Liquefied petroleum gas, like a close friend, will work well for you but it also must be respected.
By Bill Hendrix, F761S
Propane, the most popular of the liquefied petroleum gases, is a very safe product if handled correctly but can be a dangerous commodity if misunderstood. The combustible range of the air-to-fuel ratio actually is quite narrow. If the mixture is too lean (less than 2.4 percent fuel) or too rich (more than 9.6 percent fuel) the gas will not burn, so it has a little safety factor built in. For more statistical data on LP gas, see the January 2003 issue of FMC (“Technical Details About RV LP-Gas Systems,” page 76).
All recently manufactured RVs bearing the RVIA (Recreation Vehicle Industry Association) seal, if propane-equipped, will have an LP-gas detector installed at the factory. These detectors utilize an electronic device, akin to the ion cascade chamber of a smoke detector, to trip a piercing alarm. If the LP-gas tank is frame-mounted (not portable), it also may shut off the fuel supply at the tank. Unfortunately, the detector cannot distinguish this particular gas from some other chemically similar compounds or products that may be propelled by a hydrocarbon. So, false alarms may occur from time to time, and these false alarms might encourage one to ignore a real one. If you are consistently getting an alarm with some particular item, such as hair spray, try a different brand or purchase the pump type that doesn’t use a propellant. But do whatever is necessary to stop the false alarms, as it is most important that we rely on the alarm being genuine.
Too many of us are traveling without turning off the propane at the tank. I do understand that we like to keep the refrigerator cooling as we travel, but this provides a flame to kindle a fire or an explosion in the event of an accident. Also, many communities have local ordinances that forbid operating a flamed appliance while traveling within their jurisdictions. An accident that causes loss of life or serious injury might invoke not only civil liabilities but also criminal prosecution if you are deemed negligent. And, heaven forbid that such an accident may draw national attention, releasing an avalanche of restrictive legislation upon our industry. The refrigerator should hold acceptable temperatures for a four-hour to six-hour travel day if it is well cooled the night before.
Most, but not all, states have adopted the NFPA-58 regulations, which require portable, upright tanks to be equipped with an overfill protection device (OPD). Some very small and very large tanks are exempt. The OPD will be indicated by the triangular shape of the valve knob. This valve contains a float that will prevent overfilling the tank, thus ensuring that only propane in a vapor state is available from the vapor valve.
When regulations requiring OPDs were developed in 2001, it was recognized that the horizontally oriented tanks installed in RVs and manufactured prior to October 1, 1998, could not be retrofitted, so they were made exempt. Regardless, most ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) tanks of recent years have been voluntarily fitted with an OPD and would have a non-removable triangular-shaped hand-wheel, and be marked as such.
When transporting portable tanks, they should be secured to prevent damage, as propane stations should not refill a damaged, dented, or even a rusty tank.
Most propane stations have strict safety regulations that we should recognize and cheerfully comply with, and they are frequently posted in plain view. Here is what Flying J requires of its customers:
- Set Vehicle Emergency Brake
- Stop Vehicle Engine
- Turn Off Generator if Running
- Extinguish All Open Flames, Burners, and Pilots
- Extinguish all Smoking Materials
- All Occupants Must Exit the Vehicle
Since propane, in its natural state, has little to no odor, refiners add a fragrance that smells of rotten eggs. Immediately after a filling, this odor may linger awhile so you may catch a whiff occasionally, but this should dissipate rather quickly. Other than this, if you smell propane, turn off the system at the tank and seek professional help. If you elect to find the leak yourself, never use a flame to do so! Use a leak detector solution, commonly available at most hardware stores. In a pinch, you can use a mild solution of liquid soap and water applied with a spray bottle. Don’t use a soap or cleanser containing ammonia, since ammonia may stress-crack light brass fittings. You, as the vehicle owner, can legally make repairs on your propane system if you elect to do so. However, service for hire, in most states, requires a demonstration of proficiency and a state license. Most RV service centers will have a trained, licensed technician on staff that is qualified to make repairs to LP-gas systems.
If your vehicle has been idle for a few weeks, the LP gas in the manifold loses some of its volatility and may not ignite readily with a spark-style ignition. To flush out the old propane, light a burner on the cookstove by using a kitchen match. This will replace the old propane in the main part of the LP-gas manifold with fresh propane. Make a trial ignition on all the gas appliances so you will be good to go when you travel.
Propane is actually your friend and should not be feared, but well respected.