Outdoors blog

RVs

Why do RVs use Propane?

If you’re an avid camping enthusiast or road riper, you understand how important it is to have a reliable source of heat for your RV. When it comes to heating your RV, there are several different methods that you can use to ensure heat gets to all of the important components and areas of your vehicle.

One of the most commonly used and popular methods for delivering heat to an RV consists of using propane, propane has a lot of benefits the primary one being that it’s cheap to buy and the second one being that a small amount of it can heat an entire RV without a problem.

Energy Source Cost Availability Green
Propane 2.40 per gallon High Yes
Electricity 11 cents kwh High No
Solar 8 cents kwh Low Yes
Wind Turbine 20 cents kwh Low Yes

While some people prefer using propane to heat their RVs, other intensely shy away from it due to the fact that it poses the risk of combustion. While the safety of your persons in an RV when using a propane source for heating is something that should be taken seriously, as long as you follow the correct steps you should have no problems with safety while using a propane tank for heating.

However, if using propane is still something that you’d rather avoid, the good news is that there are a lot of other viable options for you to choose from.

One of the safest and most reliable ways to provide heat to your RV without using a propane tank is by using portable electric heaters. Portable electrical heaters are great because they are small and energy efficient however they can heat up a nice sized RV very quickly with no problem. The best part about using portable eclectic heaters for your RV is that you can simply unplug them and move them into a new area to heat it up or vice versa.

Another very practical option you can choose is by ensuring you seal off any leaks or structural faults which may allow cold air to seep into the interior of your RV. Often times, RV windows have small draft areas which can be loose allowing cold air to make its way into your RV unit itself.

By going through your vehicle and sealing off any loose window seals, cracks in the wall, and installing insulation into your walls are some of the best ways to ensure that you maintain a nice warmed environment regardless of what the weather is like on the outside.

The last and another very effective method for maintaining heat in your RV is by installing a dedicated heating unit on your vehicle. Heating units come in all sorts of sizes and configurations which will allow you to heat the entire space of your RV depending on the temperature outside of the vehicle. Keep in mind, dedicated heating units don’t tend to work in very cold or frigid environments to you will want to consider this before deciding to install one on your RV.

All of these are very viable ways that you can use in order to provide heat to your RV without the need for a propane tank.

 

Propane is more expensive than natural gas, of course, because of the infrastructure to collect or make it, store it, and then deliver it to consumers. On the other hand, it’s nice to have heat to warm your home, and to cook with, rather than using even more expensive electricity for that task when you are outside the normal service areas.

It is so amazingly convenient to have so much chemical energy contained in such a small, safe package. For example, one U.S. gallon of propane is equivalent to 95,000 BTUs/100 megajoules (MJ), or about 80% of the power of the same amount of gasoline—but without the inherent danger and unavoidable odor of gasoline.

Propane gas is commonly used in recreational vehicles (RVs). It is also common in remote or rural areas where natural gas lines are unavailable. Tanker trucks can deliver this useful fuel to cottages or homes with about the same ease as old-fashioned fuel oil deliveries used to occur.

What IS a BTU?

In truth, the British Thermal Unit (BTU) is a rather old-fashioned unit of measure that is seldom used nowadays in the scientific community. Originally, one BTU was described as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.

The Fahrenheit degree has changed size over the years, and was originally designed to measure human body temperature for medical reasons. Body temperature was eventually designated to be 100 degrees on the scale at that time, and other temperatures were worked out from there, such as water freezing at 32º F and water boiling at 212º F. However, due to several changes in degree-size over the years, normal body temperature is now considered to be 98.6º F (37º C).

A Bit Of History

Back in 1793, scientists formalized the metric or MKS system and decided to use the Celsius scale. This was because it set its range based on the freezing point of water (0º C) and the boiling point of water (100º C) which were fixed, at standard temperature and pressure, and thus reliable.

Once that was in place we began to measure available energy in joules, or for larger amounts, kilojoules (kJ), Megajoules (MJ), Gigajoules (GJ), or Terajoules (TJ). Why the switch? It was only because the older system’s units were too small to make sense for what we were measuring. We could harness much more energy than when the scale was originally created.

Consider the Saturn V rocket that we launched in the 1960s and 70s to carry astronauts to the Moon. It was the biggest rocket that ever successfully launched multiple times. It was rated at 160,000,000 horsepower hours, usually abbreviated to just horsepower

Think about that… Nowadays there are only 60,000,000 horses on the entire planet Earth. Not only was it a ridiculous and arbitrary way to measure things, but it probably made horses ashamed or embarrassed that they were so trivial when compared to it…

How powerful was the Saturn V? It is now a much more manageable and easy-to-think-about 429.5 terajoules. Despite that, the Falcon Heavy, still claims it is 5.75 million pounds of total thrust for its two stages because psychologically “millions of pounds” probably makes it easier to sell shares in the company. That’s the difference between financiers and scientists…

NASA could reasonably claim that the Saturn V had 8.8 million pounds of total thrust from its three stages, if push came to shove—but they’re scientists, not advertising executives—and the Saturn V is history…

Propane Consumption Rates

Household propane tanks are typically 250 U.S. gallons (950 liters), up to 1,000 gallons, or nearly four cubic meters. Since a household furnace uses approximately 100,000 BTUs (105 MJ) per hour of continuous operation (when it is actually providing heat), that would amount to one gallon or ~4 liters per hour. With an automatic pilot light option, it doesn’t use any propane when it is not running.

In an RV camper, tanks are often 4.7 gallons (18 liters), so you’re looking at 430,000 BTUs, or 454 MJ of energy, in a single unit. Lots of these campers have two tanks, and people that boondock (camping unconnected to power) often have two tanks, twice the size.

A camper fridge running on propane will consume about 2,200 BTU (2.3 MJ), or run for about 200 hours of continuous operation on a single tank. In reality, like household furnaces, they cycle on and off as needed, so it could last much, much longer on just one ordinary-sized tank of propane. In winter, that fridge would probably run around five hours per day, but in summer, it might only turn off for five hours per day.

On the other hand, a typical RV furnace could consume 16,000 BTUs (16.9 MJ) per hour. Continuous operation would burn through a whole tank in about 26 hours, but in reality, it cycles on and off, too. The best insulated RVs might only run a furnace for 10 minutes per hour at 23° F (-5° C) outside, but older units would probably run much more frequently.

How often and how long it operates depends on where you set your thermostat, how cold it is outside, and how well insulated your RV is. It is also dependent on how often you open and close the doors, and how many fresh air vents are open. For economy’s sake, many people drop the temperature down to around 50° F (10° C) at night, and up to 70° F (21° C), when they’re staying inside.

No One-Size-Fits-All Solutions

Propane is great, relatively cheap, and can last a long time before you need to refill. Summer camping means you’ll use a lot less propane for heating, but your fridge (reefer in camping parlance) will draw a lot more to keep your food cold.

Some folks use a gasoline powered generator (genny for short) to run something like an air-conditioning system in summer, and to keep the batteries charged. Some also install solar cells, and even wind turbines, to keep the battery topped up and power everything when the A/C isn’t on.

Indeed, if you’re right next to running water, people are now dropping water-powered turbines in a stream to generate low voltage electricity. Modern lighting systems have made these systems more popular because of LED’s much greater efficiency. These “little” generators usually supply about 12 volts DC, so the run of wire must be short so as to not lose all that power pushing it through long (higher electrical resistance) wires.

Now, gasoline may be easier to find, but propane isn’t that difficult to locate in most cases. As a result, some people have taken to using propane powered electrical generators instead, to remove the necessity of carrying two types of fuel.

What Is Propane?

Propane, or C3H8, as it is known in chemical circles, is one of the simpler hydrocarbons. It is a very clean burning fuel, just like natural gas. When propane burns, its byproducts are H2O and CO2, or water and carbon dioxide. It has no soot, carbon monoxide, or nitrogen oxides (like gasoline and diesel fuels do) unless it is burned in dirty burners, or oxygen-poor conditions.

You can always tell it is burning efficiently when its flame is clear blue, without orange or yellow flickers, and when there is no smoke. If you see colors other than blue/white, it is a sign that it is time to clean the burner. Think of it like a BBQ burner that is pure blue flame until you drip a bit of grease, which then flares up a dirty orange color until that is burned off.

Is Propane Carbon Neutral?

No, very few things are carbon neutral. An example of a carbon neutral fuel is wood. The amount of carbon dioxide released from burning wood is precisely equal to the amount of CO2 required to grow the same amount of replacement wood.

How Much CO2 Is Produced?

Propane generates 139 pounds (63 kg) of CO2 for every million BTU (1,065 MJ) of energy released; gasoline produces 157 lbs. (71.3 kg), and home heating oil produces 161.3 lbs. (73 kg). Speaking in terms of creating heat energy, only natural gas creates less carbon dioxide (117 lbs./53 kg), so propane and other related gases are relatively good for the environment.

Systems utilizing geothermal energy generate only 17 lbs./7.7 kg to create similar energy, and burning Municipal Solid Waste in modern efficient burners, only 92 lbs./41.7 kg per million BTUs/1,065 MJs. You might be able to beat that with solar, wind, or water-wave derived power, even if you include the carbon-load for manufacturing that equipment.

But wait…It Doesn’t Add Up!

You may have noticed that a liter of propane (or any liquid fuel for that matter) weighs a lot less than the CO2 produced… How is it possible that, for example, gasoline which weighs 6.3 lbs./gallon (0.77 kg/liter) can produce 19.6 lbs. or 8.8 kg of carbon dioxide? That seems insane…you cannot create mass out of nothing at all… The Law of the Conservation of Mass and E=MC2, remember?

It is all about the chemistry. Earlier we stated that propane’s molecular formula is C3H8. Well, gasoline has a much more complex formula with up to 500 additives and mixtures, but it can be simplified to something like C8H18, similar to propane.

Massively Confusing

A single atom of carbon has an atomic mass of 12 units. The unit is an AMU, or atomic mass unit, and its value is not important to this discussion, though if you’re curious, the AMU is calculated for all atoms based on 1/12 of the mass of an unbound atom of carbon 12 (written as 12C).

In comparison, hydrogen has a mass of 1 and oxygen has a mass of 16. Of course, we’re just talking about the protons and neutrons in the nucleus to keep the numbers simple, and not the fiddly small masses of its electrons. Otherwise we would have to say that hydrogen masses 1.0079, and so on, which will not affect our calculations in the least except to make them more tedious. We are therefore ignoring electrons!

Making And Breaking Connections

When you “burn” something, particularly a hydrocarbon fuel, you are breaking apart molecules; their atoms are rejoining with other atoms. Each of these “makes and breaks” causes a release of energy.

In our case, each atom of carbon combines with two atoms of oxygen to form CO2 gas. That carbon (mass of 12) connects to two oxygen atoms (16 x 2), and becomes CO2 with a mass of 44, or 3.7 times heavier than the original carbon atom. The weight wasn’t magically manufactured—it simply took two oxygen atoms out of the air to assemble the much heavier molecule of carbon dioxide.

Similarly, two of the hydrogens combine with atmospheric oxygen as H2O. The pair of hydrogens, which happen to mass 2, combine with one oxygen atom (mass 16) to make water, with a mass of 18 per molecule.

This rapid oxidization is what we call fire. When it happens slowly over a long time—such as atmospheric oxygen combining with iron—we call it rusting, though it is just the same process at a significantly lower speed.

Where Does Propane Come From?

Propane is a fossil fuel. A couple of billion years ago there were lots of plants on Earth, long before there were any land animals. They mostly took the form of ferns, and nothing was taller than an adult human. There were few, if any, decomposers yet, such as fungi. When a plant died it just dried out and remained there on the ground until it was buried under more plants, dirt, rocks, and so on.

Fire created by lightning strikes were much more common back then, and would clear out the waste releasing some of the nutrients back to new plants. Mostly it just got buried, and over the course of millennia, under immense pressure and heat, it eventually became the oil reserves that we tap into today.

Propane is now drawn off natural gas reserves and petrochemical deposits located beneath land all around the world. Additional reserves were created by dying sea creatures and plants, and can be found deep in the ocean.

Propane Is A Safe Fuel

Anything that can burn is inherently dangerous, but propane liquefies at a relatively low pressure and can be stored and handled easily by the average consumer. It doesn’t require energy inputs to keep it liquid as is required by gases such as helium or nitrogen—a structurally sound container is all that is required.

Methane (natural gas) can be liquefied, too, but requires significant cooling, or very high pressure-capable containers, well beyond the strength of anything that would be safely used in a home. A vessel that could hold 4,600 psi/32,000 kPa would be prohibitively expensive and heavy.

Butane is even easier to store than propane, in very modest and light containers. Consequently, it is often used for small stoves for backpackers and campers. It’s more costly but repays that by being small, light, and easy to handle.

Dangers of Propane

Propane has very little odor (a faint petrochemical smell) of its own so manufacturers add a thiol chemical like methyl-mercaptan, which is also flammable, but smells of bad cabbage, skunk, or rotten eggs, depending on your interpretation. The point is that it is nasty-smelling and alerts the consumer to the fact that they have a leak. The same additive is found in household natural gas supplies.

In and of itself, propane is not poisonous at all. Its danger lies in the fact that it displaces oxygen, and in sufficient concentrations can cause rapid breathing as your lungs struggle to get enough oxygen, rapid heartbeat as your body tries to circulate the limited amount of oxygen to the rest of the body, and additional problems, too.

These are characterized as clumsiness, emotional outbursts, and tiredness. As it worsens it can manifest as nausea, vomiting, physical collapse & convulsions, eventually can even be followed by coma and death.

This is why all RVs and homes using propane should have a separate propane detector installed. Your carbon monoxide or fire detectors will not respond to propane leaks at all.

If the alarm ever sounds, it is immediately obvious with the smell that something is amiss. Luckily, it is quite easy to check for leaks by simply applying some soapy water to the connections. The soapy solution will bubble up when there is a leak, and it is simply a matter of tightening that connection or turning off the propane valve if it needs service of repairs that you cannot handle yourself.

The Pane in your Gas

Of course, humorously enough, since we generally mount these detector low (propane is 50% heavier than air), we sometimes have accidental alarms. Campers have reported many false alarms triggered by dog-farts, or even human farts! These are often chockful of methane, which will set it off, and so Fido’s flatulence can be a real pane in the middle of the night…

Bang For Your Buck

Since sticks of dynamite are often designed to provide exactly 1 MJ of explosive energy, you can think of a regular camper-type propane tank as being about 450 sticks of dynamite in terms of available energy. The small green “Coleman” style tanks are about half a liter (14 to 16 oz.) so 11,500 BTUs or 12.1 MJ.

If you’re curious about how casually thoughtless some people were as children, look at these modern “good ol’ boys” who are destined to hurt themselves one day (though not this time), while blowing up these mini-tanks by setting them in a fire and then shooting them. As you can see, you have to work awfully hard to make these things dangerous. Propane is better and safer than gasoline for most purposes.

Hot Stuff/Cold Stuff

Nonetheless, propane burns at a temperature of 3,596 °F/1,980 °C, so it is not something to be taken lightly. All the usual precautions are in play and you should assure that any people operating anything to do with it know how to treat it with the appropriate care and respect!

It is worth noting that propane will become liquid at normal air pressure when it reaches 46 ºF/42º C so, in the northern region of this hemisphere, or polar regions, it can become difficult to use until it warms up enough to flow as a gas again; it will even solidify at -306º F/−187.7 °C. Of course, temperatures in the -40s are seen in several places on Earth, but negative temperatures in the 100s would never happen naturally.

The Takeaway

Propane is not the cheapest fuel, but it is powerful, compact, safe, and efficient. Its widespread availability and ease of transportation make it the fuel of choice for travelers and off-grid campers, and it is the next best solution, compared to natural gas, for cost.

If it does ever leak, it warns you with an unmistakable smell, which only adds to its inherent safety. And, to be honest, it takes a pretty determined effort to render propane unsafe for ordinary use.

In conjunction with other energy sources, it is a very useful product, though if the need arises, it can supply just about all of your basic needs such as heating, cooking, and electrical generation. The same can’t be said for gasoline, for instance, where cooking would be more than challenging—it could be downright dangerous.

It is certainly not carbon neutral, but it is one of the lower effect options, like natural gas. If you keep the burners clean, your impact should be minimal, and that should save you cash in the long run.

Ultimately, if you can keep Fido-farts to a minimum, it could be a completely uneventful substitute for natural gas, for only a few pennies more per unit. Propane is a good deal for most applications.