propane-fired appliances have been installed and maintained by licensed technicians is key to safety.

Regardless of whether you’re buying a new or used propane or gas appliance, you shouldn’t install them yourself. Maine law requires that installers of these appliances be licensed.

“A licensed propane and natural gas technician has been trained to install gas-fired appliances safely and according to the laws and rules of the Maine Fuel Board,” Hersey said.

There are always risks when buying or acquiring a used propane appliance, Hersey said. The possible concerns vary and may not be noticeable to an untrained buyer, so Hersey said its best to have a licensed propane technician inspect the used appliance to determine if it’s safe to install and use.

When properly installed and maintained, propane appliances can be safe for years. However, leaks can occur due to age, equipment wear and tear, as well as intentional or unintentional moving of piping and fittings over time, according to Hersey. A homeowner can prevent leaks by ensuring that the appliance was installed and is regularly maintained by a licensed technician.

If a leak develops, the impact of it can vary.

“Depending on the size of the leak and the amount of time a leak is allowed to exist, they can range from a minor nuisance where the homeowner smells the leak and has the equipment serviced, to a tragic explosion like the one in Montville,” Hersey said.

Leaks can generally be detected by a foul odor that comes from a chemical added to propane to give off a noticeable smell. While that can be a first line of detection, additionally, fuel gas detectors are also an option for homeowners. The devices are similar to smoke detectors in that they are mounted in a residence and alert occupants when a leak is detected, according to Hersey, who said these detectors are inexpensive and could save lives.  

“Anyone suspecting a leak should immediately leave the premises and the general area, call 911, and call their gas supplier,” Hersey said.