How much do you really know about storing and using propane? If you are like most folks, you open the valve on your tank and for all intents and purposes, you have fuel. In the Backdoor Survival series, Propane for Preppers, we are going to unravel the mysteries of propane so that you will know everything there is to know about using propane as a fuel source grid up or grid down.
The series was 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!
In Part Two of Propane for Preppers, we continue our basic education then move on to the nitty gritty of tanks, valves, regulators, pipes and more. There is a lot to learn and to absorb if you really want to understand the whys and wherefores of using propane.
As Ron will explain,there are some safety concerns we should be on the watch for including leaks, poor fittings, and heaven forbid, a tank you find in a rental house that was used to produce crystal meth.
In case you missed it, here is a link to Part One. Otherwise, let us continue on to Part Two.
Propane for Preppers – Part Two
Tanks, Valves, Regulators, and Pipes
Before we move on to tanks, valves, regulators and pipes, a word about crystal meth and used propane tanks.
Crystal Meth. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have bothered to include this section. Today it’s top on the list.
I live in the country, near a village with one stoplight, 30 miles from Wal-Mart. Yesterday, in a house just up the road, there was an explosion that blew the front door off its hinges and the glass out of all the windows. The only person home at the time went to the hospital with burns over 75% of his body. It’s the fourth meth bust we’ve had locally in the past 12 months. As Bob Dylan said in 1964, the times they are a-changin’.
People who make meth use propane tanks to hold ammonia. The tanks are made of steel but the fittings are made of brass. And ammonia attacks brass, cracks it, and makes it brittle. Makes it unpredictable. And it gives the brass fittings a distinctive blue color. The tank may or may not hold pressure without exploding.
Urban legend has it that such tanks are sometimes turned in, refilled, and recycled back to propane customers. Extremely unlikely. For one thing, the tanks are screened by propane suppliers. For another, as Snopes points out, anyone turning in a meth tank (with its prominent blue corrosion) would draw attention to himself. A far more likely scenario would be finding such a tank in the garage of the house you just rented, left behind by previous tenants. Or finding one at a flea market.
If you do come across such a tank (that is, a propane tank where the brass fittings are corroded to a blue or blue-green color), don’t move it. You don’t know what’s inside or how much pressure it’s under or how close it is to blowing. Will it take the jostling and jarring of being moved? There’s no way to tell. Call the fire department. Let them bring in the bomb squad.
Seriously. Don’t move the tank yourself.
I don’t own such a tank, or even pictures of such a tank, so that I can show you what the blue color looks like. But if you’ll Google for ‘ammonia blue propane’ you’ll find lots of images. Check it out. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Propane tanks come in all sizes. I worked many years at an aluminum mill. We consumed enough gas in the ‘soaking pits’ to light a small city. Literally. Had a big snowstorm. Blackout. Lost production. Mega-bucks. We installed propane tanks big enough to run for a week without interruption. Gas was delivered by rail car. It looked like a supply depot. It was a supply depot.
On the other end of the range are cartridges that hold 110 grams (4 oz.) of a propane-butane blend. Weight-wise, that’s equivalent to half a cup of water. A hiker can toss a cartridge into his backpack and not notice the weight. That kind of cartridge is intended to power small lanterns and one-burner stoves.
Within those two extremes, this series of articles will focus on the lower end of the range – one-pounders and 20-pounders for the most part. The one-pounders are made to be disposable, not refillable.
Technology-wise, one-pounders can be refilled and adapters to do so are widely sold. A subsequent article in the Propane for Preppers series will show you how. Just remember that, when we do it, we’ll be assuming all risk, all responsibility.
The skinny (Bernz-O-Matic) soldering cylinders have the same (right-hand) threads that one-pounders have. And that MAPP-gas cylinders have. They can all be refilled the same way. Unfortunately, they are all made to be disposable and they are all prone to leaking. I’ve had it happen several times. An audible hiss; escaping gas that you cannot stop.
Threaded brass end caps  will stop the leak if an O-ring is added. A basin of water with a leaking one-pounder in it reveals a stream of bubbles coming from the valve. If you install a brass end cap, the bubbles continue. If you wrap the threads with Teflon thread-seal tape (the Teflon tape made for propane is yellow BTW), the bubbles continue. If you install a gasket cut from a sheet of rubber-cork gasket material from the automotive supply store, the bubbles continue.
If, however, you replace the factory-installed gasket with an O-ring (15/16-inch outside diameter) from your local hardware store, the bubbles stop. Bingo!
Unfortunately, brass end caps are expensive. An alternate is a propane device that’s no longer functional (because it’s plugged, dented, etc.) – soldering tips and such that you pick up at yard sales. These devices can be mounted on a one-pounder in place of an end cap. Plus-or-minus an O-ring, they’ll stop leaks.
Another way to use a leaky cylinder is to store it (empty) until you need it, then refill it immediately before use. But that means you must leave the appliance attached to the cylinder until the propane is totally consumed. Else the leaking resumes.
Side Note: Brass end caps are used because brass is non-sparking. Flint and steel makes sparks. (Remember the old flintlock Kentucky rifles?) Even steel and steel makes sparks if you bang the pieces together just right. Sparks are a constant threat, a constant fear, around propane. But you can bang on brass all day long and not get any sparks. And that’s a good thing, a wonderful thing.
Let’s move on up the food chain. The next size larger tank after a one-pounder is a four-pounder. Actually, the so-called 4-pounder is 4¼ lbs. Seems like an odd increment but no doubt it was intended as a ‘one-gallon’ tank. One gallon of propane weighs 4.23 lbs. at 60º F.
One pounders have right-hand threads, are intended as disposable (not refillable), and lack the 80%-refill safety feature described in an earlier section.
All tanks from 4 to 40 lbs. have left-hand threads, are refillable, and do have the 80%-refill safety feature (called OPD or Overfill Protection Device).
In the 4-lb. to 40-lb. range, tanks made before 1998 lacked OPD. The shutoff knobs on the older tanks had a variety of shapes – round, 5-point star, 6-point star, etc. Those tanks are mostly gone now, retired when their certification dates expired. Plus, since 2002, they could not legally be refilled. They’ve effectively been bled out of the supply chain and have disappeared.
What remains in circulation (in the 4-lb. to 40-lb. range) are tanks with a standardized shutoff knob, triangular in shape and stamped ‘OPD’. Not only do OPD tanks have a float inside to prevent over-filling, if the valve is accidentally left open and the tank is not hooked up to anything, no gas comes out. Sweet.
Propane is sold in both pounds and gallons. The gas supplier who fills the big tank at your house will invoice you in gallons. Small tanks (20-pounders, for example) are filled and billed in pounds.
A ‘20-lb. cylinder’ is sized to hold 20 pounds of propane (net) when it is 80% full. So its ‘total’ capacity (theoretically) is 25 pounds (20 / 25 = .80). But the tank’s internal float prevents you from putting more than 20 pounds in it.
The empty or unladen weight of a container is its ‘tare weight.’ The tare weight of a propane cylinder is stamped on its collar. Pictured below is the collar of a nominal 20-lb. propane cylinder. ‘TW’ stands for tare weight. In this case, the tare weight is 16.6 lbs. (16 lbs. 10 oz.).
So if you removed this exact tank from your BBQ grill and weighed it, and it weighed 30 lbs., then you’d know it contained 13.4 lbs. of propane (30 – 16.6 = 13.4). And you’d know it contained 67% of its rated 20 lb. capacity (13.4 / 20 = .67).
When this tank is filled to capacity (20 lb.), it will weigh 36.6 lbs. (20 + 16.6 = 36.6). Anything below that indicates under filling. At the trade-in station where you turn in your empty tank (plus a few bucks) in exchange for a full one, you can weigh your new tank (giving you the gross weight), subtract the stamped tare weight from the gross, and see how much propane, net, is actually in your new tank. Wadda ya think? Will it be a full 20 lbs.? Or less than 20 lbs.?
Blue Rhino says about itself: “In 2008 . . . Blue Rhino followed the example of other consumer products companies [and] . . . reduced the amount of propane in our tanks from 17 pounds to 15 pounds.”
(This is nothing more nor less than the universal business model in action. After all, I can remember when a pound of coffee weighed 16 ounces instead of twelve. I believe this is what the communications people mean when they say, “The world is getting smaller.”)
Refillable tanks are certified for twelve years from the date of manufacture (stamped on the collar). At the end of twelve years they must be tested and recertified. The recertification is good for five additional years.
And how about the disposable one-pounders we want to refill? There is no collar. The date of manufacture is unknown. There is no recertification procedure. Translation. If you refill it, you’re on your own. I’m not saying, “Don’t do it.” But I am saying, “Be careful.”
Some years back, if you cooked with gas, having two 100-lb. tanks with changeover valves was SOP (standard operating procedure). That’s what I had as a married student back in the day, supplying my 12′ x 60′ house trailer.
Today, I have a 200-lb. tank owned by the gas company. My gas company waives any rental fee. Some companies charge. When I had 100-lb. tanks, I, myself, transported them to the vendor to get them refilled. Today, with a 200-lb. tank, the vendor sends the truck to me.
About the only place I see changeover valves (sometimes called switchover valves) these days is on RV’s where they use two 20-lb. tanks. (BBQ grills typically have one 20-lb. tank.)
With changeover valves, when tank #1 gets empty the valve automatically switches to tank #2. At that point you can shut off and remove tank #1, haul it away to get it refilled, and have supper cooking on tank #2 while tank #1 is off-line.
I once stayed with some folks in their travel trailer who had changeover valves but who didn’t understand them. Tank #1 ran out of gas. They shut everything off – I failed to convince them it was unnecessary – and, despite the fact that tank #2 was available, supper waited while someone drove to town, many miles on back roads, to fill tank #1. What part of h-u-n-g-r-y don’t you understand?
Newer changeover valves look different than the old-style valves but perform the same function. If you don’t understand how they work, there’s no harm in asking your gas supplier. YouTube also has some good tutorials; just search for ‘LPG changeover valves.’
Regulators are the heart of a propane system. Regulators keep the gas pressure to an appliance constant even though conditions change. Say it’s noon and 70º F outside. The pressure inside your propane tank is 145 PSI. You turn on a stove burner (to cook down a big pot of tomatoes from scratch, say) and set the burner on ‘medium.’ The sun comes out and by 1:00 PM it’s 90º F outside. Due to the increase in ambient temperature the pressure in your propane tank rises to 180 PSI.
But the flame at your stove is still ‘medium’ in size. Then your gas-fired hot water heater starts up. And your gas-fired clothes dryer shuts down. But even with demand bouncing around in addition to the change in tank pressure, the flame under your tomatoes remains ‘medium.’ Looks like magic to me.
Actually it takes two regulators to perform the magic. One regulator of the type pictured below is mounted on the big tank supplying your home. (The one pictured here even sends a radio signal to the delivery truck saying you need a refill.) In addition, each individual appliance (stove, fireplace, water heater, etc.) has its own secondary regulator.
With portable tanks and smaller devices there is only one regulator. Your BBQ grill has its own regulator (the 20-lb. supply tank has none). The one-burner stove that screws onto the top of a one-pound cylinder has a regulator (the one-pound supply cylinder has none). With these smaller devices the regulator is part of the appliance, not part of the fuel supply.
The RegO company (the name is derived from Regulator and Oxygen) has a free, downloadable, 52-page, LP-gas serviceman’s manual. It’s far more technical than this article but might be nice to tuck away for reference. It’s available here: RegO LP-gas serviceman’s manual.
In my house, we have a gas cook stove and a gas clothes dryer. One ½” copper pipe comes from the outside LP tank through the concrete-block wall into the basement and thence to a ‘T’ coupling. After that, each leg feeds one appliance. Simplicity itself.
Aside. When we bought our house, there was an electric range in the kitchen. We replaced it with propane so that we could cook normally during a blackout. Granted, in a blackout, the stove’s electronic sparking system does not spark and we must light the burners with a match. But I can handle that.
Back to our story. In a more complex setup (one propane tank feeding several apartments, for example) a manifold system (similar to what you have for water) is used. Such systems have large pipes near the source and progressively smaller pipes as you move further away from the source.
The RegO manual explains how to size such a manifolding system (plus tons of other stuff). More than you ever wanted to know.
Of more immediate concern is the issue (some would say myth) of unshielded copper tubing running through a concrete wall and being corroded by the concrete. To avoid that corrosion, some building codes around the country (not all) require plastic-coated tubing.
I once had an LP-gas serviceman install a new tank, look at the unshielded copper-to-concrete installation already in place, and tell me I needed to change it. He was new to both his company (who had actually performed the installation some years earlier) as well as to the area. He was simply citing the rules and regulations as he knew them from a different section of the country.
It appears that the well-intended serviceman was wrong. Radiant heating systems have had copper tubing buried in concrete for years. I suggest you to check it out yourself. Here’s a good place to start: Copper pipes “reacts chemically” with concrete a “myth”?.
Disposal of Empty Propane Cylinders
Unfortunately, I am completely stymied on the topic of cylinder disposal for one-pounders. I live in upstate New York (not the same as New York City). I Googled for ‘NYS propane tank disposal.’ Here are the first two results, top o’ the list, one from Westchester County and the other from Huntington, Long Island:
Barbecue and Propane Tanks“To dispose of a one to two pound propane barbecue tank: Residual gas should be burned off through proper use of the grill. Empty tanks may be disposed of in the garbage or on bulk pick-up days. Never include a 1 or 2 pound barbecue tank with your glass, plastic or metal recyclables.” [emphasis added]
Propane Tank Recycling“Town of Huntington, Long Island, New York . . . The Recycling Center will accept, at no charge, propane tanks sized up to 25 lbs. . . . Never put a propane tank out for trash collection with household garbage.” [emphasis added]
I feel so much better now that the disposal issue has been clarified. Of course the labels are helpful. “When empty discard in a safe place.” Or “appropriate place.”
Or maybe this one: “To discard, contact local refuse hauler or recycle center.”
So I called my refuse hauler. I really did expect them to be knowledgeable. After all, they have a hundred garbage trucks on the road at any given time. Maybe two hundred.
Turned out they didn’t have a clue. After a bit of phone-tag (and confirming I was talking about “the little green cylinders you hook up to camping lanterns”) they told me to contact Home Depot or Lowe’s and see what the people who sell these things suggest. You mean the clerk on duty in the sporting goods section of Wal-Mart is the final authority on this stuff? Really?
I also chased down the number of the county recycling center. Got an automated recording who never called me back. (Imagine that.)
There’s a theory in business management to the effect that, if management cannot decide something, then the decision, when push comes to shove, will be made at the lowest level in the organization (the machine operator typically). And the decision will be whatever is easiest for the guy making it.
So if the folks who make one-pounders cannot tell you how to dispose of the cylinder – nor can the vendor who sells it; nor can the trash collector; nor can the recycle center; nor can the internet; nor can the alphabet-soup government agencies – then the decision will be made by the customer. And it will be whatever is easiest for the customer.
Right or wrong, empty one-pounders will go in the trash and get set out with the garbage. In my heart of hearts, I’m sure it happens hundreds s if not thousands of times every day.
Tell me it ain’t so.
‘Purging’ is the act of flushing out the air inside a new (empty) tank and replacing it with propane. If the tank is not purged before its initial fill, the propane will be diluted with air and not up to the task of functioning as a fuel.
Purging is not a concern with one-pounders because they’re already filled with propane when we bring them home from the store.
There are actually three materials to consider in the purging process: propane, air, and the water vapor in the air.
The wrong way to purge a tank is to use liquid propane. When the first bit of liquid propane rushes into the empty, virgin tank it evaporates and turns to a gas. To turn from liquid to gas requires heat. The heat is drawn from the sidewalls of the tank. Any water vapor in the air quickly coats the inside of the tank with ice. After the air is expelled, the ice remains. Which leaves you with water in your propane. In case you didn’t already know it, water does not burn well when it reaches the flame in your appliance.
The new tank should therefore be purged or flushed out with gaseous propane. And it needs to be flushed out four times.
After the first flushing (accomplished by filling the receiving-tank to 15 psig with gaseous propane then exhausting the vapor to the atmosphere), the tank contains a 50/50 mix of air and propane.
After the second flushing, the tank contains 75% propane and 25% air.
After the third flushing, the tank contains 87.5% propane and 12.5% air.
After the fourth flushing, the tank contains 93.75% propane and 6.25% air.
And that’s adequate. At that point the new tank can be disconnected from the gaseous-propane line, hooked up to a liquid-propane line, and filled.
Coming Up Next
In the next part of this series (Part Three) we’ll cut to the chase and and describe the refilling of one-pounders (in other words, how you do the doin’).
Also included will be brief sections on the economics of refilling (does it save enough to pay?) and the legalities of refilling. Should be interesting, no?”
… to be continued © Ron Brown 2014
Sources – For Reference Purposes
As he did in Part 1, Ron has provided a list of items available at Amazon that are footnoted above. They may or may not be precisely the items/brands displayed in the article. Part Two has just a single item.
 End Caps: Mac Coupler Propane Bottle Cap MacCaps (End Caps)
The Final Word
No one was more surprised than I was to learn that there are no standards for the disposal of those one pound cylinders. Who would have guessed?
Knowing that, of course, we can all begin to think about what we will do with those used-up cylinders. If you are like me, you will want to hang on to them as we learn, in an upcoming article, how to fill them ourselves from larger tanks. Then again, maybe not. I am looking forward to Ron telling us how to do so safely given the risks involved.
With his usual wit and humor, there is still a lot more Ron will be sharing with us in Propane for Preppers so stay tuned!
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
PS: You might want to check out the page I created featuring Ron’s books. Every single one of them is a worthwhile investment in practical and useful knowledge. Meet Ron Brown!
If you enjoyed this article, consider voting for me daily at Top Prepper Websites!
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.
CRL Standard Propane Fuel Cylinder: These are the standard14.1 ounce propane cylinders that are used with propane torches and most portable propane appliances. Also referred to as Bernz-O-Matic soldering cylinders .
Mag-Torch MT200C Propane Pencil Flame Burner Torch: Useful on leaky canisters, this small and inexpensive propane torch will also do a great job of starting campfires even in windy situations.
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 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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