If you live in an older home, Southwest Gas may be willing to replace your natural-gas lines — for free.
The company, Arizona’s biggest natural-gas provider, is in the middle of a massive program to test and replace so-called customer-owned yard lines across the state, which have long been the responsibility of property owners. In Southwest Gas’ latest rate case in 2011, the company requested, and the Arizona Corporation Commission approved, a program to replace customer-owned lines — at no cost to customers — in the name of safety.
Southwest Gas is methodically contacting customers, neighborhood by neighborhood, where records show gas service lines are in customer yards. Customers are asked to respond to door hangers, letters and, more recently, phone calls asking them to arrange a time to test their lines for leaks.
If company equipment “sniffs” out a yard leak or pressure tests detect one inside the home, Southwest Gas will replace the line and relocate the meter on the customer’s home. After that, the line to the house will be the utility’s responsibility.
Southwest Gas estimates 118,500 customers have yard lines, which lead from a remote gas meter to a house. That was common in homes served by the old Tucson Gas and Electric Co., whose system Southwest Gas took over in 1979.
“It’s definitely more of a Southern Arizona issue,” Southwest Gas spokeswoman Libby Howell said.
Newer homes tend to have meters installed on the home itself, so the gas company already owns and maintains the lines up to the house.
Most of the customer-owned yard lines in Southwest Gas’ Arizona service area — about 75,000 — are in the metro Tucson area. The company’s Southern Arizona service territory also includes areas in and around Green Valley, Oracle, Sierra Vista, Douglas, Casa Grande, Coolidge, Morenci and Globe.
So far, Southwest Gas has tested 41,300 homes and found about 3,400 leaks, Howell said. But 18,600 customers have refused the survey or did not respond to multiple contacts, she said.
“A lot of it is (because of) privacy concerns, or aesthetics,” she said. Some customers simply don’t want their meters on their homes, while others are worried about incurring out-of-pocket expenses.
Though the line replacement and meter relocation is performed without charge to customers, in some cases secondary lines to appliances including outdoor gas grills must be replaced, and that is the homeowner’s responsibility, Howell said.
“There is a chance they will have some expense, so they’ll say, ‘I’ll just take my chances,’ ” she said. “We have to communicate the negative as well as the positive.”
One potential negative: If the gas company finds a leak, workers must shut off gas service to the home until the line can be replaced. The gas company tries to do that within five days.
Summer is the best time to get the work done, Howell said, since it’s easier to get along without hot water for a few days than face a furnace shutoff in the winter.
But the inconvenience comes with a reward. Customers who qualify get a free gas service line — which can cost thousands of dollars — and no longer have to maintain the lines beyond their meters.
The gas-line testing program began in 2012, with a budget of up to $8 million annually for the initial, three-year phase. Southwest Gas spent $4.1 million on the program last year.
Gas customers are funding the program with a billing surcharge set at $0.00101 — a hair more than one-tenth of a cent — per therm, a unit of gas usage. At an average residential usage of 297 therms, the gas-line program costs the typical Southwest Gas home customer about 30 cents a year.
Some customers who haven’t heard of the program have gone online to question it as a too-good-to-be-true scam, prompting Howell to post assurances that it is legit — and that it doesn’t turn a profit for Southwest Gas.
Explosions caused by yard lines are rare.
There have been some instances of neighborhood-level lines leaking and exploding, including a 2005 leak and explosion on Tucson’s south side that severely burned one man and was later blamed on a leaky gas line in an alley.
About 60 percent of all gas leaks are caused by an outside force, such as the business end of a backhoe, industry statistics show. The worst explosions have involved main gas lines, such as a 2010 explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that destroyed 38 homes, killed eight people and injured more than 60.
In the Tucson area, Northwest Fire has been called to three broken gas lines due to roadway excavation work in the last two weeks, said department spokesman Capt. Adam Goldberg.
But most yard-line leaks never prompt an evacuation because the gas company quickly shuts down the service, eliminating any danger, Goldberg said.
“The hazards are real,” he said, citing, for example, appliance pilot lights and cigarette lighters. “There are just so many points that can cause ignition.”