Propane – A Metro Prepper’s Best Friend

In addition to grilling a killer steak, propane can be a metro prepper’s best friend. Propane can save your life, or simply make it more comfortable, during a disaster. In this article, we’ll cover all the ins and outs of propane, helping you (safely) maximize its potential for yourself and your family.

It illuminates. It cooks. It heats. It’s safe, portable and readily available. Despite all these advantages there are some downsides, most notably, cost. First, compared to other fuels propane is relatively expensive. When you add in the price of tanks necessary to properly store it, your wallet is going to take a bit of a hit. Second, safety. As is the case with any combustible fuel, you have to be careful. You have to know how to safely store it. You have to know how to safely use it. This is especially true if you intend to use it indoors.

So what’s propane?

Propane is a liquefied petroleum gas. A by-product of crude oil refining and natural gas processing, propane burns cleaner than gasoline but not as clean as natural gas. Its low boiling point of -44 degrees F makes it extremely popular. While stored in a tank it remains in liquid form. When the release valve is opened in instantly converts to combustible vapor. It’s user friendly and needs no complex priming or pumping before you’re good to go. Propane just works. It’s an extremely versatile fuel that heats many rural homes, powers refrigerators and vehicles, and has a variety of commercial applications.

But how is this relevant to me?

Well, for starters, many of us simply don’t have a ton of options when it comes to alternative sources for heat and electricity. Automatic standby/backup generators, rooftop solar arrays and even (going to the most basic of all fuels) burning chopped firewood aren’t viable options for many living in metro areas. If the electrical grid went down or the gas stopped flowing, we need realistic options to keep warm, boils water, etc..

While seeing massive propane tanks is common in rural America, most urban / suburban residents are more familiar the 20 lb. steel propane tanks found underneath many gas grills. Unless you live in a high rise without a balcony, you probably have one out back. Although tanks come in a variety of sizes, the 20 lb. tank is by far the most common. Many people are also familiar with the smaller propane canisters used when camping to light lanterns and camp stoves. These 16.4 ounce canisters are available in most gas stations, hardware stores and larger stores. They have an internal valve that automatically seals the canister when you disconnect them.

If your electricity and heat were to go out right now, doing nothing else, your BBQ grill could be your lifeline to boiling water, warming your hands and cooking some food. But with some additional preparation, you can use propane more efficiently and do much more.

Understanding Your Options

So what’s better for a metro prepper – 20 lb. tanks or small 1 lb. canisters? That’s up to you. My guess is your need will be driven by what appliances you’re looking to power. Most preppers will likely want a mix of both. While 20 lb. tanks efficiently store more fuel than a whole heap of smaller canisters, those small canisters are easier to move around, especially if you have multiple appliances to power.

One thing to also keep in mind is the 20 lb. and 1 lb. tanks have completely different valves. To use my 20 lb. tank with gear that only takes the small canisters, I use an adapter hose.

If you’re in need of a 20 lb. steel tank, they can be rather pricey. Rather than buy new, check out a local garage sale, Craigslist, or Buy Sell & Trade. Get one on the cheap and then do a tank exchange at your local grocery or drug store. Just insist that the person doing the exchange grabs the best tank available. They’ll probably look at you all annoyed, but a nearly new tank is worth a dagger stare.

Stored propane is a prep. Look at your grilling propane only as a bonus. When inventorying my preps I don’t include the propane that I use when grilling out back. I look at that fuel just like food in my pantry, which goes up and down according to grocery store visits. As I don’t know when a disaster will strike, I don’t include it. Last thing I want is an empty tank and no heat.

Incredibly Useful Propane Preps

Please check back in the near future. I’m currently researching indoor safe propane products and will update this post soon!

Refilling Versus Exchanging Propane Tanks

For an in depth discussion of whether to refill or exchange propane tanks, please see our post on The Economics of Exchanging Versus Refilling Propane Tanks.

Determining How Much Propane Is Left In A Tank

To determine how much propane is in your tank simply check your tank for an imprinted stamp that says “Tare Weight” or “T.W.”. The number next to this imprint is the weight of that particular tank when it’s completely empty. Simply weight the tank, subtract the tare weight, and that’s the weight of the propane. If you like math and want to convert that weight to gallons, 4.24 pounds of propane equals 1 gallon.

If you just want a ballpark estimate with less effort, just gently pour a warm glass of water down the side of the tank and then feel the tank. The liquid propane in the tank will absorb the warmth of the water, making the tank feel cool to the touch. Moving your hand up, when the tank starts feeling warm, that’s about where the propane level is inside the tank.

Don’t care to do either? There’s a product on the market called the Dometic Gas Checker that’ll do all this for you.

Storing Propane

It’s recommended (and legally required) that you also store propane in a well ventilated area outside your home away from heat sources. Why? A standard 20 lb. steel propane tank contains enough fuel to produce 300 cubic meters of vapor. As propane is denser than air, if there’s a leak, propane vapors (or liquid) would accumulate near the floor. If stored inside such a high concentration could meet pilot lights of your appliances, furnace or water heater. And boom goes the dynamite. Choose the lowest outdoor location available to minimize the chance of vapor pooling. And certainly choose a location nowhere near possible ignition.

It’s also recommended you store propane tanks on a flat surface such as concrete where water cannot pool. Storing tanks on or near water can cause the tanks to rust, which in turn can erode the integrity of the tank.

When storing tanks you must keep them upright so the valve touches the interior vapor rather than liquid propane. By law all propane tanks from 4 to 40 pounds have an overfilling prevention device (OPD) valve. These valves do exactly that – prevent overfilling. But they’re also engineered to only release propane when the tank’s internal valve is activated. Even if you cranked the valve completely open, unless your tank is actually connected to something, no propane will release. Pretty amazing engineering. But as nothing is failure proof, better to be safe than sorry. If your tank is stored on its side the OPD valve will likely be touching liquid propane inside the tank. Should that valve fail it’s possible liquid propane will spill out.

Risks of Propane

  • Highly Flammable – Pretty much self explanatory. Propane needs little encouragement from ignition sources to do its worst. It’s why we like it so much. But it’s also why we need to be extra careful with it. Having a fire extinguisher on hand is always wise, doubly so when using propane powered appliances indoors.
  • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning –
    • Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, highly toxic gas…characteristics which make it extremely harmful and deadly.
    • Propane is flammable in propane-to-air ratios of 2.2%-9.6%. Ideally the ratio will be 4% propane to 96% air, a ratio where you’ll see a nice blue flame. If it gets too low or too high remains within the flammability ratio, you’ll have incomplete combustion. Incomplete combustion produces carbon monoxide.
    • Carbon monoxide doesn’t need much time to build up and cause carbon monoxide poisoning, something that has killed many people and is no joke.
    • Always do your research before using any propane appliance indoors. Make sure they are “indoor safe”. Make sure you know how to properly use and maintain them. As preppers we have the obligation to thoroughly vet all our preps to make sure they’re work how we want, where we want.
    • Always have a working carbon monoxide detector working. Consider buying a battery operated detector as a wall unit will not work in situations where the electricity is out.
    • Lastly, move to fresh air immediately the moment you experience any nausea, vomiting, headache, confusion, sleepiness or dizziness.
  • Contact with Skin – Any skin contact with liquid propane will result in significant skin and tissue damage. As mentioned earlier liquid propane boils at -44 degrees F. Considering that water boils at 212 degrees F, propane is COLD.
  • Oxygen Deprivation – As stated above, propane burns efficiently at a 4% to 96% propane-to-air ratio. When you burn propane you’re by definition also depriving the surrounding area of oxygen. If you’re in that area, and you don’t replenish the air (by opening a nearby door or window) you could succumb to hypoxia.