Throughout the U.S., most people who own RVs rely on propane for everything from hot water and refrigeration to food preparation and indoor heat. When properly used and maintained, the tanks that store this combustible gas are safe and reliable. However, when misused or poorly maintained, they can introduce a range of avoidable safety hazards. Let’s take a closer look at exactly why propane tank safety is so important, and highlight some of the ways you can safeguard against any problems.
Propane Basics and Risks
Propane is a product of natural gas and petroleum processing. At everyday temperature and pressure, it exists as a gas. However, when compressed it turns into a liquid that can be stored in stationary and portable tanks.
When it accumulates in high concentrations in an enclosed space, propane can trigger serious or severe health problems that include:
- Oxygen deprivation
- Cardiac arrest (complete heart stoppage)
When vented from a pressurized tank, the gas can also produce frostbite on exposed skin.
Propane is classified as an extremely flammable substance. In addition, when exposed to flame or any other intense heat source, a tank filled with the gas can potentially explode. Scientists refer to this type of explosion as a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion, or BLEVE.
Know the Location of Your Tank(s)
Propane tanks come in two formats: one created by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and one created by the federal Department of Transportation (DOT). Portable ASME tanks are mounted externally on the front or rear of recreational vehicles such as folding campers, fifth-wheel units and travel trailers. Full-sized motor homes rely on a permanently installed DOT tank located beneath the vehicle cabin. ASME tanks sit in a vertical position, while DOT tanks sit in a horizontal position.
Make Regular Visual Inspections of Your Tank(s)
Propane tanks have increased chances of leaking when damaged by rust, dents or gouges. In addition, they can leak if their valve connections are weakened in any way. Make regular visual inspections of your RV’s tanks and look for signs of these issues. Also make sure to have your tanks inspected periodically by a licensed propane supplier. Experts recommend such an inspection at least once a year.
Don’t Paint Your Tanks(s)
From time to time, you may want to spruce up your RV’s appearance with a paint touch-up or a full repainting job. While doing so, make sure to steer clear of your vehicle’s propane tanks(s), as well as all related valves and mounting brackets. There are good reasons for following this guideline.
First, if you change the color of an exterior propane tank from a light color to a dark color, you can increase the amount of heat energy it absorbs during the day. In turn, this heat increase can lead to a higher risk for dangerous tank malfunctions. The presence of a new layer of paint can also hide existing tank damage or make it more difficult to carry out routine servicing.
Check for Problems Before Your Trip Begins
To ensure comfort and safety during your next RV trip, take a few minutes and look for any potential issues. In addition to a visual inspection of your propane tank(s), a pre-travel checklist should include:
- An inspection of the bracket mounts on vehicles equipped with ASME tanks
- An inspection of the propane hookups for all appliances
- Clearing of any debris or other material from your vehicle’s exterior vents (which allow propane byproducts to escape harmlessly)
- A check of your vehicle’s propane, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
- A check of your vehicle’s Class BC fire extinguisher
Steps to Take While Traveling
In some jurisdictions, it may be illegal to drive down the road with propane tank valves in their open position. And even when it’s not illegal, this practice can lead to significant fire, explosion and suffocation hazards. To stay on the safe side, keep the valves of your tanks closed while your RV is in motion. Other steps to take while traveling include:
- Shutting off all propane-related valves, appliances, ignitors and pilot lights when stopping to refuel
- Making sure to follow manufacturers’ instructions for all propane-powered equipment
Steps to Take While Camping
While camping, you can also take several steps that will help you avoid any propane-related mishaps. These steps include things such as:
- Using an exhaust fan and cracking a window when cooking
- Keeping any exposed tanks a minimum of 10 feet from any source of heat
- Making sure to provide proper ventilation for any portable, propane-powered heaters, generators or other devices