Gas installations: the good, the bad and the ugly

By Fiona Ingham

Both LP and natural gas are inexpensive, infinitely controllable and, when a gas appliance is correctly installed, extremely safe. Plumbing Africa looks at what goes into making installations sound.

Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel. It is used predominately in the commercial and industrial environments, with relatively few householders using it. Conversely, the by-product of natural gas (and/or the oil refining process) being liquefied petroleum gas (LP gas), is used mainly residentially and then secondarily in commercial and industrial applications, says CEO of the Southern African Gas Association (SAGA) Roy Lubbe. The molecular structure and composition of the two gases are different, and where natural gas is conveyed via pipeline to ultimate points of consumption, LP gas is in cylinders for easy transportation and use.

Lubbe explains that four gas bodies are responsible for the different types of gases:

  • Liquefied Petroleum Gas Safety Association of Southern Africa (LPGSASA);
  • Southern Africa Compressed Gases Association (SACGA): compressed gases used in the medical and industrial environments;
  • South African Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Contractors Association (SARACCA): gases used in the refrigeration and air-conditioning industries; and
  • SAGA, which looks after the interests of the methane-based or natural gas industry.

The South African Qualifications Certification Committee for Gas (SAQCC Gas), which is a Department of Labour mandated institution, registers gas practitioners in the four gas types.

Plumbing Africa spoke to the CEOs of both LPGSASA and SAGA.

Liquefied Petroleum Gas Safety Association

“The overall function of the LP Gas Safety Association of Southern Africa is to oversee safety in the industry,” says CEO of the body, Kevin Robertson. Acting under various mandates from the Department of Labour, the body also assists in the development of standards that ensure the safety of the industry. The association is funded by various categories of membership; with members currently numbering more than 800.

“The members have a responsible attitude towards safety, as well as maintaining the integrity and the growth of the industry,” says Robertson. Membership is purely voluntary.

In terms of the Health and Safety Act and the Pressure Equipment Regulations (PER), only a person who is a registered gas practitioner may undertake the installation of any LP gas appliance.

Robertson says that in the case of LP gas, part of what is covered in the PER are the various South African National Standards, and the ones that pertain to the LP gas industry have to be observed when an installation is undertaken. Anything that does not comply with the standards is potentially hazardous. The standards are designed to ensure that LP gas is kept safe, and if people are not complying with that then this would be a serious concern, Robertson points out. Any installation that complies fully with the relevant standard should be safe to use and the user has peace of mind knowing that.

Southern African Gas Association

Lubbe explains that natural gas is piped under pressure from Mozambique to South Africa, where the pressure along the way is reduced and then supplied to industry, commercial premises such as restaurants and large motor manufacturers, as well as to residential areas that make use of gas. Each company or house gets an allocation that is metered. Two tasks are involved: the provision of the gas itself and then the equipment compliance. He says SAGA ensures the safety and the efficiency of piped gas, and assures that the equipment used to convey the gas is compliant with regulations, as well as relevant occupational health and safety standards. The entire pipeline is governed by national and international standards, whereas the gas installation is governed by relevant standards.

Lubbe says that SAGA concerns itself with firstly, the provision of the natural gas by the various gas providers who ensure that the gas itself is of a good quality, and secondly, the equipment, which the body regulates to ensure its compliance with occupational health and safety standards. The PER governs the standards, with regulation 17 of the PER governing gas as it relates to people and equipment in the industry, and setting out the approved occupational health and safety standards.

The use of natural gas is not prevalent because of the lack of infrastructure and finances for development or extension to other areas. Sasol Energy supplies most of their pipeline gas to industrial premises. Some areas in Gauteng do have access to gas via the Egoli Gas network in Johannesburg, while Spring Lights Gas supplies certain areas in KwaZulu-Natal. Southdown’s housing estate in Pretoria also has access to natural gas, says Lubbe.

Poor installations

If an incident involving gas occurs and it had not been a compliant installation, the chances are that any insurance claims pertaining to that incident are not going to be met. The more serious implication is that people could get hurt.

“Bad installations can be anything from the piping that is used to illegal or non-compliant appliances and equipment. The horrors are vast. A bad installation occurs when the standards are not adhered to. If the gas installation doesn’t have a Certificate of Conformity, then it is illegal,” says Robertson.

“Any cylinder that comes into the country has to comply with the local South African standard. If it doesn’t have a verification permit issued by the LPGSASA, then it is illegal. The LP Gas Safety Association endeavours to make sure that the distribution of cylinders is kept as safe as possible.”

South African standards

Any LP gas appliance that is sold or distributed in South Africa has to comply with the relevant South African National Standards, and these are not necessarily the same as Australian or Chinese standards, Robertson explains. “This applies to everything, from the regulators that are used to the hoses. We issue permits on behalf of the Department of Labour on any appliance that has been tested and found to conform to the standards. So, the users should not be using anything that does not have a permit. Gas stoves need to have been issued with a permit that verifies they comply, as do electrical appliances,” continues Robertson.

Another safety feature that has been introduced on LP gas appliances — based on evidence that has arisen in recent years — is an oxygen depletion system, so that if the level of oxygen in a room drops below a certain level, it automatically cuts out. Steps also have to be taken to make bathrooms and living areas safer if gas heating is used.

In the case of bathrooms, users tend to close all the windows and the door, so the available oxygen is used up by the flame as well as the person who is in the room, which means they might not notice that the oxygen level in the room is being depleted. In living rooms where a gas heater is installed, there should be a flue through the ceiling and roof, and the room should be sufficiently ventilated. 

Training for LP gas practitioners

LPGSASA runs gas practitioner training at its premises. It’s an intense five-day course that covers the standards as they pertain to the industry and the practical elements of the job too, says Robertson. The applicants have to write an exam afterwards and they have to achieve a pass rate of at least 80% in each of the segments, as well as an overall 80% pass rate, after which they are issued with a temporary licence. The practitioners then need to complete gas appliance installations under the guidance of a mentor. During this time, they cannot sign off installations — only the mentor can do this.

The applicants then gather all the paperwork pertaining to installations and create a document called a Portfolio of Evidence, which includes the types and the quantities of materials used for each installation. “They photograph the installations and these photos are submitted to us along with the Portfolio of Evidence and comment from the mentor for review. If these are approved, we notify SAQCC Gas. The reason for this being that we cannot both train and register the practitioner.” SAQCC Gas is an independent body mandated by the Department of Labour to register gas practitioners.

As is the case in the electrical industry, once a gas installation is complete, the gas practitioner issues a Certificate of Conformity, which is signed by the user and by the gas practitioner, both of whom keep a copy for future reference. The Certificate of Conformity serves as confirmation that the installation complies with the requirements of the standard.

The professional bodies must know about intended installations so that if a building is constructed, it can make allowance for the gas installation before, and not after, construction. It is naturally more difficult to try and find an acceptable and compliant place to put the cylinders or the piping once the building has been completed.

Training for natural gas practitioners

Lubbe explains that SAGA provides various three- to five-day training courses for persons wanting to work in the natural gas industry, and with their Portfolio of Evidence, the body recommends qualified and competent persons to SAQCC Gas for registration as gas practitioners. “You cannot work in the industry legally if you are not registered.”

“Because users tend to be ignorant of what dangers are involved, the regulation and safety standards are written in such a way that the person providing the services enforces gas safety compliance. It is also the responsibility of the provider to inform the user of the correct and safe use of gas and the gas system. The onus is on the user to eventually take total responsibility for the gas system,” says Lubbe.

If the user employs the services of a non-registered practitioner, insurers will not pay out claims relating to non-compliant installations. Users need to know that they must use a registered gas practitioner. “We do come across illegal installations (as you would in any industry), but they are very few and far between,” he says.

“We spend a lot of time making people aware that they have to work with registered practitioners only. We work with real estate agents and conveyances, building contractors, engineers, consulting engineers and architects, building awareness as well as ensuring compliance to regulations and health and safety standards.

Benefits of gas

Gas provides instant heating, which is very economical. It is infinitely controllable and you do not have to wait for a plate to warm up as you do with an electric stove. It is extensively used for cooking, water heating and space heating. The more the price of electricity rises, the more gas is used and will be used as an alternative, Robertson says.

A massive import and storage facility is coming on line in Saldanha Bay in May next year, which will improve availability in the critical winter months. Also, users can keep a spare cylinder. A family of two can cook for six months on just one 9kg cylinder of gas and at approximately R20 a kilogram, this is very economical.

Gas is used extensively throughout the world, simply because it is safe, clean burning and efficient. Comparatively few local households are using gas, because its use is in its infancy in South Africa. This is because we have always had electricity (which used to be cheap), and those who don’t have it aspire to it. But now with the problems associated with the traditional supply, we have to look at alternatives. Gas is non-tangible and people have difficulty understanding it. If you use an appliance and cylinder that are permitted for use in South Africa and a registered gas practitioner installs it, it’s very safe. Most people know that electricity can be dangerous if misused, but its benefits outweigh its drawbacks — the same applies to gas.

Natural gas will play a key role in ensuring we are able to meet our energy needs of the future, as natural gas is clean. Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, with 30% less carbon than oil and as much as 60% less carbon than coal. Burning natural gas in place of other fuels can reduce emissions and contribute to cleaner air quality. Natural gas is reliable: we can access natural gas when we need it, through well-established networks of pipelines that bring natural gas safely and reliably into our homes and businesses. This gas is versatile, which makes it an important foundation fuel. In our homes, natural gas is burned for heating and cooking. Industry depends on natural gas to create process heat and steam, and uses it as a raw material in making petrochemicals and fertilizers. Natural gas (in either liquefied or compressed form) is used to fuel transit buses in urban areas. The electricity sector depends on gas to produce a reliable, cost-effective, quick-firing way to generate power.

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