Photos by John Storey
For a trendy new TV crime drama you can check out McConaughey and Harrelson on HBO, but if you want to see true detectives at work just watch IBEW 1245 members track down a natural gas leak.
This four-man PG&E crew spent a crispy sunny morning in San Rafael last fall tracking down a leak detected by a PG&E survey team. The crew knew the leak was in the neighborhood—but where? A job for true detectives.
Gas crews know to look for visual clues. Natural gas can cause dirt to turn a greenish color, and in older leaks the dirt tends to clump together. Keeping an eye out for such clues, the crew starts deploying their detection technology.
After using a pipe locator to find the gas main, they begin drilling test holes into the street directly above it. They use a leak detector to pull an air sample out of the hole, and the Combustible Gas Indicator tells them which hole contains the highest concentration of gas.
The high tech equipment puts them on the suspect’s trail, but another asset comes into play as they close in on the leak’s precise location. It’s called experience.
“Trust your numbers,” says Equipment Operator Jack Jones, a 9-year IBEW member, “and trust your gut.”
“All we’re doing is an educated guess,” says Foreman Bobby Ming. He speculates the gas could be escaping from a pit on the main itself, but once Operator Jones digs a little deeper into the matter with the backhoe they find the culprit.
“The leak is on the weld,” says Ming, a 10-year IBEW member.
They decide to weld over the existing weld, but first they have to take off the wrap that encases the pipe to verify it is only leaking in one place. Removing the wrap—a sticky tar-like substance—is slow, painstaking work. The lucky winner of that task is Apprentice Josh Wisdom, a five-year IBEW member.
It turns out there is only the one leak. After making the new weld, they change the completion plug and rewrap the pipe.
A lot of their detection work is on steel lines laid down in the 1950s and 1960s, says Foreman Mark Magaíƒ±a, a 12-year IBEW member. But there are pipes in service dating back to the 20s and 30s.
The fact is, all pipes age and, given enough time, many are going to leak. And as long as pipes leak, we need experts in detection to monitor and fix them before they do harm.
Since the arrival of Executive Vice President Nick Stavropoulos in mid-2011, PG&E has ramped up hiring in Gas Operations. The company has added 400 IBEW-represented workers in the past two years, and reduced the backlog of Grade 2 leaks in the distribution system from 8,000 to about 500. It’s methodical, expert work being carried out every day by members of IBEW 1245.
So relax. You can sit back and enjoy Matthew and Woody on HBO, because there are true detectives keeping the gas lines safe in the real world right outside your door.