For over ten years, propane has played an important role in my preparedness life. Both my former home in Washington State and my mountain home in Arizona have relied on propane for heat, cooking, and hot water as well as the incidentals of BBQs, fire pits, and lanterns.
As a result, over the years I have written two separate series around the topic of “propane for preppers”. Credit where credit is due: the second series (in 2015) was authored as a guest piece from my pal Ron Brown. Those articles subsequently became the basis for the 7th book in the Non-Electric Lighting Series.
That brings us to today.
I have close to zero confidence that our leaders have the wherewithal to prevent a cyberattack on our grid specifically and our utilities generally. That includes the propane that is supplied directly to our homes via local utility companies.
That is not to say that a cyberattack is the only risk to consistent propane delivery. Fossil fuels of all types are under attack by our own government and until/unless the narrative changes, I can imagine a time when non-green fuels will be rationed.
In my effort to bolster my own reserve of portable propane (meaning propane not provided by our local gas company), I recently revisited Ron’s book and reminded myself of the excellent job he has done in educating us in propane independence as well as propane safety.
I reached out to Ron and asked him for permission to reprint his book as a series of articles on Strategic Living and he said yes! How cool is that?
In Ron Brown’s Words
Before getting started, let me tease you with a few words from Ron.
- Lanterns that use mantles produce light on par with electric light bulbs. And PROPANE mantle lanterns have advantages over liquid-fueled lanterns.
- For one thing, propane does not degrade in storage. You can store it for fifty years. It’s still the same stuff. Hook it up and it works. What other petroleum-based fuel can you say that about?
- And propane is convenient compared to liquid fuels. No messy spills. No stinky rags. Certainly, that’s worth something.
- The book that Gaye is sharing with you covers safety (from crystal meth to carbon monoxide); step-by-step refilling of one-pounders from 20-pound BBQ tanks (with the emphasis on SAFETY); long-term storage of one-pounders; and many real-life comments & words of advice from readers who saw the original article series.
Let’s get started.
Original Foreword By Gaye Levy
Having sufficient fuel for lighting, cooking, and heat following an emergency is always a concern for preppers. I say this because if the stuff hits the fan, many, if not most of us, will turn to propane as a primary fuel source.
That being said, the only experience many of us have with propane is limited to the backyard barbecue and perhaps a Coleman lantern. That tells me many of us are woefully lacking in the knowledge necessary to use propane efficiently and safely.
This book, written by my friend Ron Brown, will fix that. So how did this book come about?
It began as a series of articles written exclusively for my blog Backdoor Survival. In that sequence, Ron took considerable time to put together a comprehensive tutorial for my readers with a focus on safety.
To say that the series was well-received is an understatement. Today, Propane for Preppers is one of half a dozen items I keep tucked away under a tab entitled “The Best of Backdoor Survival.” It was, and is, that good.
My guess is that Ron agreed to write the series because he planned a ‘propane book’ as part of his Non-Electric Lighting Series. I am glad he did, because as it turns out, this book, Propane for Preppers, not only includes a reprint of the Backdoor Survival series but also includes additional material gleaned from the more interesting comments and questions posed by Backdoor Survival readers.
Here is a synopsis of the parts:
Part One explains safety, chemistry, adaptors, and substitutions. It teaches a bit of terminology and how the manufacturers themselves describe their products (e.g. is it a canister, a cylinder, or a cartridge?). This information is invaluable in providing clues on what to search for online or ask for in a hardware store.
Part Two moves on to the nitty-gritty of tanks, valves, and regulators. It includes a discussion of the whys and wherefores of using propane. There is considerable detail relative to the safety concerns we should be on the watch for while using propane. This includes leaks, poor fittings, and heaven forbid, an old tank with blue fittings indicating the tank was once used to produce crystal meth.
Part Three explains how to refill the ubiquitous one-pound cylinders that are used with portable lanterns, stoves, and heaters. There are pros and cons to doing this, mostly relating to safety considerations – no surprise there. If you are not mechanically inclined and do not have an outside area in which to work, refilling one-pound propane tanks may not be for you. The last thing I want, after all, is for you to blow yourself up along with the rest of the neighborhood!
Part Four discusses the long-term storage of one-pounders, introduces the topics of carbon monoxide poisoning and oxygen starvation, and describes the refilling of 20-pounders (the kind of propane tank used on BBQ grills). Frankly, on the topic of refilling 20-pounders (not to be confused with the little one-pounders), Ron scared me off completely. He suggests, and I couldn’t agree more, that before you undertake the refilling of a 20-pounder, you have a heart-to-heart with your fire insurance agent. Enough said.
Part Five is the final installment. It expands upon carbon monoxide plus discusses propane fires, the dangers of overfilling, purging new cylinders, disposing of empty one-pounders, and finally, the rather strange double standard that seemingly exists in the universe of propane safety.
As with all things preparedness, knowledge is power and with Ron’s help, learning to safely use and store propane will surely help us make it through a future “disruptive event.”
Be well and be safe!
Part One – Propane for Preppers
This has been a difficult series of articles to write. The word ‘prepper’ covers a lot of territory.
Whether it’s a blackout or a race riot – and both have occurred in these United States during my lifetime – what’s the plan? Shelter in place? But is that a single-family dwelling with a cellar? Or a one-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor?
Or is ‘the plan’ to get outta Dodge? On foot? Bicycle? Motorcycle? Car? And where will you go? To a relative with a spare bedroom? Hunting camp? Boat? RV?
Not only is the audience hard to pin down, propane (the subject of this article) is so versatile that it’s hard to know where to begin.
You can convert your automobile to run on propane. And the outboard motor on your boat. And your motorcycle. And your lawnmower. And your electric generator. My sister has a backup system, a generator that runs on propane, which will support most of the electrical needs in her home – including the electric range in the kitchen. Every Friday night her lights flicker as the system goes into its weekly self-test.
There are refrigerators that run on propane. Little ones for RV’s and big ones for full-time off-grid living. Not to mention furnaces and space heaters (both vented and unvented) and catalytic heaters, plus gas lamps, water heaters (with tanks and without), air conditioners (absorption chillers, by any other name, that work on the same principle as gas refrigerators), fireplaces, clothes dryers, kitchen stoves for cooking, salamanders for the construction site to keep the freshly poured concrete from freezing, and toilets.
Yes, toilets. If your land has poor drainage, you can install a gas-fired toilet that will incinerate human waste after each deposit thereof.
So which prepper am I talking to? The single gal living with her grandmother on the 17th floor? Or the survivalist with more ammo than he can carry? And what are the topics I should cover? I just now discovered an adapter, for example, a wand-like tube with a fitting on one end, that converts an old-time Coleman liquid-fuel camp stove to propane. And another adapter that allows you to run a BBQ grill from a little 400-gram Bernzomatic soldering cylinder. And another that will let you hook up natural gas devices to propane.
OMG. It hurts my head to think so much.
Safety is a good place to start. Safe-mindedness.
Propane has been sold commercially since the 1920s. A lot of safety features have been engineered into propane devices – the storage tanks, for example, as well as BBQ grills and camping gear. It’s best to not bypass these features. Let me give you an example.
Today, propane tanks are made such that they can’t be filled more than 80%. When ‘full’ the bottom of the tank contains liquid propane and the top 20% of the tank contains propane in the gaseous state. Gas can be compressed. Liquid cannot. If you bypass this safety feature and fill the tank 100% and leave it out in the sun, heat will make the liquid expand. First, the blowout plug (a fuse of sorts) will go. If the blowout hole cannot accommodate the volume of propane trying to escape, the tank will burst, creating a propane cloud. A mere spark can ignite the propane cloud, sending both you and your propane tank to join all the computer files you previously sent to ‘the cloud.’
There’s a lot of Attitude out and about. “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do.” It’s a control issue. I get it. But you might want to make an exception when it comes to propane. Just this one time you might want to consider following the rules.
Call it food for thought on your trip to the hospital.
Crude oil is the stuff that gets pumped out of the ground. Crude oil is refined into a whole range of products from gases (propane, butane) to liquids (gasoline, kerosene) to solids (paraffin wax).
All of these products are hydrocarbons. The ‘hydro’ part of the word stands for hydrogen (symbol = H). The ‘carbon’ part of the word stands for carbon (symbol = C). Am I going too fast?
In refining, distillation breaks or fractures the crude oil into groups of hydrocarbons with similar boiling points. The five major fractions are (1) refinery gases, (2) gasoline, (3) kerosene, (4) diesel oil, and (5) residues.
Our interest here is in the first group, refinery gases. And there are four: methane, ethane, propane, and butane.
The refinery gases have the following chemical formulas: Methane is C1H4. Ethane is C2H6. Propane is C3H8. Butane is C4H10. This is simply a reference list. Sometimes we need to be precise in our language so as to remove any confusion regarding which gas is under discussion.
Note that the C-number or carbon-chain number climbs one step at a time throughout the progression: C1 – C2 – C3 – C4.
The English language can be ambiguous. The word ‘gas’ has several meanings:  it can mean gasoline (petrol to the British), or it can mean  methane or propane (“Now you’re cooking with gas.”), or it can mean  a vapor (as in the three states of matter – solid, liquid, and gas), or it can be  a euphemism for farting (“He passed gas.”). As we go along I’ll do my best to make the meaning clear.
Methane (C1H4). Methane is used as a fuel, commonly called natural gas, and is transported via pipeline in LNG form (liquefied natural gas). Methane is also the swamp gas of UFO lore. Methane is lighter than air.
Lamps that burn natural gas inside your home, common in the gay ’90s – the 1890’s – back when ‘gay’ meant happy – are still manufactured today. Paulin, Mr Heater, and Humphrey are three U.S. brands. Their use requires that you have a natural gas line into your house. If you heat with natural gas, you do. Lamps burning natural gas are wall-mounted (or ceiling-mounted) and thus not portable. Note that such lamps can readily be converted to propane.
If you put in one of these wall-mounted lamps (and, personally, I think it’s a great idea to do so), I urge you to have it installed by a certified-licensed-authorized technician and not attempt the installation yourself.
Should you ever have a house fire, the insurance company will look for excuses not to pay. So let’s not void our fire insurance to save a few bucks on installation, shall we?
Ethane (C2H6). Ethane is used as a catalyst in other chemical processes, moreso than as a fuel in and of itself.
Propane (C3H8). I live in the country, beyond the reach of natural gas pipelines. As a consequence, I have a 200 lb. propane tank behind the house. We use propane for cooking.
The company who delivers our gas is Suburban Propane. I can drive to their storefront and refill a small 20 lb. cylinder to use on a camper or RV (recreational vehicle) or propane BBQ grill. The tank behind my house and the 20 lb. cylinder contain exactly the same stuff – LPG (liquefied petroleum gas).
The skinny little propane cylinders sold for Bernzomatic (brand) soldering torches hold 14.1 oz. (400 grams). The more squat ‘one-pounders’ sold for camping stoves and lanterns, hold 16 oz. A few years ago they held 16.4 oz. but, today, all brands have been changed to 16 oz.
That’s how much they hold. What they hold is LPG. That is propane. That is, C3H8. Propane is propane is propane.
Can you hook up a propane camping lantern, the kind that customarily runs on a one-pounder, to a 20 lb. propane tank? Sure. The fittings and extension hoses to do so are sold as a kit under the Century brand name. And the Mr Heater brand name. And the Coleman brand name. I bought one myself in the camping section at Walmart.
Wall-mounted propane gas lamps (and other appliances such as refrigerators) are often employed in cottages and hunting camps located at a distance from both electricity and in-town natural gas lines. These appliances burn LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) rather than LNG (liquefied natural gas).
LPG and LNG lamps can look identical on the outside but propane is more highly pressurized. Propane lamps, therefore, use a nozzle with a smaller orifice (the hole through which the gas comes) than do natural gas lamps. If you move from city to country, or vice-versa, your gas clothes dryer presents exactly the same orifice problem. Fortunately, conversion kits are readily available.
Propane, by the way, is heavier than air. It pools in your basement. And it pools in the hull of your boat; it only takes one spark to cut your vacation short. Check out ‘boat explosions’ on YouTube. It will likely make you sit up and take notice. It did me.
Butane (C4H10) Like propane, butane is also heavier than air. Please note that we are still climbing the C-numbers.
It’s interesting that, given the right adapters, propane can be substituted in camping lanterns and stove burners originally designed for butane. It’s not just theory. I’ve done it. You can too.
Most butane cigarette lighters are disposable; some are refillable. If refillable, you’ll find a small fitting on the bottom of the lighter. Note that the butane cartridge must be turned upside down to fill the cigarette lighter. In your hands, you can feel the butane cartridge get cold as the transfer of gas takes place.
Butane is used in cigarette lighters, in pressurized cartridges for one-burner stoves, and in camping lanterns for backpackers. It turns from a gas to a liquid at 31º F (almost the same as the freezing point of water).
Mexico has a warm climate and butane, they say, is favored over propane as cooking gas. Butane is even called ‘Mexican gas.’ Google will reveal many images of large (100-pound) butane tanks.
In cities with a large Asian population (e.g. Toronto, Canada), one-burner stoves that run on butane cartridges are for sale in all the ethnic food stores. I’ve also seen them on eBay and in restaurant supply stores (caterers use them). The fuel cartridges are lightweight, similar to shaving cream containers. They hold 8 ounces (227 grams).
These butane stoves are a pleasure to use – easy to light, regulate, and extinguish. Why they’re not more popular with the state-park-camping crowd is no doubt their low-temperature limitations. Ditto for the use of butane in lanterns. Below freezing, a lantern that runs on butane (and there are some) will not light. How wonderful is that? (FYI, I’ve seen lanterns that run on these 8-ounce butane cartridges under the brand names of Kovea, Glowmaster, and American Camper.)
Adapters & Substitutions
American Camper sells (1) a butane-only lantern as well as (2) a Multi Fuel Lantern that comes with an adapter; it will run on either the 8-ounce butane cartridges or propane one-pounders.
It is interesting, is it not, that propane (C3) can, given the right adapter, be burned in the same appliance that uses methane (C1). A clothes dryer, for example. At the other end of the spectrum, propane (C3) can be burned in the same appliance that uses butane (C4). The American Camper lantern, for example.
Mini-lanterns and micro-stoves using butane cartridges (in 110-gram, 230-gram, and 450-gram sizes) are made for backpackers. Unlike the 8-ounce canisters discussed above, the cartridges have a threaded 7/16 inch male coupling. (And, typically, they contain a propane-butane blend – to avoid freeze-up – rather than pure butane.)
So wadda ya do when you have a lantern or stove made with the screw-type coupling but only have an 8-ounce cartridge of butane to use as fuel? Come now. That’s why God made adapters. Search Amazon for ‘Lindal adapter.’
Tip. Butane lanterns use mantles (just like Coleman lanterns). Butane lamp instructions (auto-translated from Chinese via computer) typically say ‘wicks’ or ‘gauze.’ Oops! Sorry. They are mantles. Although mantles are beyond the scope of this discussion, it’s ‘mantles’ you need to ask for at the sporting goods store, not wicks or gauze.
Back to our story. Say you have a butane lantern or stove made with the screw-type coupling but you only have a propane one-pounder for fuel? Solution. A different adapter. The adapter shown below is the Kovea VA-AD-0701.
Aside. There’s one application for propane one-pounders that I don’t much care for. It’s the direct-screw-on single-burner stove. To me, it looks awfully top-heavy when loaded with a pot of water. Boiling water being sterilized in a grid-down situation. Let’s just hope the cat doesn’t jump on the table and knock anything over.
Speaking of adapters, you can use an adapter to refill a propane one-pounder from a 20-lb. cylinder. That will be covered in Part Three of this series. But before we embark upon the ‘how-to’ of refilling, we first need to understand some basic plumbing stuff – tanks and valves and such – so that we have our terminology straight. Plus there are safety issues that we need to understand.
And even before that, let me mention MAPP gas. MAPP originally stood for MethylAcetylene-Propadiene Propane although today (since 2008) products labeled MAPP are really MAPP substitutes.
Small MAPP ‘welding sets’ are widely sold. They employ oxygen cylinders as well as MAPP gas cylinders. The MAPP gas cylinders are the same size and have the same threads as the soldering cylinders (Bernzomatic variety) that hold propane.
So let’s put MAPP gas in context.
Given the right adapter (and there are several brands of adapters we’ll identify when we get to that section in Part Three), we can refill a propane one-pounder.
And, using the same adapter, we can refill the skinny Bernzomatic-type soldering cylinders. The shape of the cylinder is different from a one-pounder but the threads are the same.
And we can refill a MAPP-gas cylinder with propane. Again, the threads are the same so we can use the same adapter. Let us be clear. The MAPP cylinder comes from the store holding MAPP gas. When empty, we can refill it with propane. From a technology point of view, it’s no more complicated than storing salt in a sugar canister.
But leave yourself a clear trail. A label on the cylinder would be a good place to start. As an analogy, how good are you at finding stuff on your computer? Stuff that you, yourself, tucked away where you could always find it. So, remembering which gas cylinder it was that you refilled two or three years ago . . . and where you stored it . . . and how you labeled it. “Houston, we have a problem.”
Selected Reader Comments, Part One
Comment #5. ‘JR’ commented:
I remember back in 1999 when Y2K was all the talk. The knowledgeable preppers were looking for 500 or 1000 gallon propane tanks with a valve on the bottom. It requires a valve on the bottom to be able to get the liquid out of the tank. The top valve gives off the gas. It takes liquid to fill the 20 lbs tanks and prepping groups were storing 20 pounders all over the hillsides for the coming bad times. They needed reliable filling stations.
‘JS’ responded: J, an ex-employer of mine refilled his 20# tanks from a 250 gallon tank. The hose connection was on the top of the tank. Apparently, there is a pipe under the hose connection that extends down into the tank, allowing the gas pressure to push the liquid propane out of the hose.
Ron Brown: In a later installment we’ll describe the refilling of 20-pounders (BBQ-tank size) from bigger tanks. It is doable. That’s a fact. But it has the potential to burn down not your house but your neighborhood. That’s also a fact. You might want to talk it over with your fire insurance agent before you start.
Comment #9. ‘RZ’ commented:
Hope I am not getting ahead of the articles here, but propane electrical power generators are VERY common in the communications business. Propane does not go stale, or decompose when stored for long periods. This makes it perfect for standby power at remote sites. Diesel, especially the new Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel fuel (ULSD) can go bad in a matter of months without proper storage. Propane, on the other hand, stays just the way it was delivered for years. There is that little matter of temperature though, and if you live in cold climates you either run your generator on liquid, taken from the bottom of the tank, or you have tank heaters installed that keep the propane just above the completely liquid level.
Comment #12. ‘SN’ commented:
Excellent article, Ron. Thanks for the info. Perhaps you can help me. I picked up an old Magic Chef gas stove (circa 1940s) with the intention of brewing beer outdoors with it or actually cooking with it should the need arise. I attached a propane tank and regulator to it but the burners will not stay lit. It looks like the orifices on the elements are too large and are not compatible with the pressure/volume of the propane. My guess is that this unit wants to run on natural gas. Can you explain the difference between the two and recommend a course of action? I really want to get this stove up and running. Thank you!
Ron Brown: Propane is under higher pressure and the orifice (the hole through which the gas comes) is smaller than it is with natural gas. Your local gas company (i.e. the business or firm who would install a tank and deliver propane to your home) will have a serviceman equipped with conversion kits for clothes dryers and kitchen stoves to switch from natural gas to propane and vice versa. That’s where I would go. He’ll know what he’s looking at. He’ll have the tools and parts to fix it.
Comment #14. ‘B’ commented:
Propane is NOT very efficient to run generators. Not many people realize that. A 20lb tank won’t last very long. Gas is still the most efficient. Unless you have one of those huge “buried” tanks, but propane is still not very efficient, which surprised me.
Comment #17. ‘S’ commented:
Wow! So much information, good information! I have only recently put my mind to the importance of getting prepared. Articles like this are not only informative but also inspirational. I have always been a “one step at a time” kind of person and this shows how to get ready step by step.
Ron Brown: Thanks. Propane has some features to recommend itself: it’s widely available, it can be stored without degrading, and it’s available in many container sizes and increments. On the downside, you must use some discretion. I used to teach seminars with a guy who said to the students, “Don’t park your brains at the door.” I never cared for his phraseology but it sure does apply to propane. You must stay focused. Propane is HIGHLY flammable. One spark can change your life. You think texting-and-driving don’t mix? Well………….
Notice of Purpose: In Ron’s Words
Notice: This manual is designed to provide information on propane gas and propane-fueled lamps and appliances.
It is not the purpose of this guide to reprint all the information that is otherwise available, but to complement, amplify, and supplement other texts and resources. You are urged to read all the available material and learn as much as you can about propane and to tailor the information to your specific circumstances.
Every effort has been made to make this guide as complete and accurate as possible. However, there may be mistakes, both typographical and in content. Therefore this text should be used only as a general guide and not as the ultimate source of propane information. Furthermore, this guide contains information that is current only up to the printing date.
The purpose of this manual is to educate and entertain. The views, opinions, positions, and strategies expressed by the author are his alone. The author makes no representations as to the accuracy, completeness, correctness, suitability, or validity of any information in this book and will not be liable for any errors, omissions, or delays in this information or any losses, injuries, or damages arising from its use.
Propane for Preppers is Copyrighted Material
Copyright © 2015 by Ronald B. Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the prior written permission of the copyright holder, except brief quotations used in a review.
The meat and potatoes of this book series are the intellectual property of Ron Brown. Sure, I may add some commentary and ancillary material but for all intents and purposes, this is Ron’s work and property. That means you can not steal this content and call it your own. Capish?
What you can do, however, is share the series presented on Strategic Living with all of your prepper and non-prepper friends.
Additional Reading: The Relevance of Non-Electric Lighting: Interview with Ron Brown
How to Support Ron and His Work
Ron’s Non-Electric Lighting Series consists of eight books and is a fantastic resource for preppers and non-preppers alike. If you enjoy this series on propane, I ask that consider supporting Ron’s work by purchasing one of the other books in the series. They are chock full of photos and illustrations that I have not included here and you will find them invaluable. The books are reasonably priced and available in both Kindle and paperback formats.
Common Sense Propane Storage Tips
I realize that the following tips represent common sense but it is always nice to be reminded that storing propane does not come without risk. Here are some common-sense tips to ensure the safe and proper use of portable propane cylinders :
- Propane tanks should never be stored in, or subject to, temperatures above 120 °F (49 °C)
- During colder months, keep your tanks above −40 °F (−40 °C)
- Store your tanks in a shaded location, doing your best to avoid direct sunlight
- Never store your tanks on their side or upside down
- Always ensure that the gas valve is in the OFF position when storing or not using your tank
- Never store your propane tank inside your home or vehicle
Furthermore, if you plan on storing a cache of filled, spare tanks, check with local authorities to see if there are limits to the amount of propane that can be stored on your property. I have found that a 300-pound limit appears to be common but always check in advance.
Summing It All Up
Although I do live in an HOA (yes, the often dreaded Home Owners Association), I am allowed to store a large propane tank above ground as long as it is hidden from the street. With a forested acre, that is not a problem although there are still some permitting requirements.
As I consider whether I want to move forward with a large, refillable propane tank out in the woods, I am supplementing my in-line propane by purchasing spare tanks and keeping them filled. A dozen 20-pound tanks represent a low-cost investment and will give me time to evaluate the cost/benefit of an off-grid solar generator versus a monster propane tank. That said, I want to nail down zoning ordinances in advance to ensure I am not violating local laws.
And that, as they say, is a topic for another time.
Yours for a Joyful Life,
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