How not to fear propane gas

Like other common fears—heights, snakes, spiders—propane gas freaks a lot of people out.

In the case of gas, I suppose there’s a more rational reason to be concerned: even a small gas leak can turn into a big BOOM. I once calculated that there was enough compressed liquid propane in one 30-pound tank to blow up an entire house.

Reading that fact probably won't help reduce your fear of propane gas, if you have one. But I mention it for the over-confident types who don’t have a healthy respect for the power of the stuff.

Ideally, you’re somewhere between irrational fear and complete nonchalance when it comes to dealing with propane gas in your RV. It’s an excellent solution for energy-intensive jobs like heating water and warming the air in your trailer or motorhome, so we need it.

In the meantime, here's how to handle propane gas safely and avoid the boom.

Reasons why propane gas is safe

A lot of engineering work has been done to make propane gas incredibly safe. Your RV has many little safety mechanisms you may not know about.

  1. Propane gas leak detector. Everyone knows that propane gas has a distinctive smell. That’s usually the first and most obvious hint that a problem is brewing. But if you can’t or don’t smell it, modern RVs have a propane gas leak detector that does. The detector sniffs for gas all the time, and will trip an audible alarm if gas is leaking.

  2. Auto shut-off. Most of the appliances that burn propane (water heater, furnace, refrigerator) will automatically turn off if they can’t light the gas. That’s to prevent unburnt gas from accumulating if there’s an ignition problem.

  3. Self-sealing fittings. Most of the brass connections (fittings) in the propane system are designed to self-seal (“flare fittings”) to keep gas from leaking. Also, all connections are routinely tested for leaks every time they are put together. You can use some soapy water to check for leaks, and it’s easy. 

  4. OPD valves. The propane tank or tanks in your RV have Over-Pressure Device (OPD) valves, which prevent them from being over-filled and will also stop the flow of gas if no hose is connected. This prevents the possibility of gas leaking out of a tank that is not being used.

    However, contrary to popular belief, the OPD valve doesn’t prevent gas from flowing when a tank is connected. So, if you’re driving down the road and have an accident which causes one of the gas lines to break open, or a rodent chews through the lines, the OPD won’t help you.

Of course, we’re all supposed to shut off the gas at the tanks before traveling, but I know that most people don’t. If you don’t have a refrigerator that can run on 12 volts, and you can’t run the fridge on gas, you’re going to be looking at melted ice cream and warm sodas when you get to your destination.

That's why we use and recommend that people get a GasStop emergency shut off for each of their propane tanks. It’s the only device on the market today that completely shuts off the gas if there’s a major leak. To be clear, a “major” leak is basically an open gas line. Even with GasStop, you'll still need to check that you’ve turned off the stove and oven before every trip.

Gas safety tips

You'll further build your confidence about propane gas by following these tips:

  1. Sniff around. Do you smell propane gas near the tanks? It’s pretty common to have minor leaks in this area. Double-check that the big green knobs are fully tightened. If that’s not it, do a full soapy-water test on all the threaded brass connections to the regulator and also at the point where the propane hose has a crimped steel fitting. If the hose has a leak at that crimped edge, replace the hose. You can’t repair it and it should be replaced as soon as possible. 

  2. Inspect the hoses and replace them before they leak. Even if they pass the soapy water test, you should replace the hoses if they are beginning to show cracks in the rubber. I’ve seen many old propane hoses that are as stiff as concrete and showing surface cracking; those are danger signs that  leaks are getting ready to happen.

  3. Test for leaks anytime a propane connection is loosened. This includes connections to the water heater, furnace, stove, gas regulator or other appliances you may have installed like a catalytic heater. The only connection you don’t need to test with soapy water is the green knob. Just hand-tighten it until it stops.

  4. Use a Pre-Departure Checklist to help you remember to always check that the stove and oven are fully off before you leave your campsite. Do that even if you haven’t used the stove or oven, because sometimes the knobs get accidentally knocked on. It’s very disturbing to open your door after towing and get a face full of gas. (Don’t ask me how I know this!)

  5. If you ever smell gas and can’t find the source, turn off the propane at the tanks and don’t use it again until you’ve had a technician check it out. 

  6. If you transport the propane tanks in your truck, always keep them upright so that the Over-Pressure Device (OPD) can work properly. Also, don’t leave propane tanks inside a car or truck. The OPD valve is designed to vent gas if the pressure gets too high, and this could happen in a hot car.

  7. Replace the Propane Leak Detector inside your RV after 7 years. Newer models have a built-in alarm to let you know when they have reached their expiration date. If your RV is more than 7 years old, play it safe and have a new Leak Detector installed.

  8. If you are manually lighting any appliance (stove, oven, or the pilot on a vintage refrigerator or water heater), follow the instructions exactly. You definitely want to avoid letting gas accumulate, so if it doesn’t light promptly, stop, ventilate, and re-read the instructions (or get help).

Propane really is quite safe in an RV—as long as you let the safety devices do their jobs, and take just a few simple precautions. Don’t fear it, respect it, and you’ll be fine.

 

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