Propane serves an array of functions in an RV. From cooking and showering to heating and refrigeration, propane is a versatile source of energy that is vital to the RVing lifestyle. Its popularity is largely attributed to the fact that it is widely available and much cheaper than gasoline. Although propane is a relatively safe fossil fuel, it is important to be knowledgeable and respectful of the gas if you plan on working with it in your unit. Take the time to learn all about propane, and feel safe and confident during your future RVing adventures.
Liquid Petroleum Gas
Propane, also called liquid petroleum gas, is one of the cleanest burning fossil fuels. It is nontoxic, so it doesn’t contaminate soil or aquifers. It is also colorless and naturally odorless, although it is given a strong identifying odor so that it can be easily detected. This smell has been described as a rotten egg or skunk spray smell, so it should be fairly simple to recognize in the event of a leak.
Types of Tanks
There are two main types of propane tanks – ASME tanks or DOT tanks. While they both function in the same manner and can both be observed in RVs, they do have some key differences that are worthy of noting.
ASME Tanks: These tanks are most often used in motorhomes or permanent installations. They are built into the structure of the unit and take up part of the exterior storage, making them unable to be removed. With ASME tanks, you will need to drive your motorhome to a propane dealer in order to refill it, or transport propane back to your site with a DOT cylinder. ASME tanks are measured in gallons and are typically much larger than DOT tanks.
DOT Tanks: Often called DOT cylinders, these are the tanks that are most commonly seen on RVs. They are typically mounted to the tongue or bumper of the trailer and feature a cover for protection during travel and against harsh weather conditions. DOT cylinders are measured in pounds and are typically designed to rest vertically, whereas most ASME tanks are horizontally positioned. DOT cylinders can be removed for easily accessible refilling.
Propane Tank Parts
To learn how to properly use propane, it is important to know some of the basic components of propane tanks. While not all tanks are made the same, these key features are relatively universal and can be observed on most models and styles.
Service Valve: This valve is the on/off switch for your whole propane gas system. It operates and appears similar to a water faucet, and while it does not regulate the flow of gas, it does control the gas flow to your unit. A neck ring or collar protects this valve from damage on DOT cylinders.
Fill Valve: This valve is where the liquid propane is delivered into your tank. A black gasket around the edge of the valve walls secure the connection, and must be present for a sealed and successful transaction. A protective cap is often placed on this valve to prevent water and debris from entering.
Bleeder Valve: Also called the fixed liquid level gauge, this valve is used in the refilling process to let you or the attendant know when the tank is full. Once the tank fills 80% of its volume, liquid will spew out of the bleeder valve indicating that the tank has reached its maximum legal capacity.
Relief Valve: This valve is one of the most important valves on any propane gas container. It relieves excess pressure buildup, preventing your tank from rupturing. If you notice a hissing sound or a loud pop come from your tank, this is an indication that the relief valve is releasing excess pressure that has built up inside your tank.
Pressure Regulator: This component is the heart of your propane system, as it provides a smooth and even flow of gas to the appliances throughout your unit. So while your service valve controls your gas flow, the pressure regulator regulates the flow of gas throughout your propane system.
Pressure Gauge: The pressure gauge tells you how full your tank is. Because it measures your pressure, temperature can affect the number that reads, and it may not be exactly accurate. In time however, you will begin to develop an understanding of how long your propane tank lasts. These gauges may not come standard on your tank.
Overfill Protection Device: All modern propane tanks feature an overfill protection device, but because these weren’t required until 1998, older tanks may not include these devices. Most propane suppliers won’t refill tanks that don’t have an overfill protection device installed.
Propane is widely available and you should have no problem locating a provider during your travels. Depending on where you go, some dealers will let you pump your own propane, while others will require a certified employee to pump it for you. Talk with your campground office to have them point you in the direction of the nearest provider, and they might even have refill services available to you on-site!
Propane tanks may only be filled up to 80% capacity, and this is because propane expands when it is subjected to heat. The extra 20% of space allows for gaseous expansion. This is why the bleeder valve releases liquid after the tank is only 80% filled. Because of the way propane reacts to heat, all propane tanks are given a reflective color. For your safety, don’t paint your propane tank dark, even if it is aesthetically tempting!
Avoid storing propane cylinders inside your house or garage, and always keep them away from flammable materials. Be aware of how your tank is supposed to be positioned, and store it in the orientation that it was designed for. It is important that your relief valve isn’t pointed in the direction of anything that could ignite, and it also needs to be above the line of the propane liquid level. For ideal storage, seek out a well-ventilated area that isn’t damp, as this can cause rusting which will dramatically reduce the lifespan of your propane tank. If your propane tank is exposed on the exterior of your RV and you are concerned about theft, security locks can be purchased to prevent them from being stolen off your rig.
When you are going through your camping checklist, don’t forget to properly examine your propane tank. Overtime and with extended use, components of your propane tank can start to wear out and falter. To ensure that it functions properly, regularly inspect your propane tank, making note of any dents, rust formation, gouges, bulges, or weak connectors. It is recommended that regulators be replaced about every 10 years (depending on use), and you should have your tank certified every 5 years. For optimal longevity, be protective of the nameplate on your tank. Once it becomes unreadable, dealers may refuse to refill it and your tank can no longer be used.
While proper safety precautions are important, it is worth mentioning that propane is a relatively safe fossil fuel, and it has less potential for explosion or fire than electricity! With the mandate of overfill protection devices, the dangers of the tanks themselves are relatively less too. Make sure that your valves are up to code and routinely inspect your propane tank for factors that could affect its performance. When transporting a DOT cylinder back to your site, put it in a milk crate to prevent it from tipping over and damaging itself.
Modern RVs are now built with sensors to detect propane leakage. Once detected, it will close off the valve and shut down the propane supply to your unit. For older models, propane leak detectors can also be installed. If you are made aware of a leak, either from your sensor, the pungent smell, or a hissing sound, turn off your gas supply if possible and immediately get far away from your RV. Then call a professional propane service to report the leak and don’t return to your unit until responders arrive. Don’t attempt to repair or modify your propane tank without the help of a professional.
Propane is vital to the RVing lifestyle, so knowing all about it is important to feeling confident in your ability to function comfortably in your unit. To continue expanding your RV knowledge, check out these RV maintenance tire tips or learn how to properly sanitize your RV’s water system. The more you know, the better off you’ll be!