By Russ and Tiña De Maris
If the measure of how much Americans love the land were based on how many disposable propane cylinders are sold each year, they must love it a lot. Some 40 million one-pound disposables are sold each year in the U.S. They go backpacking, back-yarding, into the shop and into RVs. But once they’re empty, where do they go? Often to landfills, far too often left cluttering the landscape.
National park visitors often just leave them at the campground dumpster – which in 2014 amounted to 23,000 of the little metal cylinders at Yosemite National Park, costing more than a $1 each for proper disposal. Put another way, a year’s worth – 40 million disposable propane cylinders – all tossed into the standard 4-yard dumpsters typically seen in campgrounds, would require 825,000 dumpsters. That’s a lot of waste!
It’s no wonder that those with a consciousness of caring for the planet figure there’s got to be a better way. Why not refill disposable cylinders, reducing the amount of waste, and save a bit of money as well?
The average price of a disposable is more than $5 each; ringing up at more than 31 cents per ounce. If you paid that price to fill your smaller RV cylinder, it would cost you $100 per fill up. There are plenty of adapters that make it possible to fill a disposable from a refillable propane container. Doing the math says even if you paid $3 a gallon for propane, your refilled cost per disposable would amount to a piddling 71 cents.
But there’s another side to the equation: How much is your safety worth? Disposable propane cylinders are built far differently than their larger, refillable brothers. The metal walls of the disposable type are thin, and repeated contraction and expansion of those thin walls can lead to metal fatigue and eventual rupture. Likewise, a disposable’s valve is not designed for repeated use; and unlike an LP cylinder designed to be refilled, there’s no “bleeder” valve to indicate when the disposable is filled to the safe point, making overfilling a real problem. And while plenty of people refill their disposable cylinders without trouble, how much are you willing to gamble that you can get away with it?
Then there’s another financial consideration. While it is technically legal to refill a disposable cylinder, transporting it on a public highway is a very different matter. Federal regulations (administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation) prohibit transport of refilled “DOT 39” cylinders (of which classification small cylinders fall under). Violate that regulation, you’re liable for a fine of up to $500,000 and five years in prison.
SO WHAT’S TO BE DONE? Give up on using those handy one-pound cylinders in favor of the environment? Run the risk of life and limb and refill the disposables? Enter an alternative: Safe and legally refillable one-pound cylinders. Flame King now offers cylinders designed for refill, along with a refill kit to pump your own. The cylinders themselves are heavy-duty, and equipped with an “80% valve” that indicates when the safe “full” point has been reached.
How does it work? The refill system includes a stand on which you can safely place an inverted 20-pound cylinder. That cylinder is connected to an adapter, and it to the refillable cylinder. Using an included Allen wrench, you crack open the bleeder valve and press a dispensing lever on the adapter. When liquid propane begins to spit out of the bleeder valve, you let up on the fill lever, close the bleeder valve, and disconnect the refilled cylinder. Users happily report that unlike refills of disposable cylinders, it’s easy to get a full cylinder, with no need to stick it in a freezer to encourage a full-fill. There’s a video available on YouTube that shows the whole process.
You’ll need to run your figures to determine your break-even point. The whole kit, including the refill system and a single, one-pound refillable cylinder, runs just shy of $50 on Amazon; additional cylinders are $14. Yes, the up-front cost may look a little imposing, but on the other hand, if you’re paying $5 per disposable, it doesn’t take much to figure the savings both financially and environmentally. And as opposed to the inherent dangers of refilling disposables, this Flame King system looks like a winner all around.