The dangers of propane tanks in gas grills
By Brendan M. Daly
With Labor Day on the horizon and an estimated 76% of American households owning a propane gas grill, countless Americans will be hosting backyard barbecues to celebrate the holiday weekend. But, before you do, make sure that you do it safely.
The National Fire Protection Association claims that “more than 6,100 accidental fires and explosions occur [each year] due to the improper use of grills, resulting in 20,000 emergency room visits and $29.1 million of estimated damage.”¹ Furthermore, approximately 20 deaths each year are attributed to propane fires and explosions associated with gas grills.²
There are two reasons why there are so many injuries and deaths caused by propane gas grills: “venting” and “odor fade.”
First, the mechanics of a common household propane tank need to be understood. When propane tanks are exposed to excessive heat, the gas itself expands. If there is not enough room in the tank to accommodate the expanded gas, a pressure release valve will open in order to allow propane gas to be emitted from the tank. This is called “venting.” It typically occurs when the internal tank pressure exceeds 375 PSI and prevents the tank from exploding.
When venting occurs, a pungent odor should be present. Propane is an odorless gas; the “rotten eggs” smell most people associate with propane is actually provided by ethyl mercaptan, an additive which is mixed with propane gas to alert users of a leak. The problem arises when gas is released from the tank during venting, but there is no odor. This is known as “odor fade.”
Once the ethyl mercaptan becomes undetectable, propane leaks can place consumers in grave danger. There have been several cases against propane gas grill manufacturers where consumers have been injured or killed while transporting propane tanks, or when operating gas grills in areas that were not properly ventilated, because of leaks they did not detect.
Problems with odor fade have plagued the propane industry for decades, because the odor of ethyl mercaptan dissipates over time. The length of time varies, depending on such factors as the age and condition of the tank, but studies have shown that ethyl mercaptan can significantly dissipate within five to seven days after a propane tank has been filled and may become undetectable within just three weeks.³
Avoid disaster by remembering that just because you do not smell propane, that does not mean there is no propane present.
In addition to the warnings already found on your propane tank, here are some other safety tips to ensure that your weekend barbecue occurs without incident:
- ALWAYS OPERATE YOUR GAS GRILL IN A WELL VENTILATED AREA.
- NEVER STORE A SPARE PROPANE TANK ABOVE, OR BELOW, A TANK THAT IS IN USE.
- DO NOT LEAVE YOUR PROPANE TANK EXPOSED TO DIRECT SUNLIGHT.
- WHEN TRANSPORTING A PROPANE TANK, MAKE SURE THERE IS PROPER VENTILATION.
- NEVER LIGHT A CIGARETTE WHEN YOU ARE TRANSPORTING A PROPANE TANK.
- WHEN TRANSPORTING A PROPANE TANK, DO NOT LEAVE THE TANK IN THE TRUNK OF YOUR CAR LONGER THAN NECESSARY.
While these may seem like obvious precautions, failure to carefully conform to these warnings has resulted in numerous tragedies and much litigation.
With this information, it is our hope that you will take the proper preventative measures to ensure that you and your loved ones will have a safe and happy Labor Day.
Remember, if you have been injured by a propane tank explosion or fire, you should contact Williams Kherkher. The consultation is free.
¹NFPA, Use Care When Firing Up the Barbecue, http://www.pleasantonweekly.com (accessed Sept. 24, 2003).
²National Fire Incident Reporting System. Cited in NFPA, Use Care When Firing Up the Barbecue.
³Bruce Goldfarb, Keltie’s Blast Shows Danger of Propane, Danbury News-Times (July 27, 1998).