Most RVers use propane for heat, refrigeration, hot water, or cooking. Since regulations change over time you can get the most current information on propane regulation at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) site. Veteran RVers generally develop a routine for checking the safety of their propane systems. Each task on your RV checklist is important and worth taking care of thoroughly, especially taking care of your RV propane tank.
RV tanks sizes vary, but 20 lb. and 30 lb. tanks are among the common sizes. These tanks are sometimes described in terms of the volume they hold in gallons. For example, the 20 lb. tank is sometimes referred to as a 5-gallon tank, although this isn't the most accurate way of describing size. A 20 lb. tank actually holds closer to 4.7 gallons. It's more accurate to refer to tank sizes by the number of pounds of propane they hold rather than gallons. Propane tanks are filled to 80 percent capacity, leaving a safety cushion of 20 percent for gaseous expansion.
RVers need to be aware of several propane tank features because these features affect the safety of your propane system and determine how you maintain and manage the system:
- Characteristics of propane
- Propane tank and system safety and inspections
- Pressure gauge
- Overfill protection device (OPD)
- Tank color
Characteristics of Propane
Propane is maintained under pressure inside the tank in a liquid state at -44 degrees F., its boiling point. At warmer than -44 degrees propane vaporizes into the gaseous state suitable for burning.
If you see a white fog leaking from your propane tank or any connection point this indicates a leak as this is the visual appearance of low-temperature propane vapor. Because it is so cold it can easily cause frostbite, so don't try to repair the leak yourself. Call a propane dealer immediately, avoid using anything electrical or that can cause a spark, and stay far away from the leak.
Propane Tank and System Safety and Inspections
Your tanks need to be strong enough to contain the pressure required to maintain propane in a liquid state. Dents, rust, scrapes, gouges, and weakened valve connectors can be potential points for propane leaks under pressure.
Consequently, you need to have your tanks inspected periodically by a Railroad Commission-licensed propane gas supplier. Some RVers have theirs inspected by the supplier where they have their tanks filled, but some RV dealers are also qualified to do both tank inspection and inspect your RV's entire propane system. Annual inspections are wise for RV propane systems, but tanks should be certified at least every five years.
Your pressure gauge indicates how full your tank is in fractions: 1/4, 1/2, or 3/4 full. Because temperature variations affect pressure as the tank volume changes, these readings can be slightly inaccurate. Inaccuracy increases as the volume decreases. You will develop a sense of how long your propane will last after you use a few tanks. This will also depend upon whether you use your propane for heating your water only, or also to power your refrigerator, heater, and stove, too.
Overfill Protection Device (OPD)
The OPD is required on all propane tanks up to 40-pound capacity on tanks manufactured after September 1998. There is conflicting information saying that tanks manufactured prior to that date, particularly ASME horizontal tanks, were grandfathered in per NFPA link above. However, an article by Foremost Insurance states that old cylinders can no longer be refilled without installing an OPD. Some suppliers won't fill these tanks. Check the NFPA site for current regulations.
There are a number of connections and fittings that attach to your propane tank and propane system within your RV. These should be checked periodically. Annually inspections are recommended, especially for your RV system. Some tank inspections are good for five years.
Propane tank color may not seem to be anything more than a cosmetic concern or an incidental manufacturer's choice, but the color is important. Light colors reflect heat, dark ones absorb heat. You want your tanks to reflect heat so don't give in to the temptation to paint them a dark color, even if it would perfectly complement your rig.
You may find that your propane refills are handled differently as you travel around the country. Different states might have different regulations, in addition to federal regulations concerning propane tanks. Texas, for example, requires its propane suppliers to use three measures for determining a full tank. These include being weighed on a scale, using the OPD, and the fixed liquid level gauge.
Propane Leak Detector
Every RV should have a working propane leak detector placed inside the RV. Propane gas can leak from stoves, heaters, refrigerators or water heaters. It can leak from any connector on the propane system and can leak from any break in the lines feeding these appliances. If you smell propane, or if your propane leak detector alarms, get out of the RV immediately. Don't turn on or off any electrical devices, and avoid causing sparks. Once at a safe distance from your RV, call a propane service professional, and if necessary, alert your neighbors whose RVs may be at risk should a fire break out.
Traveling with Propane
Driving with propane turned off may seem to be a no-brainer, but forgetting to turn your propane tanks off before traveling is one mistake that is easy to make. It's illegal to have your vehicle in motion with your propane tank valves open, and most definitely a risk when traveling through tunnels. It doesn't take much imagination to realize the impossibility of escape from a burning RV in a tunnel, on a bridge, or on the highway, anywhere. Play it safe and prevent fires.