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Gas cylinders, regulators and safety

"A Ball Of Fire"

Several days ago I witnessed a terrible accident. It was a sobering experience that brings to mind the reality of life in Bali and how easily a single event can totally change our life circumstances.

Saturday afternoon, 6 pm, an expatriate couple pulled out of a small side road onto the busy Bedugul road. They were turning right across the flow of traffic. Suddenly a young man on a motor cycle came up the road towards them from their right. He tried to avoid them. If he had tried to go behind them he might have been alright but he didn't. He went onto the other side of the road and tried to pass in front of them.

He didn't make it.

He was a 30 year old mechanic on his way home from work. He was going to paint his motor cycle the following day and tragically was carrying a tin of paint thinners. He hit the front wing of the car and immediately the front of the car from the windscreen forward, the motor cycle and the rider were all enveloped in a ball of flame.

A crowd quickly gathered and several men managed to extinguish the flames enveloping the young man and drag him away from the burning car. The couple in the car escaped without injury. The motor cycle and the car were totally destroyed. The young man was taken to the new burns unit at Sanglah hospital but with 80% burns there was no chance. He died 3 days later.

I am sorry to relate this horrific story but it brings up a number of issues we need to consider very carefully.

It is not relevant to discuss right or wrong or who was to blame. The fact is that for any of us driving or riding on the streets of Bali, the lack of established rules of the road combined with a high density of road users make the roads here probably the greatest danger we face on a daily basis. No matter how careful we are there is always someone who will do something we don't expect.

Having lived here for many years it is easy to get complacent, to lose concentration or to be impatient. This accident could have happened to me or to anyone else for that matter. The roads in Bali require a lot of patience and eyes in the back of our heads.

As the statistics indicate motor cycles are particularly dangerous. Talk to any consul and you will soon discover just how many visitors to Bali are killed or injured on motor cycles every year. For local people the figures are horrendous.

It is easy to say the motor cycle rider should not have been carrying highly flammable liquid on his bike but the reality is that for 90% of the people in Bali motor cycles are the only form of transport available to them. There are many different flammable liquids in everyday use, who knows how many people are riding around on the streets every day as an accident waiting to happen. Do the people working with or for you carry inflammable or dangerous liquids on motor cycles? Petrol, thinners, solvents, gas cylinders, methylated spirits, medicinal alcohol, spirits such as as whisky, gin and arak, cigarette lighter fuel or cleaning fluids such as Brasso. What about hydrochloric acid or caustic tile cleaner?

The crowd that gathered that day were afraid that the car would explode. Fortunately it didn't. The car was a Panther with a diesel engine and diesel fuel has a higher flash point than petrol (in a diesel engine the fuel ignites from pressure not a spark). The whole car burned but the tank did not explode. Hard to believe but the situation may have been worse had it been a petrol engined vehicle.

The greatest tragedy in this sad story has yet to play out. The young man was the eldest of two sons of a poor couple who eke out a living on the land. Their main breadwinner and the person who would have looked after them in their old age is now gone. Life will be a struggle for them - their lives shattered in a split second.

Gas cylinders can be very dangerous

This tragic incident reminded me of a good friend who many years ago found himself at a house fire in North Western Australia. Wearing only shorts he ran towards a burning house and a gas cylinder exploded. He had 71% of his body burned and, unbelievably, after years of struggle and many painful operations he survived, one of the very few that has survived with over 70% burns to his body. He was fortunate to be cared for at the Royal Perth Hospital which has one of the best burns units in the world.

I find it hard to imagine a more horrific thing than to be enveloped in a ball of flame but to get to my topic this week, how many of us realise a very real danger close at hand.

Recently I inspected a luxury villa in Southern Bali. The building had a number of issues one would not expect in a building of this standard and price range but, bearing in mind the above incident, one stands out. In the enclosed kitchen a gas hob was set into the top of a kitchen bench. The gas cylinder was located in the cupboard (a wooden cupboard) immediately under the hob.

This is very dangerous. Only a few years ago here in Bali an Englishman walked into his kitchen first thing in the morning, failed to notice a smell of gas and clicked on a gas ring. He blew himself up. He suffered burns to 90% of his body and died four days later. Chances of survival in such situations are determined not so much by the degree of the burns but by the surface area of skin that is damaged, over 50% burned and survival becomes very questionable.

Gas regulators, valves and rubber "o" ring seals

We all live around gas cylinders and I am sure that many people are aware that there are constant problems here with regulators that don't fit properly. We all know that gas cylinders require a regulator which holds back the high pressure gas in the cylinder and allows a constant low pressure supply to the rubber hose for our cooker or water heater.

Those of us that have wrestled with changing gas cylinders know that regulators are usually very badly made. This combined with the fact that the brass “pillar” valve on the top of the cylinder is often damaged and the even more common occurrence of damage to the “O” ring seal in the pillar valve that seals onto the regulator makes getting the regulator to seal very much a hit and miss affair.

It is vitally important that the regulator is correctly seated and is not leaking. You need to ask yourself “is the person changing your regulator a person with technical skills?”

Are you living with a potential fire bomb?

Gas cylinders should be in open ventilated spaces

Gas cylinders should be kept in ventilated spaces outside the house and certainly away from naked flames on cookers and water heaters. Also remember electrical switches and plug sockets may provide a spark to ignite gas.

Correct installation of gas services requires care where gas supply hoses enter the house through walls. The correct installation is for the pipe to be inside a duct, usually a steel tube, which should be sealed between the tube and the supply hose at each end.

Safety measures with gas cylinders and regulators

To summarise:

  • Gas cylinders should be situated outside the house in a well ventilated space.
  • Regulators should be well made, in good condition and correctly fitted to the cylinder by someone who knows what they are doing.
  • The rubber “O” ring seal should be in good condition.
  • After fitting a regulator check for leaks. Listen for slight hissing noses or use soapy water and look for bubbles.
  • Where supply hoses pass through walls into the house the hose should be sealed in a protective fireproof duct.
  • Larger installations should be installed by experienced and fully trained gas fitting technicians. There are several contractors on the island.
  • Do not let your staff ride around on motor cycles with flammable liquids.
  • Drive with care at all times and remember disasters happen when you least expect it.

Take care, please.

Copyright © Phil Wilson October 2009
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