One of the traits that make propane so well suited to RV use is its forgiving nature. In gaseous form, propane is only combustible within a narrow range of air/fuel concentrations (2.5% - 9.5% by volume), making it considerably harder to accidentally ignite than many other fuels. Also, even though pure propane has very little odor, virtually all fuel-grade propane includes an 'odorant' (ethyl merchantman) that makes it easily recognizable, even in very low concentrations (0.5% by volume). These inherent safety characteristics allow most propane leaks to be quickly identified and fixed without incident.
However, safe as this gas is, there are still ways of misusing it. Overfilling remains one of the most common culprits, even though the increasing use of Overfill Prevention Devices is reducing this trend. There are still plenty of non-OPD tanks in the field, and as OPD tanks become the rule rather than the exception, the chance of overfilling a conventional tank due to operator inattention decreases considerably.
By design, approximately 20% of the interior space in all propane tanks, OPD and otherwise, is reserved for expansion to safely accommodate the 1.5% increase in volume that propane experiences for every 10 degree Fahrenheit temperature increases. In an overfilled tank, insufficient space may remain as the propane warms up, expelling gas and/or liquid forcefully through the safety relief valve.
Because this venting is unpredictable and could occur in hazardous location, it is essential that the tank be refilled properly. Many portable tanks are equipped with fixed level gauges that can be used to determine safe fill levels. However, weighing the tank is still the most accurate method, eliminating any chance of error that might be caused by replacing the original fixed level gauge with one designed for a different tank size or shape. Note that the float-type gauges normally used for determining the amount of propane in the tank are neither reliable nor accurate enough to be used for determining safe fill levels.
Also, bear in mind that the OPD is intended to provide supplemental protection against tank overfilling, not to serve as the sole means of overfill prevention. The presence of an OPD doesn't relieve the refiller from the duty of determining the tank’s proper fill volume, either by weight or by using the fixed level gauge.
The next most common hazard is caused by storing, transporting or repairing propane tanks in enclosed areas. In addition to living areas, this also includes enclosed garages, storage sheds and passenger vehicles.
There are plenty of other propane safety tips, ranging from the subtle to the obvious:
If you smell propane gas, follow these emergency steps:
Put out smoking materials and other open flames.
Don't operate electric switches, light matches or use a phone. Any spark or flame in the area could ignite the gas.
Immediately get everyone out of the RV, vehicle or other enclosed area.
Close all gas tank or cylinder supply valves.
Do not re-enter the area. Use a neighbor’s telephone to call a trained propane service person and/or the fire department.
Let the service person or firefighters check for propane gas leaks. Have them air out the area before you return.
Have properly trained propane service people repair any leak, then check and relight pilot lights for you.