Gas leaks, by their nature, are often hard to pinpoint. They're invisible and can dissipate quickly. However, relatively low levels in confined spaces can create explosion hazards. We've been looking at a number of products that can identify problems in the home, as well as those designed for use by professionals. Our guide explains what they do and includes a few of our top recommendations at the end, such as our favorite, the Amprobe Gas-Leak Detector. It pinpoints common threats quickly and accurately, so problems can be fixed fast.
Considerations when choosing combustible gas detectors
There are two main groups of combustible gas detectors: those that are sited semi-permanently -- plugged into a convenient power outlet or mounted on a wall -- and handheld units with a probe, which are taken into the area of the suspected gas leak.
The first are similar in appearance to smoke alarms. Basic models detect most gases likely to cause problems in the home, such as natural gas, propane, and liquid propane gas (LPG). Some also alert you to unsafe carbon monoxide levels (while not explosive, it is poisonous). Many of these simply plug in, though it's good to see a battery included as a backup, so they still work in the event of a power outage.
The main drawback with these devices is that they are affixed -- so they need to be relatively near a potential problem if they're going to give you advanced warning. As a result, you might need to purchase several to effectively monitor a large area. While they can warn you of a leak, they can't actually tell you where it's coming from.
Handheld combustible gas detectors do precisely that and have a probe attached, so they can reach just about anywhere. These devices are invariably battery-operated, and batteries may or may not be included, so you'll want to check that. Not only do these instruments offer greater accuracy, they will often detect a wider range of gases -- which can be important for some contractors and inspectors.
With both types of detector, there are warm-up times, during which they don't function properly. With plug-ins, that's usually a one-off thing if you're leaving it on all the time. With hand-helds, it happens every time you turn it on. The latter also have a reaction time -- how long it takes to actually detect a leak. It's usually somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds. Will that impact how you want to use it?
Alerts: The way you are alerted may vary. Most plug-ins offer an audible alarm, but handhelds may also have a visual signal, or can be set to vibrate (useful if you're working in areas where noise is an issue).
Concentration indicator: Some models -- of either type -- also give the concentration of gas detected. On high-end devices, sensitivity may be adjustable.
Sensors: The sensors themselves can be either catalytic or infrared. It makes no difference to how they're used, and few manufacturers make it obvious which type theirs is, but catalytic models can be prone to damage by things like sulphur vapor and are not recommended in some industrial environments. Infrared models also tend to need less power, so batteries last longer. An auto shutoff may also be included to extend battery life.
The cheapest gas detectors are those designed as home alarms. Combustible gas models start around $25, while those that include carbon monoxide detection start around $35. There are a few handheld units at this price, but sensitivity and durability are questionable, and probes are short. If you want a reliable model of a professional-standard, you can expect to pay between $150 and $300 depending on the feature set.
Q. Do combustible gas detectors identify the type of gas?
A. Most do not -- though often you'll know anyway from the type of system you're checking. Fixed alarms (like the Kidde we feature) can identify the difference between carbon monoxide (poisonous) and explosive, but not the type.
Q. What's the lifespan of a combustible-gas detector?
A. The sensors do wear out. In most cases you can expect two or three years, though those models that detect numerous and uncommon gases can be as little as 12 months.
Our take: Durable, high-quality model detects an extensive range of gases.
What we like: Adjustable sensitivity helps pinpoint leaks. Three different alert modes. Good reach from 16-inch probe. User-replaceable sensor reduces down time.
What we dislike: Slow calibration. More warranty returns than expected.
Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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