I thought that home ownership was all about white walls, green plants and finding the perfect rug. Instead, I’m looking at a wall with a strange, grey scratch on it, plants with brown and yellow spots (is that normal?) and a rug that’s buried underneath my kids’ toys, books, cushions, paper and textas. So when my husband accidentally shut off our gas heating on a freezing Canberra day, it seemed like just another thing that happens in a family home.
That is, until we discovered that our gas heating system was actually 32 years old, leaking deadly carbon monoxide throughout our four-bedroom home, and needed to be replaced as soon as possible. And if it wasn’t for Jeff temporarily breaking our heating, I may not even be here to write this story.
We had owned our house for around two months, and we were still figuring out what needed to be fixed. One day, I was putting boxes into our garden shed when I noticed a tap gushing water all over the ground. I tried to turn it off, but nothing worked. We called a plumber, and Jeff decided to turn the water supply off so that we didn’t waste any more water.
I was inside, unpacking more boxes, when Jeff came back. “I think I turned the water off, but I’m not sure,” he said. I followed him outside to find out what he meant. “That’s what I turned off,” he said, pointing to an old, chunky metal thing stuck to the side of our house.
“Jeff, that’s our gas!” I shrieked.
I went back inside, and hovered my hand over the heating vents in our floor. Nothing. So now, we had cold water splashing everywhere outside, our ducted gas heating was broken, and it was the middle of winter in Canberra.
Jeff couldn’t turn the gas back on, even though he tried. The plumber arrived, and thankfully he knew his way around a gas heating system. He turned the gas back on, but recommended that we call someone to service it. He said the system looked old, and may need replacing.
(It’s at this point that I have to tell you that the water mains was buried underground, and that the plumber couldn’t find it. He had to use a metal detector to locate where it was buried in our front garden. Jeff told me to tell you this.)
Finally, Ben, a man from a local gas heating company, came and looked at our gas system and measured the carbon monoxide levels. And he only had bad news.
The gas heater was 32 years old, and was leaking dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is toxic, flammable and deadly in large doses, and it was flowing throughout my house. I hadn’t noticed, because carbon monoxide has no smell, taste or colour.
Ben told us that an ideal carbon monoxide rating would be 0, and that if the rating was 3, they would have to shut our heating system down completely. Our rating was 2, and we were told to replace our gas heating as soon as possible.
I knew how scary and serious this was, because years ago, I had read a story on Mamamia by Vanessa Robinson, a mother who tragically lost her two young sons to carbon monoxide poisoning. The gas heater in her rented home had leaked carbon monoxide overnight.
Her bravely told story was always at the back of my mind when I turned on our gas heating, and if I was wiser, I would have had my gas heater serviced earlier. I was always too busy or too lazy to do it. The gratitude I have for Jeff’s mistake – which led to us eventually getting a carbon monoxide reading – allows me not to think about the horrors of what could have happened.
So, one day, when Jeff was at work and I had the day off, I took my kids out for the day as our gas heater was replaced. It cost thousands of dollars, about the same amount as a very nice holiday. It was worth it, because my family’s lives are priceless.
Don’t be like me and wait until it’s almost too late. If you know you need to do something for your family’s safety, do it today, because not all mistakes have a happy ending.
Carla Gee is a writer and illustrator, living in Canberra. You can follow her on Instagram, @bycarlagee.
The Chase and Tyler Foundation, named after Vanessa Robinson’s sons, raises awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning. For more information, or to make a donation, visit chaseandtyler.org.au.