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.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A photo originally used to illustrate this story was taken at Bretz RV in Missoula, Montana and the name of the dealership was prominent in the photo. That photo should have never been used. This incident DID NOT occur at Bretz RV. We apologize for the error.
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.
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.