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Family dog kept barking at basement where gas built up

Thu., Oct. 21, 2010

Sean Morden wasn’t thinking much of it. The old tree behind his North Side house south of Corbin Park needed a good pruning, and he figured he’d be able to handle that just fine.

When a tree limb came crashing down and hit a nearby power line, he knew he had to call Avista and he knew he’d be without power for a while – but he couldn’t imagine the chain of events set off by that downed power line, or that his new puppy Max would be the hero of the day.

“I called Avista right away when the power line came down,” Morden said. “They were really nice and said to go turn off all the breakers in the house, and that they had a few other calls to take care off before us.”

That was around 6 p.m. and the Mordens decided to leave for dinner.

“It was getting dark, there wasn’t much we could do at the house,” said Irza Morden, Sean Morden’s wife. “We got back around 9, and Sean went to take a bath while I was sitting here reading by candlelight.”

Sean Morden said he figured their natural gas water heater wouldn’t run out of hot water, but after his shower he noticed the water heater wasn’t coming on.

“You can hear it upstairs, it’s kind of loud,” he said.

By now the couple’s 4-year-old son Zion was in bed, and Irza Morden was thinking of putting the family’s 3-month-old Lhasa apso puppy Max into his kennel, too. But the small fluffy puppy with the licorice button nose would have none of it.

“Max was being so annoying. He kept pacing the floor back and forth between the living room and the kitchen, and he wouldn’t stop barking,” Irza Morden said. “He was barking at the basement door. He kept going back and forth, growling at the floor, barking at the door.”

It didn’t matter what they did to settle the puppy down, he just wouldn’t quit.

“I thought maybe there were mice in the house, and he could hear them,” Irza Morden, “or maybe it was the shadows on the walls from the candles that he didn’t like.”

Sean Morden finally opened the door to the basement.

“As soon as I opened the door I got this smell of gas right in my face, and I realized something was wrong,” he said. “We opened all doors and windows and as soon as we did that, the puppy settled right down. If he hadn’t been barking like he did, we may not have noticed.”

He called Avista again – this time with a different concern.

“It was a little embarrassing to call again,” he said, “but I had no idea this could happen.”

He went down into the basement and turned off the gas supply to the water heater.

Sean Morden said what happened was that as the gas water heater ran low on hot water, it tried to reignite to heat more water.

“It took in a lot of gas at one time, and that blew out the pilot light so it didn’t ignite the way it was supposed to,” Sean Morden said. “We couldn’t smell a thing upstairs, and we probably wouldn’t have noticed at the time, if it wasn’t for Max barking and carrying on.”

This does not mean that the Mordens’ house was on the brink of explosion, even with the lit candles in the living room.

“We add something to the gas that makes it smell like rotten eggs,” said Jody Morehouse, chief gas engineer at Avista. “This means that people can smell the gas at very, very low levels, long before it becomes dangerous.”

And dogs, Morehouse added, have a much keener sense of smell, so Max picked up the scent long before anyone was in danger.

“In this case, there was something wrong with the water heater; it shouldn’t have done that,” Morehouse said. “There are safety valves on gas equipment so when the power goes out it shuts off. If the equipment is working correctly, this shouldn’t be an issue.” Morehouse added that if you smell gas, you should leave the house immediately.

“Don’t flick any switches or pick up the phone inside,” she said. “Leave the house and call Avista from somewhere safe.”

Max did get an extra treat that night before everyone returned safely to bed, around 1 a.m.

“Lhasa apsos are very alert; they are little guard dogs,” Irza Morden said. “They have very keen hearing, and, if they notice anything wrong, they bark. That’s their thing.”

It was Zion Morden who picked Max out of a litter bred by Sean Morden’s mom.

“He kept saying that he wanted Max, because the other dogs weren’t very intelligent,” said Irza Morden, laughing.

Sean Morden shook his head.

“And we always said we never wanted a dog,” he said. “Now we’re sure glad we have him.”

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