In the series Propane for Preppers, you have learned about filling one-pound propane cylinders. But what about refilling 20 pound tanks from, for example, the large tank you lease from the propane company?
In this article, you will learn about refilling those 20-pounders and also, how to safely store any size propane cylinder for the long term. We also cover carbon monoxide and oxygen starvation.
Propane for Preppers Part Four is the next installment in the series written exclusively for Backdoor Survival by my friend Ron Brown, who has taken considerable time to put together a comprehensive tutorial for you. This is information you need to know and as you will find, Ron explains things with unbeatable wit and humor!
Propane for Preppers – Part Four
Refilling a 20-Pounder
At issue is the refilling of a 20-pounder (BBQ-tank size) from the big supply-tank that feeds your home. Several big-tank sizes exist. For discussion purposes, let’s refer to the big supply-tank (whatever its size) as the ‘nurse-tank.’
First, we have legalities to ponder. Are there any federal regulations (EPA, DOT, DOE, etc.)? How about the state? County? Township? City? Zoning laws?
Maybe life would be simpler if I just became a certified propane serviceman. But where do I get the training? I don’t even know what to Google for.
And let’s not forget the gas supplier. We own the gas but he owns the tank. Can we legally disconnect from his tank and then use his tank to fill smaller tanks? ’Cause if his tank gets damaged . . .
I feel a copout coming over me.
Tell you what. I’ll share the little bit I know about the mechanical process of transferring propane from one tank to another but you’re on your own regarding legal requirements. Fair enough? Just remember, ignorance of the law is no excuse. So here we go . . .
There are two refill methods, (1) liquid-transfer and (2) gas-transfer.
Liquid-transfer. Your big nurse-tank has a pipe inside that goes from top to bottom (like the tube inside a pressurized aerosol spray can). As the tank comes to you, the top of the pipe is capped off (but it is possible to install a hand valve at the top of that pipe). The gas company installs such a valve and uses this top-to-bottom pipe to pump the gas out of your tank if the tank is moved (should you cancel them as a supplier, for example).
If you remember, when refilling a one-pounder we had to turn the supply-tank upside down to get liquid propane to exit the valve. But here we have a pipe that goes to the bottom of the tank where the liquid lives plus a (potential) valve at the top of the tank. The top of our nurse-tank could thus host two valves – a ‘gas-valve’ to feed the house with gaseous propane plus a ‘liquid-valve’ for use in refilling smaller tanks.
To refill a 20-pounder via liquid-transfer we need to have the correct valve installed on the top-to-bottom pipe plus a high-pressure hose with the appropriate fittings on each end (to reach from the nurse-tank to the 20-lb. receiving-tank). We’d connect the two tanks with the hose, open both valves, and let the games commence. You can hear when the transfer stops. OPD would prevent us from overfilling.
(Where do you obtain the valves and hoses? Your gas company already has, for its own use, everything you need. All you have to do is convince them to sell you the stuff.)
After refilling, we’d check the weight of the 20-lb. receiving-tank. The total weight should not exceed the tare weight of the receiving-tank (as stamped on its collar) plus the 20 lbs. net of propane we just transferred. Conversely, should the 20-lb. receiving-tank be underfilled, we could chill the receiving tank and take additional propane on board.
Gas-transfer. We can also use the gas line (that goes to our house) rather than the liquid line. Note that the ‘gas-transfer’ method is much slower. It will take 30-90 minutes or more to fill a 20-pounder.
As before, when connecting the big supply-tank to the small receiving-tank, we need a high-pressure propane hose with appropriate fittings on each end. We would (1) turn off the nurse-tank that feeds the house. Then (2) disconnect the supply-line that runs from the valve to the house. Note that any household appliance with a pilot light would have to be relit afterwards (plus there might be air in the lines).
(3) We’d connect our high-pressure hose between the nurse-tank gas-valve and the 20-lb. receiving-tank. Then we’d (4) open the valve on each end and let the games begin.
(5) We would have to keep the receiving-tank colder than the supply-tank throughout (to lower its pressure and condense the entering gas). One way to do this would be to set the 20-pounder in a tub of ice water. Another way would be to trickle water from a garden hose over the receiving-tank for the duration. As with the liquid-transfer method, OPD would prevent us from overfilling.
So, in round numbers, those are the basics. You can find YouTube videos demonstrating both methods. Please note that the safety precautions taken by the makers of these videos are not always the greatest. (What part of ‘understatement’ don’t you understand?)
If you do attempt refilling a 20-pounder, leather gloves and safety goggles are appropriate. No smoking. No sparks. And if something goes wrong, it will not blow up your garage. It will blow up your neighborhood. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Explosions are rare. It will only burn down your neighborhood. But if you aspire to be stage-center on the 6:00 o’clock news, this could be your debut. As an added bonus you’ll receive an official letter on company stationery from your fire insurance agent (suitable for framing).
Come to think of it, maybe you should talk to your fire insurance agent first, before attempting to refill a twenty-pounder. Ya think?
Storage of One-Pounders
Storage is a troublesome topic for me. I’ve come to have a lot of respect for propane (a.k.a. fear). I don’t want to store the cylinders in my living quarters. Ditto for my basement workshop.
Why? Because they might leak. That’s one reason. But if I ever have a fire, a few propane cylinders venting into the flames at random intervals (if not exploding) will not make things better. That’s the real reason. I don’t want the firemen sitting in the truck waiting for the show to be over before combatting my house fire.
My garage, attached to the house, poses the same problem. And my outdoor sheds/barns get hot in the summer. I’m sure they go over 120° F with no-one being aware of it. And it’s humid from time to time. Which contributes to rusting.
Here’s my experience. A year after formal retirement I received job offer in Canada. So we left our house as-is (unoccupied but fully furnished) and rented an apartment near the job.
Before departing for Canada, I took all the combustible items I could find – gas cans, kerosene, paint thinner, charcoal lighter fluid, half a dozen propane cylinders, etc. – and locked them up in a metal shed a hundred feet away from the house.
The shed and everything in it was largely ignored for the two years I was gone. When I returned, the propane one-pounders had all rusted (as shown in the photo below).
Okay. So I can’t store the cylinders in my living quarters. Or basement. Or garage. Or in a non-air-conditioned shed or barn. How am I supposed to store these things?
I’ve read, incidentally, that you should remove the paper labels from propane cylinders so that moisture doesn’t get trapped under the label where it will contribute to rusting. That advice turns out to be armchair science. I did not remove the labels and all six of my one-pounders looked like the photo above. All of the rust was on the shoulders of the cylinders; none of the rust was under the labels. Translation: The theory is wrong; the advice is bogus.
Anyway, presented below is my storage solution. It’s what I came up with. Is it any good? Don’t know. Will it work? Don’t know. Come back in ten years and ask me. Note that I did not use any mastic when sealing the storage containers. I want to be able to open them, and do it easily, at least once a year for our family camping trip.
I have a fair supply of empty 5-gallon plastic pails with tops. They originally contained driveway sealer. They seem to make excellent storage containers for one-pounders.
There is enough room to stand four one-pounders on the floor of a 5-gallon pail. Plus you can squeeze in a Bernz-O-Matic-type soldering cylinder should you happen to have one. There’s enough additional space for two more one-pounders to be laid crossways on top of the upright, bottom cylinders. (To avoid things clanging around, I wrap the two horizontal cylinders in bubble wrap.) So a 5-gallon pail will hold a total of six one-pounders plus a soldering cylinder.
I also add a desiccant to absorb any air-borne moisture inside the 5-gallon pail. If there is no moisture in the air, then the metal cylinders cannot rust, eh? I use calcium chloride. To hold the desiccant, I punch holes in the lid of a half-pint canning jar (which then resembles a salt shaker) and stretch a piece of cloth over the mouth of the jelly jar (but under the lid) so that no calcium chloride pellets leak out through the punched holes. I am at pains to prevent the calcium chloride (sold as driveway de-icer in the winter) from touching the steel propane cylinders. Calcium chloride – CaCl2 – is corrosive to steel.
A desiccant expands as it absorbs moisture. So each of my desiccant jars is only half-full of calcium chloride. I put two such jars in each 5-gallon pail. I slide the jars between the standing cylinders so that they (the desiccant jars) are upright, vertical.
Gaye’s Note: You can learn to make your own desiccants in the article Beginners Guide to Desiccants.
Lastly, I seal the lid of the 5-gallon pail with duct tape. I put three continuous windings around the lid, making the first wrap flush with the top edge of the lid itself and spiraling successive wraps (generously overlapped) downwards onto the body of the pail.
One of the dangers in storing propane is that, if a cylinder gets hot (in the 120-130° F range or higher), the cylinder’s safety valve can spurt out a bit of propane to relieve the pressure. With propane, temperature and pressure are directly related.
This is especially dangerous in a confined space (the hull of a boat, for example). Repeated ventings (that no-one is even aware took place) from a bunch of stored propane cylinders can be disastrous.
Personally, I don’t want the cylinders in my 5-gallon pail to get hot and vent propane into the bucket. If I lived in Texas or Florida where summer temperatures reach absurd levels this would be an even greater concern.
Let me share an experience that might reveal how we can help ourselves temperature-wise.
It was winter. I lived in a rented house. Times were tough. I got permission from the landlord to install a homemade barrel stove (in which to burn wood for heat). The stove worked fine but it was positioned less than six inches away from an exterior wall. The inside surface of the wall was wood paneling. And the wall got hot. Very hot. As in, “Ouch! That’s hot!”
After a few days of worry, I Scotch-taped aluminum foil to the wall behind the stove. At which point you could lay your hand flat on the wall and the wall was cold. Icy cold. As in, “Wow! That’s amazing!”
So we could wrap our plastic pail in aluminum foil. That would be one way to help with the temperature problem. But foil is fragile, easily torn.
As an alternative we could spray-paint our pail with aluminum paint. Or white paint. And wrap it in bubble wrap. Or wrap it in a bat of fiberglass insulation. Or stand it in a cardboard box filled with sawdust. Or do all of the above and then bury it in the cool earth. In the shade. These are all just suggestions on how to cope with the temperature question.
The label on Coleman one-pounders contains a surprisingly prominent warning about carbon monoxide (CO). No other brand even mentions carbon monoxide. Older Coleman labels don’t mention carbon monoxide. Coleman one-pounders sold in Canada don’t mention carbon monoxide.
So what gives? Was (or is) the Coleman warning part of some legal settlement? That’s all I can think of.
Things that smolder (cigarettes, charcoal briquettes, incense) give off large quantities of carbon monoxide. That’s why it’s not safe to use a charcoal grill inside the house. Things that burn with a clear flame (stove burners, lanterns) give off miniscule (tiny, tiny) quantities of carbon monoxide.
A few years ago, in researching “Lanterns, Lamps, and Candles: A User’s Guide,” I tested all sorts of lamps and lanterns (one at a time) in a room with a CO detector. The detector, factory-preset to 30 ppm (parts per million), never went off. I began to doubt it was even working until I moved a stick of burning incense nearby. Then it screamed.
But where should I position the detector? Above or below the lamp being tested? Is CO heavier than air?
That seemed like a straightforward question. But when I Googled it, some answers said CO is lighter than air and rises; some said it’s heavier and pools in the basement; some said it’s about the same and rises because it’s mixed with the hot exhaust of the burning lamp. Good grief.
I could not find authoritative answers to my questions so I finally shelled out a hundred bucks for a meter  and did my own testing.
Carbon monoxide proved to be elusive stuff. Even in a closed shower stall it was hard to get a reading. The meter measured in 1 ppm increments and had a measuring range from zero to 999 ppm. Out in general living quarters it was virtually impossible to get a reading.
I found that wick-type kerosene lamps (that generate light from a simple burning flame) produce more CO than do pressure lanterns that employ a mantle. After burning for one hour in a closed shower stall, for example, my average meter-reading for a Rayo wick-type kerosene lamp was 20 ppm.
For a propane mantle-lamp, the average reading was only 5 ppm. (And this, remember, is after one hour of burning inside a closed shower stall with no ventilation of any kind in the bathroom – no fan, window closed, bathroom door closed.)
One ppm is not very big. A carton of paint at the hardware store holds four one-gallon cans. Visualize, if you will, 17 gallons of paint – a stack of boxes, four high, plus one extra gallon on top. A single drop of paint thinner, measured with an eye-dropper and spread evenly across all 17 gallons, constitutes one part per million.
Everything that burns consumes oxygen – your fireplace, your gas range in the kitchen, the candles on your birthday cake. When your house is crowded with people, each breathing and consuming their own bit of oxygen, the available supply goes down even faster.
The fix is easy. Open a window. Let in some fresh air.
But what if you don’t? What are the symptoms of oxygen starvation and what are the consequences if you ignore it?
The symptoms are these. Early on, you may report ‘feeling just fine’ even though you are pale and confused. Later, you have no energy/strength/stamina. You have shortness of breath, chest tightness, blue coloring around your lips, tingling fingers, increased pulse, you want to sleep.
Oxygen starvation can also occur at high altitudes (where the air is ‘thin’) and when breathing mixtures of gases with low oxygen content (diving, for example).
If you’re living at a high altitude, say, and ignore the symptoms, the long-term consequences can be extreme fatigue, waking at night gasping for breath, loss of eyesight, loss of short term memory, and progressive weakening of the heart muscle leading to heart failure.
But that’s the long-term extreme. As far as unvented propane appliances are concerned (your kitchen stove, for example), the fix is easy. Open a window. Let in some fresh air.
In Part Five of this series (our final installment), we’ll discuss (a) the dangers of overfilling propane cylinders, (b) extinguishing a propane fire, and (c) the rather strange double standard that exists in the universe of propane safety. It does leave you scratching your head sometimes. See you then.
… to be continued © Ron Brown 2014
Sources – For References Purposes
As he has done with each installment, Ron has provided a reference for the numeric footnotes embedded in his article. This time there is only one.
 Carbon Monoxide Meter: Generic Carbon Monoxide CO Meter
The Final Word
The challenge of refilling 20 pound propane tanks from a larger tank (or what Ron calls the “nurse” tank) has as much to do with having the right hoses and fittings as with having the blessing of your propane company. This is not an area where I have first hand experience and to be honest, I think I will stick with refilling the one-pounders and leave it at that.
That said, storing propane for the long term is indeed a challenge especially when there are climate and space constraints. This is something to consider as you map out a long-term survival strategy relative to heating, cooking, and to a lesser extent, lighting.
Burning wood and biomass would be my first choice. But that’s just me plus, I live in an area were the raw materials are plentiful. As with all things preparedness, your mileage may vary.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
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Spotlight: Ron is the author of three books, so far, in the Non-Electric Lighting Series: CANDLES, OLIVE OIL LAMPS, and LAMP FUELS . I wrote the foreword in two of the books and what can I say? All three are recommended.
All of Ron’s books are available in both Kindle and print format. They are well priced (99 cents cheap!) and in my not-so-humble opinion, worth double the price.
Bargain Bin: Below you will find links to the items related to today’s article.
US Forge 400 Welding Gloves Lined Leather: These well-priced gloves provide complete heat and burn protection. They are made of soft and supple top grain leather for comfort and pliability, plus they have an internal liner gives more comfort and durability. These will keep you hands and arms safe while cooking outdoors over an open fire.
3M TEKK Protection Chemical Splash/Impact Goggle: I am extremely pleased with these eye protection goggle. The price is reasonable and they fit me well. I also own these DEWALT Concealer Clear Anti-Fog Dual Mold Safety Goggles which are more elaborate. I like both so either would make a good choice.
Generic Carbon Monoxide CO Meter: This is a low cost, pocket type CO Meter/Detector. It includes an adjustable warning level, a dual digital display that shows the current CO and maximum CO values plus a ton of other features.
Solo Stove: Having someway to cook outdoors without traditional fuels should be a priority for every prepper. A rocket stove that burns biomass or wood is a must since propane or other fuels may not be available. Both of these stoves are easy to use and burn hot and fast. You can build your own rocket stove for $10, maybe less. See Building a DIY Rocket Stove.
Coleman PefectFlow 1-Burner Stove: This Coleman One-burner Propane Stove is an easy-to-use portable stove that should meet almost any camp cooking need. The PerfectFlow regulator provides consistent cooking performance by producing a steady fuel stream, even in cold weather, high altitudes, or when fuel is low. Equipped with one 10,000 BTU burner, this fully adjustable stove will last for 2.2 hours on high or up to nine hours on low. Less than $25 plus a lifetime warranty.
Mr. Heater F276172 Propane One Pound Tank Refill Adapter: One pound propane tank refill adapter with male soft nose P.O.L. and female 1″x20 throwaway cylinder thread refills 1 lb. bottles in one minute or less. You may also want to consider the Brass MACCOUPLER EZ Fill Propane Coupler.
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