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Propane Safety - Summer Barbecues

Steak cooking on gas grill

It’s a warm summer weekend and you are basking in the sun on your deck with your family, enjoying a cold drink and the enticing smell of a sizzling steak on the barbeque. The last thought on your mind is safety, right?

It shouldn’t be. According to a recent U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report, warm weather activities such as hosting a barbeque led to product-related injuries of more than 3.7 million people in the summer months of a single year – 836,000 injuries more than the winter months that same year.

The dangers of propane (Liquid Propane Gas) are vastly understated and poorly understood. But with a few precautionary steps, you can ensure a safe barbeque every time. Barbeques with family and friends are great fun, but make sure you follow the safety tips below:

Propane Containers
Most propane containers or cylinders weigh between 4 pounds and 40 pounds and contain an Overfill Protection Device (OPD) that prevents the accidental overfilling of propane. A propane cylinder is overfilled if it contains more than 80% liquid propane gas. Since 1998, all propane cylinders in this weight range have been required to contain an OPD. If you have an old propane cylinder, inspect it carefully and you will see a date of manufacture. If your cylinder was manufactured before 1998, discard it in a safe fashion after venting all the propane. Using a propane container without an OPD is an accident waiting to happen.

While the 1998 law required all propane cylinders under 40 pounds to have an OPD, propane containers in excess of 40 pounds do not require an OPD. Larger cylinders are not typically used for barbeques, but they are often used in other common applications, such as stoves, gas fireplaces, welding, construction, pottery, and heating trailers, mobile homes and garages.

Sadly, the propane industry successfully lobbied against the installation of OPDs in propane cylinders over 40 pounds, so larger cylinders have an inherent danger of being overfilled if not filled with extreme caution (see the side panel for a study on 100-pound cylinders and their unique hazards).

Transportation of Propane Cylinders
Always transport your propane cylinder in an upright position. Your propane cylinder has a pressure relief valve designed to vent propane vapor if excessive pressure builds up inside the cylinder. Under normal circumstances with a properly filled cylinder, the pressure relief valve, which is typically set at 375 psi, will not open. The vapor inside a cylinder would have to be heated to about 160 degrees Fahrenheit to reach that pressure, and this would only occur when the cylinder is exposed to extreme temperatures, such as exposure to fire.

But the pressure relief valve only works if the propane cylinder is in an upright position. If a propane cylinder is lying horizontal and the pressure relief valve opens, liquid propane gas will escape, not vapor. This fact is little known, and extremely significant, as liquid propane gas expands 270 times when it reaches the atmosphere, and thus the potential for a catastrophic propane accident is much greater if the cylinder is transported or stored horizontally.

If you are planning to take your propane cylinder to a gas station or other place to be filled, try to go directly to the facility, get it filled and then return home. Do not let your recently filled propane cylinder sit inside your car or trunk for several hours on a hot day, as this is inviting danger.

Inspection of Propane Cylinders and Equipment
Inspect your propane cylinders each year for dents, gouges, corrosion, leaks or extreme rust. Also check your hoses on your grill for brittleness, leaks, holes or cracks. If you find any of these problems, it is time to replace your equipment.

Storage of Propane Cylinders
Always store your propane cylinder in an upright position, and never store any filled cylinders in your home. If you keep extra propane cylinders on hand, store them in a cool place away from any water heaters or other potential sources of heat or ignition.

Use of Propane Cylinders
After you are done barbequing, always turn off your valve to your propane cylinder. Get in the habit of opening and closing your propane valve after every use. Leaving your propane valve open all the time runs the risk of propane escaping.

If You Hear Your Propane Tank Hiss, Stay Away
If a propane container is overfilled, the pressure relief valve will open and vent propane vapor into the air. Without a nearby source of ignition, the propane valve will vent, and if properly working, close after it discharges the excess pressure. But if you ever hear your propane cylinder “hiss” or “whistle,” stay away and keep clear. Do not try to inspect or turn any valve on your cylinder—the danger is simply too great. If the hissing continues for more than 30 seconds, call 911. It is better to be safe than sorry.

Eliminate The Danger of Propane By Going To Natural Gas
Finally, if you are thinking of getting a new barbeque, go with one that can accommodate a natural gas line. The cost of running a natural gas line to your barbeque is only a few hundred dollars. You will save money in the long run, never have to deal with the potential dangers of propane, and never run out of fuel in the midst of a summer party.

Bear in mind the above safety tips, and barbeque safely to enjoy your summer.