Living with Propane
For many years recreational vehicles (RV) of all types carried propane (LP) in tanks or bottles and many carried smaller cylinders for use in grilles. Times are changing and many if not most new motor homes offer full electric appliances and/or diesel fired heating units with no propane. But, there are still tens of thousands of RVs carrying and using propane.
Propane can be a very helpful and a necessary component of any motor home. It can be used safely and has successfully been safely used in hundreds of thousands of RVs over the years. However, we must not get too complacent, There are things to know and remember and things that need to be done to carry and use it safely.
. Even though most Dogwooders have many years of experience dealing with LP, I thought it might be a good time to review the basics of LP and the maintenance of LP systems.
Let’s start with the basics of the LP systems on motor homes. There are two basic types of LP containers and systems. The first is Department of Transportation (DOT) cylinders and then there are American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) tanks. The main difference in the two are their storage position and intended use. The cylinders are designed for what can be called temporary use in that they are not permanently affixed to the RV and can be removed for refilling. These cylinders are positioned vertically and usually mounted in the front or rear of the RV most often on the outside of the vehicle. Motor homes use the ASME tanks permanently mounted under the vehicle, sometimes near the entryway. Many have a special compartment for the tank (which cannot have a lock so the shutoff is accessible in an emergency) and some diesel pushers have the tank mounted in the center between the frame rails behind the fuel tank with a remote fill and emergency shutoff again in an unlocked compartment.
While both systems perform the same function, the DOT cylinders must be inspected 12 years after the date of manufacturer and every 5 years thereafter. If the cylinders are out inspection date, the filling stations may refuse to refill them. The manufactured date is located on the top collar that protects the valve.
ASME tanks are not required to be tested but should be inspected and tested yearly. Regardless of container type, all refilling, repair, or replacement must be done by certified service technicians. I also recommend that you watch the refilling process. I was having the tank on my motor home refilled and I did not see the person doing the refilling open or close the vapor or overfill vent. This is the vent that lets the person refilling the tank know that it has reached 80% of its capacity (propane tanks are filled to 80% capacity to allow for expansion if heated), but I thought that he must have done so and I just did not see it. Later that day when we reached our destination and parked there was the distinct spell of propane. A quick check of the motor home did not reveal any leaks. The smell dissipated but returned. As I was walking around the coach and when I passed the relief valve location (this motor home had a tank between the frame rails and a vent out the curbside of the vehicle) I noticed the cap was off and just then propane gas began to emit from the relief valve. I realized that the person filling the tank did not open the overfill vent and had filled the tank completely and as the temperature increased that day the expanding propane was activating the relief valve emitting the propane into the atmosphere. Not only did this create a dangerous condition with propane gas floating around but I lost 20% of the tank of propane. Although everyone allowed to fill propane tanks or cylinders is required to be trained, don’t take for granted that everyone will follow the required procedures. As it has been said “trust but verify”.
The relief valve is a safety device that is on every LP pressure container. It is designed to relieve the pressure (and LP) when the tank is heated to prevent it rupturing, which can be catastrophic. It will usually be located on the LP tank. Usually on the underside, however if your tank is mounted between the frame rails, there will be a remote discharge line routed to the curbside of the RV. It will usually be an iron pipe with a plastic or rubber cap. This will allow the escaping LP to flow to the outer edge of the RV.
The photo below shows a typical motorhome LP tank compartment with the required warnings.
Typical locations of valves and gauges are shown in the photo below.
You will note the label on the overfill valve stating that propane pumping should stop when liquid appears at the valve.
Since LP is extremely flammable it should be treated with respect. There are some things that you should know and practices that should be followed.
- The first is that LP is heavier than air and that means it will flow to the lowest part of your motorhome. Therefore if it is leaking it will travel to the lowest point it can. That is why most LP detectors are located near the floor. LP is very flammable and should be treated with respect. Unlike gasoline (which is also very flammable) LP is stored as a liquid under pressure. When it is expelled either by a leak or when an appliance valve opens to allow it to flow to the pilot light or igniter it becomes a gas. Gases are more difficult to locate than liquids as gases are often clear and odorless. LP has an odorant added to give it the “rotten egg” smell to make it easier to find. You may have seen videos of fire departments applying water to burning LP tanks and not extinguishing the fire. Their plan is to let the LP burn off while protecting the tank from rupture. The theory is that if the LP is burning you can see where it is and if you put the fire out without shutting off the flow you have no idea where the LP will go, that is until it finds an ignition source.
- Inspect all of your LP appliances often. Look for damage, cracking in lines or hoses. Check exterior vents to make sure they are clear and free from debris and insects. Look at every accessible area of each appliance.
- Installing insect screens is a good idea on all appliance vents.
- Inspect the tank and mounting system for signs of rust, damage fatigue and general wear and tear. Inspect all hoses and piping for damage, rust and leaks.
- Unless you are qualified, do not make any repairs yourself, call a trained technician. Yes, I know they cost money, but how much are the lives of your family worth?
- Make sure that your RV has at least one BC fire extinguisher and operational propane, carbon monoxide detector and smoke detectors (a combination photo-electric and ionization is best in the bedroom in addition to the one near the kitchen/galley). I like to keep another fire extinguisher in an outside compartment (in addition to the one by the door, one in the kitchen and one in the bedroom).
- Most LP companies recommend traveling with all (including the refrigerator) LP appliances turned off when traveling. If you travel with the refrigerator on (using LP) make sure to turn it off before entering tunnels and some bridges.
- When refilling the LP tank, make sure the LP is shut off, all pilot lights (do they even have those anymore?) if equipped, and have everyone (including pets) disembark the motorhome until the process is complete.
- While at a campsite, use the hood vent if it exits to the outside when cooking with LP, if it does not exit outside, open a window while cooking.
- Make sure your outdoor grille is at least 10 feet from your propane compartment.
- Have your propane system inspected once a year. That might seem a bit often. Having this done annually is just another bit of insurance against a problem later. A pressure test every few years is also a good idea.
- Any systems that require an inspection by a “qualified technician” are necessary not only to ensure that they are in good safe operating condition, but it an issue develops that inspection could mean the difference in insurance coverage and none. Be safe not sorry.
- If you travel with small propane bottles for you small grilles, make sure that the bottles are stored in a secure location away from electrical equipment and other ignition sources. It is best not to travel with bottles that have been opened.
While talking about propane inspections, there are some areas that should be done every time the RV is being readied for a trip. Here are a few items to inspect:
- Test the propane detector inside the coach. The only way to test it is by pressing the test button, if equipped. If it alarms then it is ok if not, replace it. Some have tried to test using butane or even propane lighters or torches. However, these are 100% concentrations of these gases and even a failing detector will might detect these high amounts. Most detector manufacturers do not have a test method for end users. Propane detectors have a life span of 5 years, CO detectors 5 years and smoke detectors 10 years. So check your life saving detectors and replace them if they are getting old. Detectors will give off a beep every minute or so when the batteries are dying and also when the detectors has a problem or is dying of natural causes. Most detectors cannot be repaired so replacement is necessary.
- Inspect all of the accessible fittings on every propane alliance for leaks, damage or corrosion.
- Inspect the tank, mounting hardware and its fittings. Look for debris, damage corrosion and leaks. Make sure all fasteners are tight, Use caution when working with metal tools around LP tanks.
- Inspect all accessible hoses, lines and fittings for damage, corrosion and leaks.
- Make sure that there is a cover over the regulator to protect it from damage.
- If there is rust or paint flaking, the tank can be cleaned and painted. Some do not advise painting tanks, however, cleaning the rust and repainting is a good way to see damage and rust in the future. It can be hard to remember how much rust was there the last time you inspected the tank if left untreated. When removing rust remember to be aware of sparking from using a grinder or wire wheel as these can cause problems if there is a LP leak.
- Operate the shut-off valve and make sure it operates properly.
- Make a note of the date of this inspection in your maintenance records. You do have maintenance records? Of course you do.
It is not “normal” for propane systems to leak. If you detect a leak, or sense a propane odor (rotten egg smell) have it checked out immediately. The following is a list of things to do if you have a leak.
- Immediately put out all smoking materials, pilot lights, and other open flames
- Do not operate lights, appliances, or cell phones. Flames or sparks from these sources can trigger an explosion or fire.
- If you are able to, safely turn off the gas supply valve on your tank.
- Open all doors and other non-powered ventilating openings.
- Immediately leave the area and call 911 or the local fire department.
- Before you restart or use any of your propane appliances, have a qualified service technician inspect your entire system.
This is what an LP explosion inside a motor home can look like. With a little maintenance and safe operation this may have been prevented. LP can be stored, transported and used safely, if you use these tips, common sense and maintain the system properly.
That is all for this month. In the future we will look at inspecting individual appliances and other areas of the motor home. If you have any safety subjects that you would like to explore, just send me an email or call me.