Although propane is considered by many to be a cheap and green fuel for traveling, that does not mean that it is completely safe. Propane leaks, while uncommon, are a possibility, and can be potentially quite hazardous.
Propane, being a source of heat, is incredibly flammable, and can be ignited by the smallest of sources. This can include:
• the flames on a cooking stove,
• and even mobile phones.
Once ignited, propane will explode and can cause considerable harm to by-standers.
Even the inhalation of the gas is lethal, as it can prevent oxygen from entering your body. In small dosages, this will lead to headaches, nausea, and eventual lethargy. In stronger concentrations, propane inhalation can lead to unconsciousness, and even asphyxiation; a condition where the body is deprived of oxygen. This condition can be incredibly fatal.
Another danger that propane can pose is the incomplete combustion that it undergoes when used as a heating source. A by-product of burning propane is carbon monoxide; a toxic and dangerous gas which, when inhaled, cuts off the body’s oxygen supply. For these reasons, the risk of a carbon monoxide leakage must be taken just as seriously as a propane leakage. In fact, studies show that 25% of deaths related to propane are in fact caused by carbon monoxide.
Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about propane being an irritant for the skin unless it is in the form of a vaporizing liquid. Coming into contact with propane in this state can potentially cause cold burns or frostbite, although this too is quite unlikely.
The risks posed by propane tanks
Many people carry the idea that it is quite easy for a propane tank to rupture and cause an explosion. However, this is not the case. It is quite unlikely to happen, as several safety measures are put into place to ensure that no damage can be caused to the propane tanks.
Can propane tanks explode?
A propane tank can potentially explode if it is subjected to excessive heating over an extended period of time. In such a scenario, the pressure inside the tank will build up because the propane – which is stored in liquid form – will vaporize and thus expand rapidly. Once the pressure reaches a certain point, the tank will break open, resulting in an explosion. The term BLEVE is used to refer to the point at which the pressure within the tank is too much to dispel. Fortunately, the occurrence of this hazard is quite improbable. The propane tanks are typically quite resilient; they are designed to withstand pressures of up to 1000 pounds per square in gauge (PSIG).
Most propane tanks function alongside a pressure releasing system, which work to dispel some of the tank’s contents if the pressure were to ever build up. An example of such a system is a rupture disc. When the pressure within a tank reaches a level just below the rupture point, the disc itself breaks, causing pressure to be released in a simple but reliable manner. The types of tanks found in camper vans contain several such discs.
Even if, for some unlikely reason, the pressure were to exceed a safe amount, the propane tanks are built out of strong variants of steel which at most will be dented instead of bursting.
In the unlikely scenario that the pressure manages to exceed a ‘safe’ amount, there still isn’t much need to be alarmed. The propane tanks are built out of strong variants of steel; at most, they will be dented, and bursting is typically out of question.
Tips For Safely Handling, Storing And Using Propane While On The Road
The extent of the risk that propane poses depends on the number of appropriate safety measures taken. The more safety precautions that are followed, the less you have to worry about a gas leak or a ruptured tank.
Be aware of your van’s propane system. All camper vans come with a manual that explains where all the appliances and connections can be found and how they work. Be sure to read it and dedicate it to memory. Know where the propane tank is placed, how much gas it contains, and where its ventilation outlets are so that you do not accidentally cover them.
Store your propane tank outside the van. While propane storage systems are designed to prevent leakages, it’s best to keep your tank attached to the outside of your van. This way, if a leak were to ever occur then there’d be no risk of the gas accumulating indoors. It should be noted, however, that appropriate measures should be taken to cover the tank properly. This is to ensure that the tanks are protected from any harsh weather that could potentially damage them.
Install appropriate ventilation. To prevent a potentially hazardous buildup of gas, make sure that your van is equipped with a proper ventilation system. You may consider having an exhaust fan placed in your van. You should also keep any and all windows open while cooking or heating.
Make sure to turn off the gas supply when not in use. Only have it on while you are using it. Before taking off for a drive, be sure to turn the tank off from the valve to reduce any possibility of a leakage. An additional precaution is to reduce the amount of time you use the gas in one go. Try to stick to cooking meals that do not take too long to prepare.
Know how to detect a leak. Propane itself is odorless, but companies typically use additives to give a scent to the propane which is used for cooking and heating. Consequently, the chances of a propane leakage not being detected by your sense of smell is unlikely.
If you are worried about a potential leak, soapy water can be used to detect it. Simply pour soapy water over the propane connections. If bubbles begin to form, then this is a clear indication that you have a leak, and should thus deal with it immediately.
Install a carbon monoxide detector. As mentioned above, a byproduct of burning propane is carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide is not only deadly, but also odorless. Thus, it’s important to have a carbon monoxide detector installed inside your van.
Before going on any trip, make sure that the batteries of your detector are fully charged. In the event that your detector’s alarm goes off, quickly shut off the tank from its valve, and then exit the van and wait for the gas to disperse.
Turn the propane tank off before driving. While a number of drivers keep their propane supply running while driving, many share the opinion that this practice is quite unsafe. If a car accident were to ever occur, a damaged pipe can easily be ignited which will result in a fire. This is why it is considered best to keep the valve closed while driving.
Carrying propane inside your camper van is not as dangerous as many believe it to be. The likelihood of it being life threatening is incredibly low. The majority of RV users make use of it without ever facing an issue. If you are following proper safety precautions while using it, then you won’t find any reason to be alarmed.
Mariska is a recovering attorney who gave up her professional job to discover new perspectives of life while traveling in a 2009 Ford Transit.
She has been living the van life for 3 years and has not looked back since.