This is the fifth and final installment in the series Propane for Preppers. During the course of these five articles, you have learned the technical aspects of propane as well as how to store and use propane safely. Of great interest to many of you has been the detailed primer on how to refill small portable cylinders from larger tanks.
Throughout the series, the emphasis has been on common sense, practicality, and above all else, safety.
In this final article, we are going to recap and expand upon the issue of carbon monoxide plus discuss propane fires and the double standard that seemingly appears to exist in the universe of propane safety.
Propane for Preppers is a 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 Five
Our series on propane comes to an end with this installment. In it, I’m going to reopen the topic of carbon monoxide. Gaye forwarded a letter to me that reveals just how troublesome and conflicted (not to mention huge) this topic is. After seeing the letter, I realized my time would be better spent addressing this concern than any other.
Here’s the letter:
I started reading up about propane stove/burners and carbon monoxide. There’s a ton of conflicting advise on the internet about those two. Even the Mr. Buddy Heater threads have some people who argue about how best to use it and where not to. For instance, some people say they are meant for indoor construction sites, not for enclosed rooms.
I used one years ago during a power outage. The room was 12×12 and adjoined a 12 x 10 room and a 10 x 10 room, I still got a bit of a headache from it. I think it was on that thread I read someone say not to use a natural gas oven to heat a room. I used one once for that purpose. Had no ill effects. I went on to read how some Yahoo asked what’s the difference between a propane camping stove and a natural gas oven, IMHO he never got a clear answer. Someone replied that the natural gas ovens are vented as being the difference, which is clearly false, at least the several natural gas ovens I’ve used didn’t have any kind of venting.
I read on a tiny house blog where some people say don’t worry about using propane stove/burners in enclosed spaces, one guy mentioned how millions of people in Asia use propane everyday with no ill effects. Older people chime in and say how they used them in the old days in the United States, in contrast to those who freak out about the very idea of using a propane device inside.Then there’s the fellas using the Coleman dual fuel camping stoves in the back of a camper or in a tiny house with no ill effects. While other guys insist on running a hose through the wall to an outside tank for their propane stoves, and yet still more guys just run a hose under the kitchen sink to their 20lb. tank.
The beer brewing guys talk about the subject quite a bit. Seems a lot of them use turkey fryers in their garages and some of them would prefer to brew in the basement during the Winter. They ask themselves: will propane work?
I came across an imported wok propane burner, it could get to 100,000 BTU. Pretty impressive, but way too hot for my needs.
I looked at the RV drop-in and slide-in propane stove top burners. On the BTU side, they seemed to all run a little low. Campers they are used in – are enclosed – yet, I didn’t read about anyone freaking out about the use of them. I’m considering building a wooden box one can drop or slide into so I can use it on the kitchen counter top.
I found a propane single burner on Amazon which was listed as safe for indoor use. In the Q & A section it appeared the manufacturer was saying the reason they are safe for indoor use is that they are small and only give off a small amount of carbon monoxide. Then I read elsewhere how some people say the only real danger from using a Coleman propane camping stove inside is from using it too long, from trying to heat a room or house, and from leaving it unattended. I get the idea it’s ok to use one if a window is open a crack.
(In contrast, one guy on the beer brewing thread said he kept a garage door open two feet – and a backdoor open – and still got high carbon monoxide readings on his detector inside his house after using his propane turkey fryer).
On the Coleman website, in the description of some of the propane camping stoves, it says, use during emergencies. I’m guessing this is their way of saying they’re not going to say it’s safe to use indoors, but you might be just fine.? The rest of the stoves simply state something like, “for outdoor use only”. I wonder if there’s a difference between the two groups or if it’s just worded differently?
This subject would make a good follow up to the propane series. (Hint. Hint.)
I also came across a company which sells (imported from India) small kerosene single burner stoves, they looked like they might be worthwhile. However; the importer does caution that they come from a third world country and might be a bit banged up, dinged, scratched or have a bit of rust. Millions(?) of people use them with great success though.
I need to read some more. Pardon me if that was a bit long winded and sloppy, the subject matter is rather wide.
It is, indeed, a wide-ranging topic. Please be advised that, in reopening the carbon monoxide discussion, I must repeat some of what was presented in Propane for Preppers, Part Four.
First, please know that whatever I say, some people will agree with me, some will disagree, and some will be confused. And feelings will run high. So let me first present a bit of ‘philosophy’ (for lack of a better term).
Rationalizing is “the attempt to explain or justify one’s behavior or attitude with logical, plausible reasons, even when those reasons are not true or appropriate.”
People can rationalize just about anything. Consider a ‘discussion’ I had with my brother-in-law. We’d been talking awhile and at one point he commented, “Aw, that’s just conspiracy theory. I don’t believe any conspiracy theories.”
In the interest of reasonableness, I said, “Sam, we all participate in conspiracies. How about Santa Claus? All adults conspire about Santa. We all lie to our children . . .”
He interrupted. “Santa Clause is REAL. Santa Claus is the spirit . . .”
“No, Sam! I’m not talking about the ‘spirit of giving.’ I’m saying there is no fat man dressed in a red outfit trimmed in fur that lives at the North Pole . . .”
My sister rose to her husband’s defense. “How do YOU know? How do you know there isn’t a fat man in a red suit living at the North Pole. Can you prove to me there isn’t?”
The point to this little narrative is that human beings can rationalize just about anything. War, torture, propane safety, Santa Claus, anything.
Continuing for a moment with the philosophy bit, we all seek perfection but perfection does not exist on this earth, in this realm.
I can give you (what I think) is good advice about marriage. Raising children. Driving a car. Running a factory. It will be good advice but not perfect. There are no absolutes.
Ditto for propane safety. Ditto for carbon monoxide.
Stupid stuff happens in committee meetings. That means stupid stuff sometimes appears on product labels. And stupid stuff sometimes appears in government regulations. Do you think the Coleman company, when speaking in public on matters of safety and carbon monoxide, is divinely withheld from error? How about OSHA?
You can rationalize it however you want.
What Are the Risks Surrounding Propane?
● Inhaling propane vapors
● Oxygen depletion
● Inhaling products of combustion (carbon monoxide)
● Fire and explosion
● Frostbite from a cylinder leaking liquid propane
Frostbite was covered in the 3rd installment of ‘Propane for Preppers’ where we described the refilling of one-pounders. The other four items are discussed below.
Inhaling Propane Vapors
A little puff of gas always escapes when you turn on the kitchen stove burner. Sometimes you can even smell it. The same thing happens when connecting or disconnecting a one-pounder to a camp stove or lantern. Inhaling some of it is virtually unavoidable. The question is, how much harm does it do you?
In answer, propane, although non-toxic, is an asphyxiant gas meaning it can replace oxygen and suffocate you. Teenagers have been known to inhale propane in an attempt to get high. They put a plastic bag over a BBQ tank, fill the bag with propane, then inhale from the bag. Unfortunately, when their lungs are full of propane, oxygen is blocked from entering the lungs.
Here’s the tricky part. Our urge to breathe is triggered by a high level of carbon dioxide in the air. Our body knows that if carbon dioxide is high then oxygen must be low. And so our body tells us that it’s time to breathe. However, propane displaces the carbon dioxide in our lungs right along with the oxygen; a high level of carbon dioxide never exists. So our body never gets the signal to breathe. What was that 911 number again?
Propane is heavier than air and pools in the bottom of your lungs (blocking oxygen absorption into your bloodstream). The burner on your kitchen stove is lower than your face so you inhale a minimal amount. When you attach/detach one-pounders from your camp stove or soldering torch you can position the fittings (and any escaping gas) lower than your face. You can also hold your breath for a moment to avoid inhaling propane. You can also (it seems to me; I’ve never read this anywhere) stand on your head and take a few deep breaths. The same gravity that deposited propane in the bottom of your lungs should remove it, no?
The burners on your kitchen gas stove consume oxygen. So does the oven. So does your wood stove. So does your lantern – whether it burns kerosene or propane or Coleman fuel.
Your wood stove has a chimney and is thus ‘vented.’ Venting gets rid of unwanted products of combustion. Your gas range in the kitchen (typically four burners plus an oven) is not vented. But whether an appliance is vented or not, the oxygen it uses in the burning process comes from the inside air.
Outside air is 21% oxygen. Inside air is something below that. You, your wood stove, your birthday candles, your girlfriend, and the family dog all compete for the available oxygen. If the oxygen level is depleted too far you suffer ‘oxygen starvation.’
You say you feel ‘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.
The fix is easy. Ditch the girlfriend. Well, okay. Open a window. Let in some fresh air.
Oxygen starvation (having nothing whatsoever to do with propane) can occur at high altitudes where the air is ‘thin.’ If you ignore the symptoms, long-term consequences in such an environment can be blindness and heart failure.
But that’s the long-term extreme. As far as propane appliances are concerned (your kitchen stove, for example), the fix is easy. Open a window. Let in some fresh air.
Inhaling the Products of Combustion
As a youngster, I was repeatedly lectured on the dangers of carbon monoxide. Why? Because my mother had two schoolmates die from carbon monoxide poisoning. It made quite an impression on her tiny high school graduating class of twelve students.
The victims had been out ‘parking’ in a Model A Ford. Heat for the Model A was pulled from the exhaust manifold. It was a poor design, well known for leaking exhaust gases. In this case it was fatal.
This, our fifth and last installment on propane, began with longish letter reflecting a lot of confusion and contradictory advice about carbon monoxide. I’m going to TRY and clear up some of the confusion. Wish me luck.
A Primer On Propane – Because it is Important
Carbon monoxide is produced when something burns with insufficient oxygen being present.
That seems simple enough but rapidly becomes confusing. Things that smolder when they burn (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, charcoal briquettes, incense) give off large amounts of carbon monoxide. If you want to test your carbon monoxide detector, bring a burning stick of incense nearby. The detector will SCREAM!
But why do these things smolder? After all, they have oxygen. They have access to the same air that we’re breathing.
The answer is that they don’t have ENOUGH oxygen. Each material has its own threshold of how much oxygen is required to burn with an open flame. Firewood will burn with the amount of oxygen found in the open air. Tobacco will not. Nor will steel.
An oxyacetylene cutting torch, for example, doesn’t MELT a hole in steel. It BURNS a hole in steel. In a pure oxygen atmosphere, steel burns. Think about all the restrictions around medical patients who are on oxygen. Various materials will ignite and burn in a high-oxygen atmosphere that won’t burn, or will only smolder, in our regular atmosphere.
So let me say it again. Carbon monoxide is produced when something burns with insufficient oxygen being present. That means insufficient oxygen for the material at hand, for the material that is burning.
There are three ways that a condition of ‘insufficient oxygen’ can come about.
(1) To burn with an open flame, the fuel in question (tobacco, for example) needs more oxygen than is present in ordinary air. We just covered that.
(2) The device (a stove burner, for example) can be out of adjustment; the fuel/air ratio can be incorrect. With propane, a ‘lean’ burn can be recognized when flames lift away from the burner and tend to go out. A ‘rich’ burn results in large flames, yellow in color. (Propane flames should be blue.) Both rich and lean burns reveal incomplete combustion and imply the production of carbon monoxide.
(3) In an enclosed area (room, cellar, garage, shed), combustion can deplete the available oxygen with the result that carbon monoxide (CO) is produced. It’s produced as a byproduct of combustion rather than the normally-produced carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide is nontoxic and harmless to breathe.
Note that in this last scenario carbon monoxide can be produced even when the appliances are properly adjusted. When the oxygen is ‘depleted’ or partially used up it means there’s not enough to go around. And in the combustion process it takes less oxygen to make CO (with one oxygen atom) than it does to make CO2 (with two oxygen atoms). So, in a situation with limited oxygen, CO is what gets made.
Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. That’s what makes it so dangerous. It sneaks up on you.
Hemoglobin is the principle oxygen-carrying compound in your blood. Unfortunately, the attraction or affinity between CO and hemoglobin is many times stronger than the affinity between oxygen and hemoglobin so CO displaces the oxygen in your bloodstream. Your brain and heart do not get the oxygen that they need. You die.
Headache is the most common symptom of acute carbon monoxide poisoning. (Acute means ‘brief and severe.’) With oxygen depletion you are pale and confused; with carbon monoxide, you have a headache.
Keep in mind the principles outlined above when reading the warnings on product labels. You’ll find today’s restrictions are more severe than the restrictions in years past. And safety restrictions in the USA are more severe than the restrictions in other countries.
Personally, I believe this results from lawsuits over the years and from companies trying to protect themselves with CYA (Cover Your Fanny) statements. They don’t want to get hauled into court so, to preempt that possibility, they say ‘never’ do this and ‘never’ do that. With the blanket word ‘never’ they try and protect themselves from lawsuits. At least that’s my opinion.
Here are a couple of examples.
Coleman one-pounders circa 1980 caution that “Refilling can be hazardous.” Also, “Do not store . . . where temperatures exceed 130º F.” Today, Coleman one-pounders say, “Never refill this cylinder. Refilling may cause explosion.” Plus today’s storage limit is set at 120º F.
So is it 120º or 130º? Is today’s propane really different than yesterday’s propane?
A 20-pound tank in the USA corresponds to a 9-kilogram tank in the metric world. (Nine kilograms equals 19.84 lbs.) In New Zealand, per their Environmental Protection Authority regulations: “The typical portable domestic LPG cylinder holds 9 kg. This is the largest cylinder you are allowed to have inside your home.”
A Worthington (brand) 20-lb. tank in the USA is labeled thusly: “For outdoor use only. Do not use or store cylinder in a building, garage, or enclosed area.”
Why are New Zealand tanks safer than American tanks?
Joking aside, to be absolutely honest, I can’t rationalize this stuff.
Extinguishing a Propane Fire
The topic of propane fires is another toughie. If you Google for ‘extinguishing a propane fire’ the results are all over the map. At the top of the list will be directions for how to extinguish a fire on your propane BBQ grill. Unfortunately, a fire fueled by hamburger grease is confused with a fire fueled by propane.
On YouTube you’ll see various groups of firemen practice turning off the propane valve on a large tank engulfed in flame. Five men hunker behind a 550-gallon-per-minute water spray, advance to the tank, shut off the valve, and retreat. The exercise is only worthwhile, of course, if the propane leak (the source of fuel for the flame) comes after the valve.
Explosions are rare but do happen. One classic incident was the 1998 Turkey Farm fire in Albert City, Iowa. An ATV (all-terrain vehicle) struck an above-ground pipe carrying propane. The pipe leaked. The propane caught on fire. The pipe was hooked to an 18,000 gallon tank. The firemen thought that if they stayed away from the ends of the tank they would be out of the line of fire should the tank blow up.
Explanation: The tank was sausage-shaped. The fireman thought that, should the tank blow, the north end would go north and the south end would go south and the body would hold. They didn’t expect any debris to travel sideways. Oops.
They were wrong. The tank did blow up. Pieces of tank flew randomly in all directions. Two firemen were killed. Seven were injured.
Another famous case was in Ghent, West Virginia (2007). An old 500-gallon propane tank was being replaced with a new 500-gallon tank. A technician removed a plug that should not have been removed. It caused a leak. There was an explosion. Four people were killed. Six were injured.
These two examples notwithstanding, explosions are rare. And that fact is a testament to the propane industry.
Explosions are rare because every propane tank of every size, from one-pounders on up, have a pressure relief valve. In a fire, the tank heats, the pressure rises, the relief valve opens, propane exits the cylinder, is ignited, and forms a tower of flame like a fireworks fountain. It’s visually impressive but very rarely does a tank go BOOM!
From what I’ve read, it is virtually impossible to extinguish a propane fire in a large tank. On small scale, the Coleman one-pounder label says: “IN CASE OF FIRE (1) Leave area quickly. Call for help. (2) Let cylinder burn out.”
Translation: Evacuate the area. Call Ghost Busters. Don’t mess with it yourself. Let the pros take over.
The Rest of the Story
Went to a lawn party. 15-year-old came around asking for a lighter. He’d been assigned the task of grilling the hamburgers. Of course he’d never cooked hamburgers before in his life. And never lit a gas grill for that matter. I offered matches. “No. I’ll burn myself with those.” As it turned out, nobody in the politically-correct group carried a cigarette lighter. So I followed him back to the grill with my matches.
He had turned the gas on before he went looking for a lighter. I could hear the hiss of escaping gas as well as smell something. Sauerkraut? After pondering the choices I decided that propane was the more likely candidate. I had him turn off the gas. We fanned the area as best we could to dissipate the gas that had already escaped. I lit a match and held it near the burner. He turned on the gas. Poof! He jumped. It singed the hair off the back of my knuckles.
“Well,” I told him, “poof is better than whump! That’s when you lose your eyebrows.” He didn’t smile.
I explained that you should light the match first and then turn the gas on. If it blows the match out (because of air in the line), turn the gas off and light a second match. Don’t turn the gas on first and then fumble around looking for matches. That’s the wrong way ’round. That’s where poof and whump and KA-BOOM originate.
He didn’t smile. He didn’t speak. He didn’t have to. The body language he’d been practicing for all of his fifteen years made his message abundantly clear. “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do.”
His hostility was rewarded moments later with a dose of karma. Hamburger grease dripped into the grill . . . and the flames rose to his shoulders . . . and the smoke wafted across the yard and across the porch and into the house and set off the smoke detector . . . and there was much running to and fro.
And, yes, this is a true story. And I (for one of the few times in my own life) followed directions.
I evacuated the area. (I joined a bunch of people elsewhere in the yard.)
I called Ghost Busters (also known as the boy’s parents).
I did not mess around with it myself. I let the pros handle it. And they did a great job. That’s what parents are for. God bless ’em.
Remember my brother-in-law Sam from the beginning of this article?
Turns out that when Sam was first married he lit a gas oven in the kitchen stove using a match. Like my 15-year-old friend in the story above, he turned on the gas before he went searching for matches. He found some. He struck one. The propane picked him up, carried him across the kitchen, and deposited him on the floor. His hair was gone so he got a wig in his Christmas stocking. That’s where his adult belief in Santa Claus originated.
© Ron Brown 2015
The Final Word
I hope you have enjoyed this series on Propane for Preppers. As with all things preparedness, knowledge is power and with Ron’s help, I am thrilled to share with you enough information to allow you to safely use and store propane. Learning to refill small, one-pound cylinders has been a bonus!
For many, having propane to use for heat and cooking with surely help us make it through any sort of future event of a disruptive nature aka “disruptive event”. Of course, using propane safely day to day is important too. Be well and be safe!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Coleman 2 Burner Dual Fuel Compact Liquid Fuel Stove: The Coleman stove operates on clean-burning Coleman Fuel or unleaded gas and one tank gives you two hours of burn time. This stove can boil a quart of water in four minutes. For some, this is a viable alternative to propane.
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.
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When most people start thinking about family preparedness, they focus on food. Not shelter, gear, sanitation, power, self-defense or the myriad of other concerns that need to be addressed following an emergency or disaster situation. Quite simply, food is the number one concern people have second only to their concern for having an adequate supply of water. The Prepper’s Guide to Food Storage is a book about food: What to store, how to store it and best practices. It is a roadmap for showing ordinary citizens that long-term food storage is not something that will overwhelm or burden the family budget. This book is based upon my own tried and true personal experience as someone who has learned to live the preparedness lifestyle by approaching emergency preparedness and planning in a systematic, step-by-step manner. Nothing scary and nothing overwhelming - you really can do this!
A Practical Guide to Storing Food For the Long Term
99 cents for the eBook – also available in print!
When most people start thinking about family preparedness, they focus on food. Not shelter, gear, sanitation, power, self-defense or the myriad of other concerns that need to be addressed following an emergency or disaster situation. Quite simply, food is the number one concern people have second only to their concern for having an adequate supply of water.
The Prepper’s Guide to Food Storage is a book about food: What to store, how to store it and best practices. It is a roadmap for showing ordinary citizens that long-term food storage is not something that will overwhelm or burden the family budget.
This book is based upon my own tried and true personal experience as someone who has learned to live the preparedness lifestyle by approaching emergency preparedness and planning in a systematic, step-by-step manner. Nothing scary and nothing overwhelming - you really can do this!