Tina Phillips-Turner walked a residential Linwood street, holding a piece of equipment called a flame ionization unit. It is designed to detect gas leaks.
She carefully followed the connection from the South Jersey Gas main to each home’s gas meter, then walked the perimeter of each foundation with the detector held just off the ground.
The Pittsgrove resident works for United States Infrastructure Contracting, which monitors all South Jersey Gas mains and service lines on a regular basis, according to the gas company’s manager of records and quality assurance, Dave Newman.
“Every service in the company gets surveyed every three years,” said Newman, of Northfield. Linwood is getting checked now.
On average, surveyors find two leaks a day, said South Jersey Industries spokeswoman Barbara Del Duke.
The number of leaks found has gone down about 77 percent in the past six years, she said.
There were about 2,300 leaks found in 2010, compared with 526 last year, she said.
She chalks that improvement up to a three-pronged program that includes replacing old infrastructure such as cast-iron mains that tend to leak at their many seams, the survey program and a hotline for the public to report problems.
“We anticipate that our results will continue to improve as our programs continue over the coming years,” Del Duke said.
All of the company’s 6,500 miles of gas mains in the street get surveyed annually using a mobile leak vehicle, he said.
“The person who drives the vehicle rides down the road at 3 to 5 mph,” Newman said. “There is leak-detection equipment in the vehicle, and it makes an audible sound if a leak is detected.”
When a leak is found, the surveyor takes an accurate reading on the location, makes a technical drawing and notifies the gas company, Newman said.
If it’s near a home or other structure, the company responds to get permission to open up the road or other area where the leak might be.
If it’s not near a structure and doesn’t present a health or fire risk, the leak may be monitored for a time rather than repaired, he said. Monitoring is allowed under federal and state rules in those circumstances.
On average last year, 40 percent of leaks were found near structures, according to Newman.
Leaks that cannot enter enclosed spaces are not a danger, but the methane in them is considered a pollutant that contributes to global warming.
Newman said the company hopes to implement a find-and-fix program for all leaks in the next five years, as part of its involvement in the new EPA Star Methane Challenge program.
It will also continue its Accelerated Infrastructure Replacement Program as part of the methane challenge. Last Fall, South Jersey Gas got permission from the state Board of Public Utilities to continue it and to adjust rates for prior expenditures.
Despite the improvements, customer bills are, on average, at their lowest in 15 years, Del Duke said.
“2017 rate impacts for AIRP would be set based on a regulatory filing in October,” she said.
The company will spend as much as $302.5 million in the next five years to continue replacing aging bare-steel and cast-iron mains with more durable plastic pipe, according to South Jersey Gas.
Since the program started in 2009, the company has invested more than $360 million and replaced over 600 miles of the old mains, President Jeffrey DuBois said in a press release last fall.
DuBois said the company will finish replacing all of its bare-steel and cast-iron mains by 2021, “accomplishing in 12 years what otherwise would have taken 50 years.”
The survey program covers mains and service lines but not the transmission pipelines that bring natural gas into the area. Those larger structures are surveyed every year by a different contractor’s crew, Newman said.
Newman said the company uses contractors for surveys because the program is less expensive and easier to manage that way, and because the contractor is an expert in detecting leaks.
“We can focus on what they find and be experts in that,” Newman said of fixing the leaks.