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Service attendant overfills propane tank, RV almost goes up in flames

By Randall Brink
Many years ago, I fueled my Class C motorhome at a service station and convenience store that also sold LPG, aka “propane.” I liked the idea of being able to fill both the gasoline and LPG/Propane tanks at one stop.

The attendant seemed a little apprehensive at the prospect of filling the propane tank. She had some difficulty getting the delivery nozzle attached to the coach tank and admitted that, even though the station owner had “trained” her on the procedure, she had never filled a propane tank before. I was a little concerned, but not enough to say that I would fill the LPG elsewhere, and she filled the tank until the gas blew past the delivery nozzle. She shut down the LPG pump, we went inside to process the payment, and in a few minutes more, I was on my way eastbound on the Interstate.

I climbed a pass in northern Idaho and was headed for another, longer and steeper one up ahead when all hell broke loose. There was an explosive “POP” followed by the immediate odor of propane. The motorhome cabin was filled with it. I pulled over and evacuated myself and the dog, coughing, onto the shoulder of the road as the propane began to dissipate. We hadn’t blown up; there was no fire. But it is a miracle there wasn’t, with that much propane released into and around the coach. The tiniest spark would have created a conflagration. The cause: overfilling of the LPG tank. The station attendant had not shut off the fuel delivery at the required 80 percent of tank capacity to allow for expansion.

We were lucky and, afterward, I studied the propane tank and distribution system in order to understand how it should be properly serviced and operated. I had been complacent and narrowly averted an explosion and fire.

A few years passed. I upgraded to a big newer Class A motorhome with all the complex systems amenities. And, I again fell into an attitude of complacency about the hazards of LPG storage, use, and transport. I traveled with the coach propane valves open because I wanted the convenience of keeping my two-way LPG refrigerator cold while on the road. I read all of the “lore” online about how everybody does it and never had a problem. I also found that I frequently forgot to turn my LPG gas range pilot light off before getting underway. So, in addition to the supply of propane gas entering the coach, there was also a nice little blue flame flickering away in the oven while bouncing down the road.

Photo Credit: Spokane Valley Fire Department

Then there was a rash of RV fires in the news. 

It seemed as though, for a while, every time I read an RV-related news site, there was a picture of a coach engulfed in flames. There are, on average, 20,000 RV fires every year. Mishaps seem to occur in clusters, but these regular reports of catastrophic fires piqued my interest, and I began investigating. It turns out that a high percentage of fires that start in RVs on the road are fuel-related or electrical in origin. Or both. What was happening?

There were a lot of fires that started in the refrigerator compartment, at the confluence of electricity and LPG. Some started in gas ranges. A number of fires flared up in engine compartments, also fuel related. So, again, I arrived at the conclusion that a motorhome operator must be more aware of and cautious with fuels.

One might wonder why anyone would be cavalier about the hazards of combustible fuels. In my case, I felt it might be because I spent fifty years flying around at 40,000 feet in a metal tube filled with people, fuel and oxygen. Commercial aviation technology is so advanced that there is never – well, almost never – a problem. Perhaps I transferred my trust in technology and safety systems to my motorhome. But those photos of coaches burning at the roadside could not be denied. They changed my thinking and ways.

The first thing I did was to turn OFF my LPG tank valves. I’ll turn them back on when I’ve parked at camp and then turn them back OFF again when getting underway. It seems like a simple, smart move to immediately reduce the risk of a propane fire by a significant percentage. With respect to my fellow road captains who continue to run with the propane ON, I have decided it is not worth the risk. I keep a few frozen “Ice Paks” in the basement deep freeze and put one or two in the refrigerator and one in the freezer while underway. If necessary, I can put the frozen food in the deep freeze down below. It runs on 12-volt DC power.

I keep my oven pilot light OFF and light it when I want to use the oven. That way, the pilot is not burning at night. It is not burning when I am away from the coach. It is not burning when I am driving down the road.

Also, I created a checklist for getting underway: LPG Tank Valves OFF, Range Pilot Light OFF, LPG Detector ON, etc. In addition to increasing safety, the checklist provides peace of mind when rolling down the road, (i.e., no more: “Did I turn that pilot light OFF?”)

And finally, I fill LPG tanks at wholesale distributor facilities, where the personnel are well-trained and knowledgeable, and the delivery equipment is top-tier.

##RVT981

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Vanessa Simmons
9 days ago

I run my fridge off my solar when I run down the road so no need for propane.

rvgrandma
9 days ago

Filling a propane tank is different than a MH propane tank. There are many places that will fill the tanks but not those attached to RVs. As for oven pilot light – mine is never lit until I am ready to use the oven. Why waste the propane plus too much of a chance it will go out then leak propane.

Dennis G
8 months ago

Filled BBQ and RV tanks back in the 80’s, when I wasn’t even 18 years old. Received 5-10 minutes of training on, adapter use, how to fill, where to stand, wear gloves, and to protect from frostbite.
Luckily, I never made a bad mistake. Sadly, the last time I had the RV tank filled the “trained” personnel filled via the ASME tank gauge, and not by the bleed valve. Of course they will not accept sound advice, so will be looking for a new LPG fill location.

Really
8 months ago

Here is the Link from DOT (Department of Transportation) concerning DOT CYLINDERS (not tanks):

https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/sites/phmsa.dot.gov/files/docs/propane_en_v3.pdf

Should be part of your Inspection process, especially before taking the CYLINDER to be refilled!

SAFETY SHOULD NEVER BE COMPROMISED!

Last edited 8 months ago by Really
E gar
8 months ago

I can’t stand when seasoned RVers say it’s okay to travel with the propane on and play it up to ‘stories’ or ‘hysteria’ with no pictures of evidence. Witnessed a travel trailer and vehicle go up in flames in AZ. Few hours later there was no vehicle or travel trailer. No clue if everyone survived. Not a situation I thought to pull out my phone it was so shocking. It’s dangerous to everyone on the road. My kids and dogs lives are not worth keeping the chicken salad in my fridge cold. We full-time RV and have never traveled with propane on or had our food go to waste. People can be so {bleeped} selfish and senseless. I hope more states make it illegal to travel with propane on and people get charged for endangering others.

Gordy
8 months ago
Reply to  E gar

I would love to see the data on how many RV fires were caused by the propane being left on for the fridge and what the ignition source was.

Its like fires at gas pumps caused by smoking or cell phones there is very little, now the fires caused by said people who do no discharge the static electricity from themselves is considerable.

Tom
10 days ago
Reply to  Gordy

Cell phones do not start fires. This is an urban myth. There must be a spark or some type of combustion or heat for ignition. A cell phone has no parts that would generate a spark or any other type of ignition source.

Tim Slack
8 months ago

After forgetting a few (fortunately non-critical) items before leaving a site, I created two lists in the ‘Notes’ app of my iPhone… similar to a pre-flight list. One is ‘departure’ checklist, the other ‘setup’. Now I just have to remember to run the lists!

Randall Johnstun
8 months ago

For what its worth, propane becomes explosive at about 96% oxygen, and 4% propane. Also when propane is released from it’s container it expands 300% from liquid to gas. One gallon of liquid equals 300 gallons of gas vapor.

Gordy
8 months ago

Guess I will keep pushing the envelope, as I like my fridge to stay cool.
On the flip side I do not leave pilot lights on.

Tim Bear
8 months ago
Reply to  Gordy

…but all those potential spark sources… 🤭😳

Gordy
8 months ago
Reply to  Tim Bear

Well I guess we shouldn’t drive cars and trucks speaking of time bombs and sparks. 😳🤔

Gary
8 months ago
Reply to  Gordy

What kind of rig do you have ? I want to be far away from you. A potential bomb traveling down the road!!!

Gordy
8 months ago
Reply to  Gary

Pretty much any rig that has a dual refrigerator.

Full Timer Mark
8 months ago

When I setup my 5r at a new campsite I open the propane doors and use a bungie to keep them wide open just in case a leak ever develops. This enables extra venting should a leak develop. I too had an overfill by an inexperienced attendant once. IMMEDIATELY REPLACED TANK! A future valve “popoff” is the risk if the tank is not replaced (which sounds like what happened in this article). That puts you at risk between fills and all future propane attendants at risk who fill the compromised tank or tanks. It may also play havoc with your main and low pressure valves in you propane system. Replacing a tank is safe cheap insurance!

Tom
10 days ago

You might notice that your propane storage area does not have a bottom. That is because propane is heavier than air and will simply “fall out” of the area if there is a leak. In many areas (maybe all), it is illegal to close off the bottom of the tank area.

Rammer
8 months ago

My wife and I formerly owned a Campground/RV park in southern Minnesota. We filled many propane tanks, from 20 & 30 pound to motorhome. Hated to do the motorhomes at first but after a short while got very comfortable doing it and never forgot what I should be doing when. Never forgot to open the bleeder valve on a MH or date on the tanks. When the new law went into effect concerning tank dates a lot of campers were very upset when told they could not be filled, even got threatened a time or two but never gave in.

Dawn Nelson
8 months ago

Some comments I’d like to make. As a previous propane delivery person, we NEVER trusted the valves or the gauges on propane tanks, as they often failed. The way to fill them is to make a secure connection, open the bleeder valve on the tank, and begin filling. When you begin to see liquid product escaping, from the bleeder valve, start feathering the fill. As soon as the escaping liquid becomes a solid stream (not bouncing from nothing to something while the flow is turned off) stop filling, close the bleeder valve, disconnect, and turn off the pump. I drove around in a 3500 gallon propane tank on wheels, and filled everything from the small barbecue tanks, to the big 1000 gallon ones, and we filled ALL of them this way. We had a special low flow connector for the smaller tanks. Make no mistake, propane is VERY VOLATILE. In the year and a half I did the job, there were multiple incidences in the business, which is why I don’t do it anymore.

Last edited 8 months ago by Dawn Nelson
Roy
8 months ago
Reply to  Dawn Nelson

Dawn – wouldn’t you want to turn off pump sooner than you described ? Thanks

Thomas D
8 months ago

First clue would have been, she didn’t know how to get the filler onto the tank. Time out. Get someone else who does. Little girl, put down the phone and pay attention to the person telling (training you) how to do it. Nobody has ever filled my tank and asked ” is your refrigerator and water heater off? ” The tank is supposed to shut off the flow of gas when it’s full (80%). I’d say there’s something wrong with the tank. Better yet, my neighbor has a Newell Dutch Star. No propane at all.

steve
8 months ago

I fill my own 30 pound cylinders from my home 500 gallon propane tank. Even tanks with the OPD valves can be overfilled. I vent the vapor as I am filling to get a visual when full (liquid starts spurting out at the 80% full level). I got distracted once and when I returned to my tank, it was over full. I had to release gas (or liquid in this case) for quite a while until it dropped to the 80 % level. There is supposed to be an automatic shut off valve inside to shut off the flow when full but it didn’t work in my case.

Tommy Molnar
8 months ago

“And finally, I fill LPG tanks at wholesale distributor facilities, where the personnel are well-trained and knowledgeable, and the delivery equipment is top-tier.”

This would seem to be a no-brainer but just last week I took a tank to the local Ferrell propane store and had my upright tank filled. It looked to me like the “factory trained expert” overfilled my tank. 30 years ago I worked for the now defunct propane company, Petrolane. I know a few things about propane . .

When I got my tank back to my trailer, sure enough it was overfilled. Nothing would work. I unscrewed the part that lets propane out and let it ‘blow’ for about 15 seconds. Problem solved. And yes, I did muscle the tank to a spot where the downwind movement of my throwaway propane wasn’t going to cause a problem. So much for “factory trained experts”.

I also had a ‘discussion’ with this same expert on whether my tank needed to be re-certified in 10 or 12 years.

Really
8 months ago
Reply to  Tommy Molnar

Propane Tanks need to be inspected every 10 years from FIRST DATE of Manufacture. After that inspection, every 5 years.
On the other hand, ASME Tanks (in motorhomes) have No Inspection requirements!

James Shoe
8 months ago
Reply to  Really

From Ferrellgas website

How long are propane tanks good for?In the United States, a bottle is qualified for 12 years from the date of manufacture, while in Canada it’s good for 10 years. A recertified tank is good for 5, 7, or 12 years, depending on the method and type of recertification. 

Really
8 months ago
Reply to  James Shoe

Actually your information is WRONG! It changed sometime back. Used to be 12 years, NOW it’s 10 years from date of manufacture. And after researching the information, there is allot of wrong information out there!

Here is the Link from DOT (department of transportation)!

https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/sites/phmsa.dot.gov/files/docs/propane_en_v3.pdf

Being a Certified Propane Handler in my State, I do know the rules.

And they are called DOT Propane Cylinders, since they are used in RV’s that travel the US Highway system!

Read this PDF file and see what will make DOT Cylinders become disqualified to be refilled. People who Refill these Cylinders should be looking for any defects, especially RUST around welding points on the CYLINDER! I have Disqualified a number of tanks and unfortunately P’d Off people. But, I’m sure they just went down the road to someone else and had the CYLINDER refilled.

SAFETY SHOULD NEVER BE Compromised!

Bob P
8 months ago

There is a very simple and safe solution to this problem. Install an inverter to run the refrigerator off your battery while enroute. The refrigerator doesn’t use very much electricity to run especially if it’s all ready cold. My Newmar Mountain Aire had one built in that automatically started with the engine, we always had electric refrigerator operation while traveling. Our son in law installed one in his 42’ 5th wheel to run his residential refrigerator while they were traveling. He installed it in his battery compartment and ran an extension cord to the refrigerator AC plug. I believe he used a 500 watt inverter that only cost less than $80. Use a pure sine wave inverter to protect the computer controls of the fridge.

Richard Hughes
8 months ago

I have always used my storage bins and doors to remind me of doing set up and shut down order. Starting at the one next to the cabin door and working around the coach to the generator on the driver’s side. Each compartment holds specific items and everything is done in order. Each is locked as the items are stowed. Propane is next to the generator compartment and the last to be closed. A last walk around, to check the doors lets me know each thing is done. So far, it has worked. My wife does the inside and we only “help” each other if asked. To keep the “helping neighbor” away 2020 gave me a new idea that works. A sign, in bold letters saying “CAUTION!! COVID-19 IS EVERYWHERE. MASK REQUIRED HERE. Works like an invisible shield.

Dr4Film
8 months ago

What she neglected to do in her LPG filling procedure is to open up the small relief petcock that identifies when the tank is “full” thereby shutting off the delivery hose, then close the petcock followed by shutting down the pump. Same similar procedure when filling small portable tanks. Most propane filling stations have pumps that will stop pumping automatically when the tank is full also. At least the ones that I have used were that way.

Last edited 8 months ago by Dr4Film
Really
8 months ago

The #2 Cause for RV Fires are related to Gas Refrigerators!

The #1 cause is AGE (not the age of RV, but human age) and Inexperience!

I would like to see the entire RV industry do away with GAS / Electric Refrigerators and put in Compressor based REFERS instead! Much more safe!

And if you are a boondocker, then get the GAS Refer!

I, for one, will never have a GAS Refer in my RV.

BadWolfe
8 months ago
Reply to  Really

An Engineer and his wife patented a solution to the Gas Refrigerator problem years ago. The manufacturers refused to incorporate it. Check it out:
(synopsis: The burning of Propane will get too hot, this stops that cycle.)
https://www.arprv.com/

Gordy B
8 months ago
Reply to  BadWolfe

I would be interested in Mike’s take on this item. It’s too bad the manufacturers won’t put it automatically, sounds like it could save lives.

Kyle Petree
8 months ago
Reply to  Gordy B

And that is why I did install the ARP on my unit. It is not a simple install but I sleep a bit better having it.

Kyle Petree
8 months ago
Reply to  BadWolfe

I installed an ARP on my current Norcold. Feel safer but have to honest figuring out what and how to do it from the ARP website is nearly impossible.

BadWolfe
8 months ago
Reply to  Kyle Petree

I sure agree that I feel much safer now knowing the Fridge will never overheat and start a fire.
If you talk directly with Paul (inventor) of the ARP, he is a really good and clear communicator. He helped me install mine extremely easily.

Michael Gardner
8 months ago

I’m confused…overfilled tank ended up filling inside of RV with propane? Seems that would take a cascade of failures to vent it inside, unless his tank was inside or vented to living space ( older RV?). As for gas station attendants, I agree often they seem clueless which is why I watch them carefully and check the tank when they are done.

Really
8 months ago

BRAVO! Finally someone who has safety in mind!
I have a sign in my Slide Room controls to remind me to TURN OFF LP before rolling down the road!

Last edited 8 months ago by Really
Jeffrey D Wallace
8 months ago
Reply to  Really

It’s common knowledge not to over fill a propane tank. I’m not just referring to rv’s and camping equipment but also the backyard barbeque also. As for the rv owner you are captain of that vessel. It is up to the captain to oversee and supervise when the vehicle stops to do any of the many fluids and fuels that go into these vehicles. I’m glad no one was hurt.

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