One of the more frequent questions I get relative to propane has to do refilling propane tanks. I am not talking about those 20 pound tanks commonly used with backyard BBQs. Instead, the questions have to do with refilling those ubiquitous one pound cylinders that are used with portable stoves, lanterns, and heaters.
In this next installment of Propane for Preppers, you are going to learn how to refill your one pound propane tanks. As you will learn, there are pros and cons mostly relating to safety considerations. The last thing I want, after all, is for you to blow yourself up along with the rest of the neighborhood.
Propane for Preppers Part Three is the next installment in the series as written exclusively for BDS 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 Three
The Economics of Refilling
A store-bought one-pounder is double or triple the cost of a home-filled cylinder.
My propane supplier just now filled our 200-pound tank behind the house. He charged $3.86 per gallon including 3% sales tax. A gallon of propane weighs 4.23 lb. so my propane cost $.91 per pound (3.86 / 4.23 = .91).
A so-called ‘one-pounder’ holds 16.4 ounces (465 grams) or 1.025 pounds (16.4 / 16 = 1.025).
Using these figures, were I to home-fill a propane one-pounder, it would cost $.93 per cylinder (.91 x 1.025 = .93).
Wal-Mart’s lowest-priced one-pounders are $2.90 per cylinder including 8% sales tax.
On this basis, store-bought cylinders are triple the cost of home-filled cylinders (2.90 / .93 = 3.12).
But here’s a worst-case scenario. Another dealer, locally, charges a flat $12 (including sales tax) to refill a 20-pounder, be it empty or almost full. In other words, he’s topping it off for $12.
If you reserve a 20-pounder exclusively for refilling and always top it off when it gets down to 50%, then you’re effectively paying $1.20 per lb. Even so, if you do the arithmetic, it works out that a store-bought one-pounder is more than double the cost of home refilling.
All the propane one-pounder brands I’ve seen (currently on the market in the USA) carry this disclaimer on the label: “Never refill this cylinder. Federal law forbids transportation if refilled – penalty up to $500,000 and 5 years imprisonment (49 U.S.C. 5124).”
Coleman’s statement is even stronger: “Never refill this cylinder. Refilling may cause explosion. Federal law forbids . . . blah, blah, blah.” The explosion bit does not appear on other brands.
Coleman one-pounders sold in Canada and Coleman one-pounders circa 1980 carry softer warnings. In Canada the label says, “Do not refill cylinder.” NEVER is replaced with ‘do not.’ And there is no mention of explosion. The old 1980 label says, “It is HAZARDOUS TO REFILL this cylinder.” [emphasis theirs] Quite different from NEVER. And, again, no mention in 1980 of explosion.
In the business world, these are classic CYA statements (Cover Your Fanny). The propane company doesn’t care if you refill the cylinder. They just don’t want to get hauled into court. So to escape any legal liability they say, “Never refill . . .” That gets them off the hook.
U.S.C. stands for United States Code; ‘49’ is the chapter. You can Google for it. And then argue all day about what it means. Does it apply only to ‘commerce’ and not to private individuals? As a federal law, does it apply only to interstate transportation across state lines? Or does it apply to intrastate transportation as well?
The 49 U.S.C. 5124 statement even appears on Coleman-Canada propane labels. I assume its function is to scare people. I don’t see where it would have any more relevance in Canada than the Canadian age of consent has in the USA. (Raised in 2008, BTW, from fourteen to sixteen.)
Transportation notwithstanding, I strongly doubt it is a crime to REFILL a propane cylinder. If it were, then Mr Heater  and MacCoupler  and EZ Adapters  and CE Compass  and Gascru  and Schnozzle  (all of which are brands of refill adapters) would be accessories. As would Amazon, eBay, and your local hardware store where the adapters are sold.
Cylinder leakage is a legitimate concern.
One-pounders have a Schrader valve as their main valve. A Schrader valve is what you have in your car or bicycle tire. The Schrader valve seat, the seal, is rubber.
Bigger tanks (such as the 20-pounder we’ll use as a source-tank in refilling), employ brass needle valves. Big difference in reliability and life expectancy.
When you attach and detach a one-pounder to an appliance (stove, lantern, etc.) gaseous propane travels through the cylinder’s Schrader valve. When you refill, liquid propane travels through the valve. I’m not sure if that does any harm but I’m certain it lacks any benefit.
Of course, the sporting-goods company wants you to throw out the old cylinder and buy new. As discussed in Part One, brass end caps with O-rings will stop a cylinder from leaking. But if you don’t test the cylinder after refilling, and if you don’t install a brass end cap plus O-ring on the leakers, you’ll be traveling down the road wafting a trail of gaseous propane behind you, extremely flammable stuff.
As the old saying has it, “Your right to swing your fist ends with the beginning of my nose.” Rephrased: “Your right to travel the highway with a leaking propane cylinder ends just before you blow up me and my family.”
Curiosity got the best of me and I cut the top off a one-pounder. You can see the bottom end of the main Schrader valve and a reverse Schrader valve, for lack of a better term, that serves as the cylinder’s pressure-relief valve. The relief valve appears upper-left in the image; it’s barely visible on the outside of the cylinder but inside it is bigger than the main valve.
As discussed in an earlier installment, one-pounders are prone to leaking. I’ve had it happen several times. Please don’t casually dismiss the possibility.
So Here’s How You Do the Doin’
First, to paraphrase Mark Twain, there are two kinds of men. Those who learn by reading the directions. And all the rest of us who must pee on the electric fence and find out the hard way. So let’s get to it.
1. Materials. We need (1) an empty one-pounder, (2) an adapter, and (3) a 20-pounder at least half full.
We also need (4) an insulated sleeve to slip over the one-pounder and (5) a brass pushpin, discussed below, with which to release pressure from the one-pounder.
(6) Leather gloves are a good idea to avoid frostbite if something goes wrong. As are (7) safety goggles. Frostbitten fingers are one thing; frostbitten corneas (should you get hit in the face with a blast of liquid propane), quite another.
2. Environment. We need a heavy-duty table (like a picnic table) to work on. Being outside, a ‘floor’ of blacktop or concrete would be welcome. We don’t need a table-leg to sink into mud or soft dirt and dump our tanks on the ground. Oops.
It is imperative to work outside where there is good air circulation (to disperse any puff of propane that may escape as we screw and unscrew cylinders). And to disperse a ‘propane cloud’ should the unthinkable occur.
In 2012, Stanley Johnson (Polk County, Minnesota) had a fatal explosion – it was his wife who died actually, not he – while refilling a one-pounder inside his garage. Propane is heavier than air. It pools on the floor. Outside, Stanley would have had a fire. Inside, he had an explosion.
3. Procedure. Turn the 20-pound supply-tank upside down. The valve where (liquid) propane will exit is then at the bottom. Inside the tank, liquid propane is immediately above the valve. Gaseous propane is at the top, next to what is now the ceiling of the tank.
4. Screw the adapter into the supply-tank. This is tricky spot #1 because we’re dealing with a left-hand thread (meaning that, when tightening, it turns counter-clockwise, contrary to ordinary nuts-and-bolts). We snug the adapter tight with a 1⅛” open-end wrench. ‘Snug’ is all we need. It’s the adapter’s rubber O-ring that forms the seal.
5. Screw the one-pounder, the receiving-tank, into the other end of the adapter. (Note that we’re starting with the supply-tank and the receiving-tank at the same temperature.) When attaching the one-pounder, it’s the old “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey” because we’re dealing with an ordinary right-hand thread.
But it’s really tricky spot #2. Why? Because one end of the adapter has a left-hand thread and the other end has a right-hand thread. If we over-tighten the receiving-end we simultaneously loosen the supply-end.
My solution is to leave the open-end wrench in place to serve as a handle. It’s then easy to prevent loosening the adapter from the supply-tank. The wrench can be removed when we no longer need a handle.
6. Once the tanks are hooked firmly together, remove the handle/wrench, tip the supply-tank up on its side (slightly) to gain access to its triangular valve-knob, then reach under there and open the valve full.
7. Wait one minute for the filling to complete. You can hear a hissing noise (for 10-30 seconds) as the transfer takes place but I’ve found that one minute gives better results than ending the fill right after the hissing stops. Five minutes, on the other hand, does not give better results than one minute.
8. Turn off the triangular valve-knob and remove the newly-filled one-pounder. This is tricky spot #3. Turn off the supply-tank before unscrewing the receiving-tank.
I really need to impress this upon you. DO NOT REMOVE THE ONE-POUNDER BEFORE YOU TURN OFF THE 20-POUNDER.
Although I just said it three different ways, one forgetful moment will reward you with a propane cloud – generated by liquid propane, under pressure, gushing out of the 20-pounder. A propane cloud has the potential for a major fire or explosion. One spark at considerable distance – your neighbor lighting his BBQ grill, for example – can do the trick. This is not kid stuff. You are coloring outside the lines here.
I mentioned in an earlier installment that, with today’s OPD valves, if no appliance is hooked up to the tank then no propane will exit the tank even if the valve is left open. Great! HOWEVER, when we remove the just-filled one-pounder, the 20-lb. source tank is still hooked up to an appliance: the ADAPTER.
My fear is that, once you see how easy it is to refill a one-pounder, you’ll lose respect for the potential danger. Just the other day my wife and I saw a woman walk into a telephone pole – ALMOST – while texting. She was coming towards us on the sidewalk but not really paying attention to what she was doing. She stopped with the pole just six inches from her nose.
We laughed out loud. She was horribly embarrassed. She was so distracted by the phone that she forgot where she was walking. Is that so much different than watching the girls sunbath next door and neglecting to turn off the 20-pounder before we remove the one-pounder? DISASTER!
Refilling is both easy and safe IF we stay focused.
Once you’ve launched a propane cloud, BTW, reaching into that cloud to turn off the forgotten valve will produce frostbite. Converting from liquid to vapor (and that’s what the propane is doing) requires heat. Just like when liquid water turns into gaseous steam, heat is required.
Heat. Calories. Your hand will supply calories. And when your hand gives up calories your hand gets cold. Google for ‘frostbitten fingers’ and click ‘images.’ I guarantee it will make an impression.
At this point (assuming you’re still alive and all is well), you’ve detached the one-pounder with 280 grams of propane inside. That’s 60% of the one-pounder’s 465-gram capacity.
Your results may vary. The 60% figure is ‘typical.’ I’ve gotten everything from 54% to 75% using this same procedure and I’ve given up trying to understand the variance.
9. If you’re satisfied with a 60% refill then you’re done. But most of us, I suspect, would rather have 100%. No problem. Here’s how:
First, release some pressure from the receiving tank that we just filled to 60% (the one-pounder). Do this by pushing in on the one-pounder’s Schrader valve located top-center on the cylinder. It’s like letting air out of a tire. Depress the valve-stem for 5-10 seconds.
Do it outside. Hold the one-pounder upright. That will release gaseous propane from the top of the cylinder. Holding the one-pounder upside down will release liquid propane. Not good.
Use a brass rod to depress the Schrader valve. This is important. Brass is non-sparking. A ‘lift wire’ for use on your flush toilet is just under ⅛” in diameter plus being brass. Perfect.
In this procedure, you’re not really ‘releasing pressure’ per se. Rather, the Schrader-valve pressure-release chills the receiving-tank. You can feel in your hands the one-pounder get cold. The colder tank temperature equates to lower pressure inside the tank; pressure varies directly with temperature.
10. Immediately screw the one-pounder back onto the adapter. Don’t linger. Slide the insulated sleeve over the one-pounder. You just took steps to make the one-pounder cold; now keep it cold.
My insulated sleeve is a homemade cardboard cylinder covered with three layers of bubble wrap. The sleeve’s bottom-end was made by winding an inch-wide strip of bubble wrap into a ‘wheel’ (slightly oversize), then shoehorning the wheel into the hole in the bottom of the cardboard cylinder.
Even before adding the insulated sleeve, there’s precious little clearance between the side of the one-pounder and the tabletop. With the sleeve in place, all clearance disappears. Hence the 20-pounder must perch fairly close to the edge of the table so that the one-pounder (and sleeve) can hang completely off the edge.
11. Next, repeat steps #6-8. That is:
(6) Open the valve on the supply-tank.
(7) Wait one minute for filling to occur.
(8) TURN OFF THE SUPPLY TANK, remove the insulated sleeve, and unscrew the receiving-tank.
At this point you can expect your receiving-tank to contain somewhere between 435 and 480 grams net. That’s a range from 94% to 103% of the one-pounder’s 465-gram capacity. Gee, 100% has a nice ring to it. (Your results may vary.)
If you do the chill-thing with the Schrader valve but, in the next step, fail to use an insulated sleeve, you can expect 325-400 grams net in the one-pounder. That’s 81% to 86% of its capacity. (Your results may vary.)
So . . . can you use this technique to top off your not-so-well filled one-pounders? That is, can you chill the cylinder via the Schrader valve and then keep the cylinder cold in an insulated sleeve? Can you do that with a one-pounder now filled to 60%, say, and bring it up to 100%? Can you? Yes.
12. Assuming, again, that you are still alive and have survived step #8 (twice), weigh the newly-filled cylinder to check for over-filling.
A brand new one-pounder holds 465 grams net of propane. The tare weight is 400 grams. That’s a gross weight of 865 grams or 30.5 ounces. If your cylinder is overfilled, you can burn off the excess with an appliance (stove burner, for example) or keep poking the Schrader valve with your brass rod – psst – until the cylinder is merely full, not overfull.
If you use the psst method, do it outside.
In a later installment we’ll discuss the dangers of overfilling and the necessity of leaving some headspace in the cylinder. For the moment, please take it on faith that you DO NOT want to overfill any propane cylinder.
13. Immerse your newly filled one-pounder in a basin of water and check it for leaks.
If it blows bubbles from the main valve, you can poke at it with your brass rod and attempt to get the valve seated properly. Do it with the cylinder upright so that gaseous propane escapes, not liquid propane. Failing that (and, to be honest, the brass-rod thing has never worked for me), install a brass end cap plus O-ring as discussed in Part Two.
If you have no way of capping off a leaker, install it on a stove burner (or other appliance) and run the device until the one-pounder is empty. Do not store propane in a leaking cylinder. You don’t need neighbors complaining about the funny smell or the noise of an explosion. You know how picky neighbors can be.
If the one-pounder blows bubbles from the safety valve, don’t even try and fix it. Just use up the gas immediately and dispose of the cylinder.
Theoretically you could pull-and-snap-release the stem of the safety valve with needle-nose pliers in an attempt to seat it properly but that’s steel-on-steel; non-sparking it ain’t. And if you’re really aggressive, I’ve heard tell of people pulling the valve stem right out of the cylinder. Woot, woot!
Yanking the valve stem out of a full one-pounder would constitute a genuine emergency. Should it happen, hold the cylinder upright. If you turn it upside down, liquid propane will surge out; a propane cloud. And let’s hope you’re outside when it happens. Everything you can think of produces sparks. Electric motors when they start. Light switches. Uncle Harry when he lights his cigar.
But, hey, if the one-pounder is full and doesn’t leak and you’re still alive and the barn didn’t burn down and your nose hairs didn’t get singed and you don’t have frostbite . . . then you can swagger along home with bragging rights, eh?
Plus you saved $1.97. That’s my kinda afternoon.
… to be continued © Ron Brown 2014
Sources – For References Purposes
 Mr Heater: Mr. Heater F276172 Propane One Pound Tank Refill Adapter
21] MacCoupler: Brass MACCOUPLER EZ Fill Propane Coupler
 EZ Adapter: Propane Tank Refill Adapter EZ Coupler
 CE Compass: CE Compass Propane Refill Adapter Lp Gas Cylinder Tank Coupler Heater
 Gascru: Gascru Brass Propane One Pound Tank Refill Adapter EZ Coupler P432
 Schnozzle: Shnozzle – SAFEST Propane Refill Adapter for One Pound Tank Small Cylinders
The Final Word
Everyone likes to save money, right? It only makes sense, really, to save what we can where we can.
Refilling on pound propane tanks can be a great money-saver and convenient as all heck as long as you adhere to the utmost in safety precautions. On the other hand, if you are not mechanically inclined and do not have an outside area in which to work, refilling-one pound propane tanks may not be for you. It may, in all honesty, be fatal.
I do not mean to scare you; only to exercise diligence and caution, okay?
Coming up in part four of Propane for Preppers is a discussion of refilling 20-pounders as well as the long-term storage of one-pounders. We’ll also cover carbon monoxide and oxygen starvation. Should be interesting, no?
Plus, if you are enjoying this series, you might want to check out Ron’s books. Every single one of them is a worthwhile investment in practical and useful knowledge. Meet Ron Brown!
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 mentioned in today’s article as well as other propane related items that are popular with BDS readers.
Mac Coupler Propane Bottle Cap aka MacCaps (or End Caps): This ingenious device protects the threads of disposable 1 pound propane bottles and helps prevent thread damage and seals out dirt. You will receive 2 caps per order. The Mac Caps makes a welcome addition to any camping gear, RV enthusiast, outdoorsmen, or home owner that needs to use a 1 lb. propane tanks. Now you can protect the threads of those tanks with the Mac Cap. Simply attach the Mac Cap to your 1 lb. tank when not in use to help prevent leaks and protect the threads.
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.
3M TEKK Protection Chemical Splash/Impact Goggle: I am pleased with these eye protection goggles and have two pair. I also have these DEWALT Concealer Clear Anti-Fog Dual Mold Safety Goggles.
US Forge 400 Welding Gloves Lined Leather: These well-priced gloves provide complete heat and burn protection. They are perfect for keeping your hands and arms safe while cooking outdoors over an open fire in addition I have found welding gloves to be a better value than standard, leather work gloves.
Bubble Wrap: Word to the wise. You will get ripped off if you run to the local Home Depot to purchase bubble wrap. 20 feet for $17? Been there done that. If you need bubble wrap for any purpose, purchase it in bulk. I could have purchased 150 feet for less with a little advanced planning.
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.
Mr. Heater Portable “Big Buddy” Heater : A number of readers have mentioned this portable heater to me. Using propane and safe for indoor use, the Big Buddy Heater features an automatic low-oxygen shut-off system that automatically turns the unit off before carbon monoxide fumes reach dangerous levels in home. Now how good is it? Read the reviews and decide for yourself. I think that in a power down situation, this is a great option for someone without a wood burning heat source.
Coleman One-Mantle Compact Propane Lantern: Easy to use and portable. This Coleman compact lantern lights with matches and is pressure-regulated for consistent light, regardless of weather. The porcelain ventilators will prevent rusting and help this lantern last you a long time.
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