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Memories of the changeover from town to natural gas

AM9

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I remember going through the process twice:

The first time at the family home (about 1970 I think) when the teams took about three weeks to completely clear the area. The modified most modern devices in a matter of an hour or two. There had been an industry edict that appliances recently sold were fitted with either easily changed jets or even came with multi-gas burners. The longer tail of local operations were for older devices, mainly gas stoves, where various parts were taken out to a van with a bench and vice plus a selection of pipes, adaptors and tools to fit them. Sometimes, households were told that the old stuff couldn't be converted and (i think) were given a contribution to buying new.​
Roll forward two years (I think), I live in Colchester and the switch was announced. Being young with a family, plenty of energy (compared with now) but little spare cash, I decided that I would fit central heating in the house myself. It was a thing of the '70s when DIY heating materials were easily available from many shops that sprung up. New houses were sold by builders without heating, or at condsiderably optional cost a rather poorly specified and fitted heating system. There was of course the rule that any gas installation work had to be inspected before use (nowhere near as strictly enforced as current legislation), so I decided to synchronise the full use of the boiler with the conversion programme. Thus when the surveyor came round to check on the devices, he took one look at the new boiler and ticked it off as being no problem. So the jet changes, gas valve setup and test was all done formally by the conversion team. Result!​
 
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eastdyke

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It must have been quite a project to convert 1000's of houses from coal to natural gas. If all appliances required modification, then there must have been a period where lots of people couldn't cook/heat their homes?
Not all Town Gas was made from coal. Whilst coal predominated, feedstocks also included coke and oil.

When gas consumption in the UK increased dramatically in the 1960s [prior to conversion], larger capacity, mainly high(er) pressure reforming plants were constructed at central locations. Feedstocks would generally be oil or propane, passed with steam at high pressure and temperature over a catalyst. High(er) pressure grid pipelines were constructed which enabled small and in many cases larger traditional gasworks to be closed. The economics of production and supply were dramatically changed even before conversion.
The high(er) pressure pipelines laid served the Industry well when conversion came with [as noted above] the significant capacity gains allowed by transporting a gas at just over 1000 btu/cubic foot as opposed to the 500 btu/cubic foot of the Town Gas that was replaced.

I worked at sites where Town Gas was produced from coal, coke, oil, propane and even from natural gas when the high capacity plant was too large to make gas from propane for the last few sectors of the supply district that remained unconverted.

Each gas sector at conversion was planned for completion during a single working day. From a supply point of view, there would be many many days prior to conversion to plan and prepare each sector. Probably the most important job being to prove that the records of the sector showed the correct mains connections that actually existed. It was safety critical that both Natural Gas could be supplied to the sector but at the same time NOT be supplied to adjacent as yet unconverted sectors.
 

AM9

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Not all Town Gas was made from coal. Whilst coal predominated, feedstocks also included coke and oil.
......
I worked at sites where Town Gas was produced from coal, coke, oil, propane and even from natural gas when the high capacity plant was too large to make gas from propane for the last few sectors of the supply district that remained unconverted.
I always thought that coke was made from coal as part of the gas production process, which was why it was sold cheaper. I stand corrected.
 

BrianW

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Throughout my childhood, any bronchial infection would result in the Wright's Vaporizer being brought out to fill my bedroom with the heady whiff of coal tar (the fluid was 90% cresol), so I can well believe that gasworks' fumes were considered good for the lungs.
Ah yes- Wright's Coal Tar soap ... with healthy soft soap coal tar fragrance ...

Sodium Tallowate, Sodium Cocoate, Aqua, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Cocamide Dea, Parfum, Sodium Chloride, Glycerin, Melaleuca Alternifolia Leaf Oil, Tetrasodium Edta, Eugenol, D-Limonene, Etidronic, Acid, Amyl Cinnamal, Cinnamal, Coumarin, CI 11680, CI 15510

Those were the days.

and back to gas- there were concerns about it's lack of smell in relation to explosions and suicide.
 

swt_passenger

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Googling to try and find technical details the other day, I stumbled on a site stating that the main reason for conversion was because town gas was more dangerous than natural gas. Isn’t it amazing what the internet can tell you…
 
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Didn't natural gas get branded as "High Speed Gas" in TV commercials at the time?
Not sure what was High Speed about it - was it more calorific than Town Gas, so could boil your egg quicker?

I also remember hearing something about natural gas's blue flame being superior to the Town Gas yellow flame. Not sure if this was part of the official publicity, or just something my dad told me! (It would make sense if this indicated a hotter, less sooty flame - do maybe it really was High Speed Gas).

I do remember the switch-over at our house was quick and trouble-free. The house and appliances were only about 10 years old, so presumably quite amenable to conversion.

and people were more 'accepting'. I find it hard to imagine a national programme like this for eg loft insulation or installation of heat pumps.
Yes - any attempt at such a mass conversion programme today and the usual suspects would be going viral on YouTube with "they're not really gas fitters, you know. They're government agents installing secret surveillance devices into everyone's houses".
 

Ediswan

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Didn't natural gas get branded as "High Speed Gas" in TV commercials at the time?
Not sure what was High Speed about it - was it more calorific than Town Gas, so could boil your egg quicker?
According to this, pure marketing: https://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/news/2017/dec/4/papers-sir-kenneth-high/

Yes - any attempt at such a mass conversion programme today and the usual suspects would be going viral on YouTube with "they're not really gas fitters, you know. They're government agents installing secret surveillance devices into everyone's houses".
Wait and see. There are proposals to convert the mains gas system to hydrogen.
 

AM9

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Wasn't it the fact that natural gas was er... natural and needed little processing before burning. It was colloquially referred to as 'North Sea Gas' by the public. Town gas needed the coal to be mined, transported, burnt during conversion and then the gas stored/distributed. Bear in mind that Town Gas was locally generated (hence the name) - there wasn't the cross-country comprehensive pipeline system that virtually eliminated the transport cost.

Googling to try and find technical details the other day, I stumbled on a site stating that the main reason for conversion was because town gas was more dangerous than natural gas. Isn’t it amazing what the internet can tell you…
Town Gas was dangerous because it contained carbon monoxide (CO) which is poisonous and currently known as a 'silent killer', because it alone is undetectable by smell. Natural Gas however was a lower volume delivery which in some designs of burner allowed the flame to go back into the mixer chamber. According to the conversion teams, it was much more sensitive to gas pressure regulation and airflow accuracy than town gas.
 

eastdyke

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I always thought that coke was made from coal as part of the gas production process, which was why it was sold cheaper. I stand corrected.
Not at all! Coke is indeed a by-product of gas made from coal. Just that coke itself can be used as a feedstock in a different process to make Town Gas. [In my early life experience coke always seemed to be the more expensive!]

eg 'Water Gas' made by passing steam over a bed of red-hot coke. Generally a cyclical process with 'heat' [the bed] and 'make' [the gas] phases. With a much shorter time from standby to production it was often used as an adjunct to traditional Town Gas from coal for peak time supply.

Town Gas was dangerous because it contained carbon monoxide (CO) which is poisonous and currently known as a 'silent killer', because it alone is undetectable by smell. Natural Gas however was a lower volume delivery which in some designs of burner allowed the flame to go back into the mixer chamber. According to the conversion teams, it was much more sensitive to gas pressure regulation and airflow accuracy than town gas.
When present in Town Gas carbon monoxide would, although itself undetectable by smell, have had the benefits of all of those trace compounds that did in fact smell rather much. :)
 
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swt_passenger

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Town Gas was dangerous because it contained carbon monoxide (CO) which is poisonous and currently known as a 'silent killer', because it alone is undetectable by smell. Natural Gas however was a lower volume delivery which in some designs of burner allowed the flame to go back into the mixer chamber. According to the conversion teams, it was much more sensitive to gas pressure regulation and airflow accuracy than town gas.
Yes, but I don’t think that was actually the main reason for the change? It was more like a bonus side effect?
 

AM9

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Yes, but I don’t think that was actually the main reason for the change? It was more like a bonus side effect?
I didn't say that the CO danger was the reason for abandoning Town Gas. From source to consumer, once the conversion investment was complete, the provision of natural gas was far cheaper than the coal sourced town gas.
 
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I have a vague memory of reading or hearing that there was a belief that the fumes given off by gasworks were health-giving: they strengthened your lungs or something like that.
In similar vein, I have a memory of some silver-haired, white-coated doctor (possibly American) being interviewed on (black & white) TV, claiming that smoking cigarettes was good for you, since the smoke had a "disinfectant" effect on the lungs! I wonder who was paying him to say that?
 

Gloster

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In similar vein, I have a memory of some silver-haired, white-coated doctor (possibly American) being interviewed on (black & white) TV, claiming that smoking cigarettes was good for you, since the smoke had a "disinfectant" effect on the lungs! I wonder who was paying him to say that?
Go back to the 1940s and 1950s or so (which appears to be government policy at the moment) and there were plenty of magazine and newspaper adverts on the lines of ‘Smoke Super Gaspers: three in four doctors recommend smoking.’ There was absolutely no understanding of a link between smoking and cancer. It was only in the mid-1950s that the medical evidence became clear and even then it took a decade or so to be widely accepted, even by doctors.
 

birchesgreen

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Don't need to go that far back, when i was in Indonesia in the early 2000s menthol cigarettes were advertised as being better for you.
 

Mcr Warrior

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I have a vague memory of reading or hearing that there was a belief that the fumes given off by gasworks were health-giving: they strengthened your lungs or something like that. Or maybe I am getting mixed up with something else.
Always thought that this assertion was attributed to asphalt/tarmac road-laying activities.
 

AndrewE

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I didn't say that the CO danger was the reason for abandoning Town Gas. From source to consumer, once the conversion investment was complete, the provision of natural gas was far cheaper than the coal sourced town gas.
and it was safer: it stopped gas-oven suicides, of which CO was the (only) cause.
Go back to the 1940s and 1950s or so (which appears to be government policy at the moment) and there were plenty of magazine and newspaper adverts on the lines of ‘Smoke Super Gaspers: three in four doctors recommend smoking.’ There was absolutely no understanding of a link between smoking and cancer. It was only in the mid-1950s that the medical evidence became clear and even then it took a decade or so to be widely accepted, even by doctors.
and worse:
The original version of the Kent Micronite cigarette filter used crocidolite, a form of asbestos, from 1952 until at least mid-1956. Kent's manufacturer, P. Lorillard Company, boasted that the filter was made of the same "pure," "safe," "dust-free" substance used to clean air in atomic energy plants and hospital operating rooms, and offered smokers "the greatest health protection ever" in a cigarette
... crocidolite being blue asbestos which, with Amosite (brown,) was/is the cause of mesothelioma and so is far worse in potency or effect than white asbestos, which causes fibrosis but isn't very carcinognic anyway.
 

MattA7

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No it would be a total mess now due to top down over management and bloody minded people, the tabloids would also start raging about woke gas change fitters.

I remember reading a news article about the government considering a nationwide transition from natural gas to hydrogen as part of the plans to end use of fossil fuels so we may experience a similar situation again. Apparently modern gas appliances would only need minor adjustments however older ones may not be “hydrogen ready”
 

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