Why you are probably safe, and how to make sure
You may have seen it in a movie. Been warned about the dangers. Or possibly just thought to yourself when using one “Can this thing explode?”. I am talking about propane tanks. Many people use them for cooking and heating. They make a great fuel source.
But do you risk an explosion when using a propane tank? The answer may not be as cut and dried as you think. Though they can occur, they are extremely rare. It actually takes near perfect conditions to get a propane tank to explode.
In most cases, you are safe when using a propane tank because they are made not to explode. However, as with most things in life, there is a slight risk of explosion. As explosions are usually due to human error, let’s take a deeper look into how and why a propane tank could explode.
The Inner Workings of a Propane Tank
Propane tanks exploding when being shot with a gun is perhaps the most common rumor. But rumors of propane tanks exploding in fires and when being struck by an airplane are also heard from time to time.
What is BLEVE?
Most propane tanks are designed to prevent an explosion at all costs. They are built with safety mechanisms to prevent rupturing and explosions. The type of explosion a propane tank is most at risk for is BLEVE.
This stands for boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion.
Designed To Prevent BLEVE
Propane tanks are filled with propane. It is forced into the tank under pressure. Inside the tank, it remains pressurized and as a result is in a liquid form.
The outside of a propane tank has a valve enabling it for use as fuel. When the valve is released the propane can escape the pressurized tank. In doing so the liquid turns to a gas.
All propane tanks also have a relief valve. This is used in emergencies. It helps to bleed off excess pressure should an emergency arise. These valves help to vent pressure and operate based on the pressure inside the tank and the outside atmosphere.
Propane tanks are also very strong. The materials used on the outside are designed not to rupture or break. The valves, seals, and hoses are also incredibly durable to keep the pressurized contents safe and secure.
Why BLEVE Can Occur
But if the pressure inside the tank builds faster than the relief valve can vent it, the tank is at risk of BLEVE. Usually, this only happens when the tank is exposed to extremely high temperatures. Such as the exceedingly hot temperatures during a fire.
Both the exterior of the tank and the propane inside experience a rise in temperatures. On the interior of the tank, the liquid propane is vaporizing. This means the pressure is building up.
The safety valve is working to vent it, but it may not be able to do so quickly enough. If this scenario continues the tank may rupture. If a fire was causing the rapid gas expansion, the scene is set for an explosion.
The presence of flames or another ignition source can ignite the escaping propane fuel from the ruptured tank. Because propane is flammable the leaking or exploded tank will then fuel the fire. The blaze can quickly get out of control.
It is important to understand that conditions must be perfect for this to happen. Under normal circumstances and normal temperatures, propane tanks will not rupture, explode, or fuel fires.
Still, there are steps you should take to remain safe when around your propane tank.
Propane Tanks and Camping
Many campers like to use propane when camping. Small canisters can be compact, easy to travel with and provide an excellent fuel source. These canisters can either be designated as a one-time use or refillable.
You should take care to store, transport, and use these convenient canisters carefully.
When transporting propane it is a good idea to keep your canisters in a well-ventilated area. For hiking or walking, this can be on the outside of your pack, secured with straps. If you are driving to your campsite, the bed of a truck is best.
Store the canisters upright. You don’t want them to shift and roll around. Storing canisters on their side is not recommended. Additionally, you don’t want the valve to get bumped or knocked loose.
Before heading out it is a good idea to double-check your valves. Make sure they are secured and not leaking. If your propane valve needs a plug, be sure to use one.
When you arrive at your destination. Take your propane out with you. Do not leave propane in a hot car. Although temperatures would not likely get hot enough for the tank to rupture, it is still unwise to leave them in your vehicle.
As mentioned, don’t store propane tanks or canisters in your vehicle. It is also recommended that you don’t keep them in an enclosed space. Instead of keeping them in your tent, or a garage, propane tanks should be stored outside.
Propane tanks also like to be kept cool. A shady area outside is best. They should not be exposed to temperatures greater than 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
This also means you should not keep them next to a heat source. And, as we previously discussed, do not leave your canisters next to a fire or open flames.
When In Use
Just as propane canisters must be transported upright, they should also be used in the upright position. Best practices say to use your canister on a level surface. The area should also be well ventilated and open, preferably outdoors.
If you are using your propane canister inside your tent, make sure there is excellent airflow. Never go to bed at night with your fuel source left on.
Make sure your valve is switched to off before operating your propane fuel. Keep all belongings, clothing, and hair away from the canister and burner when you are igniting it. If it doesn’t ignite immediately, turn the valve off, wait for the gas to dispel, and try again.
Checking For Leaks
Regular inspection is important. Propane is naturally odorless but to ensure user safety it is mandated that the gas is scented with a foul smell. Usually, it smells of rotten eggs, a skunk, or other unpleasant odors.
Signs of a leak can be a foul smell or a hissing sound. If you suspect a leak turn off the valve and do not try to use it until it has been inspected.
If you have not used your tank or canister in a great while, you should check for leaks before use. This can be done with a leak detector spray or a simple soapy water solution. The solution should be dabbed on the connector valve and outlet. You should see bubbles when you open the valve to release the gas. If you see bubbles when the gas is not “on”, you have a leak.
Refilling Propane Tanks
Some canisters are single use only. They are marked DOT-39 non-refillable. These canisters and tanks should never be refilled.
Refillable tanks should be treated with care. Most have an overfill protection device to prevent overfilling your tank, causing a dangerously high-pressure situation.
If your tank shows signs of excess wear, like rust, dents, or damage, you should replace it and not refill it. If your tank or canister has been involved in a fire replace it and do not use it. Be sure to properly dispose of any canisters or tanks you do not plan to use.
Popular Uses for Propane While Camping
Now that you know you are not likely at risk for a propane explosion, what are the most popular ways to use propane while camping?
Cooking. Many people rely on propane-fueled camp stoves for all of their outdoor cooking needs. Propane burns cleaner and lights easier than other common fuel sources. The canisters are compact and lighter than other fuel sources as well.
Staying Warm. Propane tent heaters are another frequent use for propane. These small and portable heaters can take the chill out of your tent and keep you toasty warm. However, as you are operating them in a confined space, they have their own set of rules and safety features.
Fueling an RV. Tent campers aren’t the only ones who use propane. RV’s rely on propane for a host of things, including hot water and powering appliances like a stove and refrigerator. Some use canister style propane tanks while others have permanently installed propane tanks.
When used in an RV, propane tanks have a unique set of rules, safety guidelines, and maintenance procedures. This is important to reduce risks and keep your RV appliances functioning properly.
Propane, A Safe Choice
Propane canisters are a favorite fuel source of many campers. Some individuals use propane tanks to fuel their homes. Propane is also perhaps the most common BBQ fuel source. With so many everyday uses, it is good to know that it is highly unlikely your propane tank will ever explode.