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The Straight Dope

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I've heard that during times of heavy demand, natural gas suppliers compensate by introducing an inert, nonflammable gas just to keep the seals tight and the pressure steady. Is this true? Do we pay natural gas prices for the substitute stuff? Your home meter doesn't know the difference! --Jack Ballard, Springfield, Virginia

Cecil is not going to tell you, in this suspicious age, that no gas company ever tried to con the proletariat. In general, however, you've got nothing to worry about. Utilities do introduce substitute gases at times of peak demand when the pressure threatens to drop. But the substitute gases burn just like the regular stuff does, with the same heat value per cubic foot. Typical substitutes are gasified propane and synthetic natural gas, which is made from petroleum feedstocks.

The only time anything nonflammable is used is when a newly installed or repaired line is pressurized with nitrogen or water to check for leaks. The bogus stuff is purged before the line goes into service. Fact is, the gas companies would be crazy to use nonflammable gas in regular service. If somebody's pilot light went out because of bad gas and the house filled with methane and blew up, they'd have a pretty ticklish time trying to explain things on the evening news.

Every so often we see a work crew dig four or five squares in a row out of the street, cover them with a marker for a day, then surprise, fill them in with cement. What is the point of this? --David Drazin, Chicago

Who says there has to be a point to everything? Not only would it make life tedious beyond description, this hard-working columnist would be out of a job. That said, the workers probably aren't digging those holes for grins--most likely they're employed by a local utility. Since we're on sort of a gas theme today, let's assume it's the gas company out looking for a leak. First they check the obvious places where gas collects, like catch basins and manholes. If this proves unavailing, they drive a steel bar into the pavement to see if gas has percolated through the soil. Still nothing? Time to get serious and dig a series of two-by-two-foot holes along the route of the gas main, paying particular attention to joints and connections. The leak having been found, the crew digs a bigger hole, makes the necessary repair, and moves off to snarl traffic somewhere else.

Are there animal venereal diseases? Pet-care books don't have much to say on the subject. Can you help? I've got to know. --Animal Lover, Dallas

Keep your hands off that sheep, you deve. I can't claim to have made much of a study of the matter, since this column is meant for decent folk, but Kit Schwartz, author of The Male Member (1985), reports as follows:

"Venereal disease appears to be a rarity in all wild species. Not so fortunate are domestic animals, especially those given artificial insemination [or worse]. It is presumed that animals in the wild are protected because the VD organisms are not in constant transmission (VD cells are short-lived or frail until they multiply in the protection of a body) due, in part, to harem-style mating and the female having a briefer sexual time span." More than you need to know, if you ask me.

Is it true refrigerating batteries will extend shelf life? If so, why does a cold car battery cause slower starts? The answer will help me sleep better. --Kevin Cross, Alexandria, Virginia

Whatever it takes, dude. Refrigerating batteries extends shelf life because batteries produce electricity through a chemical reaction. Heat speeds up any reaction while cold slows it down. Freeze your Diehard and you'll extend its life because the juice won't leak away--but it'll also make those volts a little tough to use right away.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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