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Thread: Propane in cold temperatures

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    Member Boone's Avatar
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    Default Propane in cold temperatures

    I have a small dry cabin and it's plumbed for propane lights. I'm installing a small range and gas fridge and, in my research, I've discovered I may have a problem with my design.

    First, I'll be using two 40# tanks for ease of transportation. In addition to the range and fridge I have a total of 8 Mr. Heater lights.

    What are some of everyone's experiences with using propane in cold temperatures? I'm concerned the pressure in my tanks will drop and some of my appliances will be unusable. Lots of charts and tables online but I wanted a more practical experience.

    Cabin is in the valley so I won't be in Fairbanks-like temperatures.

    Thanks in advance for your help!

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    I have propane in my willow cabin just for the range and when it's cold it seems like the regulator freezes or something and it doesn't burn at full power.

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    Supporting Member Old John's Avatar
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    I have a small cabin off of the Yentna.. I have a vented propane "furnace" a couple propane lights, and a 2 burner cook stove...
    -25 is probably the coldest we have ever used the cabin, and the hardest part is getting things to light... The BBQ lighters don't work in minus temps... and wooden matches are even hard to light by striking... So... we all carry bic lighters in our pants pocket... They light the propane lamps easily enough and then Use the bics to light long wooden matches, and eventually we get the furnace going.. Once things start to warm up inside we are fine.. I think propane stops flowing at about -40.... but I don't see us out playing in those temps, so have never been too concerned with that aspect.,..

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    Member Queen of Kings's Avatar
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    My cabin is in Eureka and I heat, cook and have a few lights all on propane. When it gets colder than -20, things really slow down on the propane flow. I was up there once when it dropped to -36 and it was marginal at best. Was concerned if it got much colder it may quit working. I keep a kerosene 30K heater up there for a back up. Now days, I try not going up there is it is colder than -20.
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    I have a small insulated shed just big enough for two 100lbs. bottles with a rack in between the two bottles ,this is made so that I can heat fire bricks on the wood stove and then set these on edge up in the middle of the two tanks then close the insulated doors and things warm up to a useable temp.The enclouser is not attached to the cabin so there is no danger of propane getting into the cabin from the tanks. I also have a valve to switch the tanks with just a flip of a little lever that way you don't have to switch out a empty bottle when one runs out ,as a general rule you will notice the lights acting up and you will have time to go out and change tanks before everything goes out.

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    What happens at extreme cold when it comes to propane is it loses the ability to boil and produce gas. Propane is a liquid and it has a boiling point that it will start to boil and produce gas. Sorry I forget what the boiling point number is I have been out of that type of work for a while.
    The smaller the container the quicker the extreme cold will affect it. The best way to remedies this is to heat the bottle up long enough to start boiling internal. (not meaning that literally) but to aply some heat to the tank long enough to warm it up.

    Smaller gas valves like for grills tend to get moisture in the valves because of smaller tanks. Propane produces some amount of water as a byproduct of the gas. The valves can and will freeze up at times.

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    Supporting Member Old John's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Big Bend View Post
    I have a small insulated shed just big enough for two 100lbs. bottles with a rack in between the two bottles ,this is made so that I can heat fire bricks on the wood stove and then set these on edge up in the middle of the two tanks then close the insulated doors and things warm up to a useable temp.The enclouser is not attached to the cabin so there is no danger of propane getting into the cabin from the tanks. I also have a valve to switch the tanks with just a flip of a little lever that way you don't have to switch out a empty bottle when one runs out ,as a general rule you will notice the lights acting up and you will have time to go out and change tanks before everything goes out.
    I started out heating my cabin off of a 100# bottle, but it always seemed to go empty on a miserable cold night in February.. Wrestling the empty bottle out of a hole in 3 or 4 ft of snow wasn't too bad (for an old fart) but wrestling the full 172 lbs of bottle back in to hook it up was not for me... So I traded the 100 lb bottle for 2 40 lb bottles, (and have a 30 lb for backup).. I've often thought about rigging 2 bottles with a switch... as that would be much simpler to switch in the middle of a cold night in February... Something (more) to work on "next summer".....

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    Member alaska4ever's Avatar
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    In my 10 years of winter caretaking my last lodge, I would always keep 3-100lb. propane bottles ready to hook upp but, as old John said, they seem to always go out when cooking breakfast or dinner and generally it was dark and the snow was high.

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    Pure propane gives of vapor down to -44 deg. If you had pure propane it would work to 44 below. However most plants that make propane are allowed a percentage of butane in there propane which is only go to around 20 degs, so what you end up with is blended fuel that will not burn at temps that pure propane will. I have seen the small canisters you buy for lanterns quit working at 0 degs. As mentioned above a little heat will get it working just be careful . If you should have a propane release remember the vapor is heavier then air and will collect in low spots.

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    Member AKDoug's Avatar
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    The first thing to go is the regulator. Often the propane will flow just fine if the regulator is warmed up. The last few years this magic temp seems to be about -20F at my house. We just hit the regulator with a hair dryer for a couple minutes and we are back in business. The funny thing is, once it's flowing it's fine for hours. That leads me to believe it's a water vapor issue from the propane. I've even gotten the regulator to flow better by just setting two of those shake up hand warmers on top of it.

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    Supporting Member iofthetaiga's Avatar
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    AKDoug, it does indeed sound like you have a moisture issue with your regulator. This is the first I've ever heard of this kind of problem. Normally, regulators are unaffected by the cold temps.

    Gunnysack pointed out something that I'd like to tag on to. The condensation temperature of propane is generally around -40 give or take a couple degrees. As the exterior temp falls toward that -40 mark, the rate at which you're making gaseous propane in your tank decreases correspondingly, and that can affect your ability to adequately supply enough gas volume to satisfy your appliances. The OP was spot on in his concern with this.

    What I really want to point out though is a very real danger that occasionally gets people here. That is the propensity for people to be tempted to employ some sort of heating device to increase the temp of the propane tank. You can even buy an electric heater that attaches to the tank magnetically, for this purpose. What I want to say is that this can be VERY DANGEROUS! Here's how the scenario plays out:

    Commonly, people here have a propane tank standing next to the house/cabin. The primary regulator is attached to the top of the tank. From there, the gas line travels some distance before entering the interior heated space of the structure. This distance might be only a foot or two, or many feet, as in the situation where the line is routed under the cabin and then up through the floor somewhere. The distance doesn't really matter so much. What's really important is that this line is unheated; it's at the same temperature as the outside ambient temp.

    So let's say it's about -40 outside, and your propane tank is no longer producing enough gas to run your stove, or lights, or whatever. You decide to apply some sort of heat to your tank in order to get the gas flowing. That part works fine. The temp of the tank increases a bit, the liquid propane in the tank turns to gas. It passes through the regulator and into the line on it's way toward the inside of your house. Now comes the problem: the gas line is COLD; it's still at -40 something, below the condensation temperature of propane. The gaseous propane in the line now condenses back to liquid and accumulates in the line. This liquid propane makes it's way into the heated space....expands rapidly....BOOM! You just generated an expanding liquid gas explosion.

    Design your place so that your line is as short as possible and enters directly from the regulator into interior heated space. Plan for the fact that your propane appliances aren't going to work at temps much below -40. And don't be tempted to apply heat directly to your propane tank.
    He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. ~Thomas Jefferson

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    Member dkwarthog's Avatar
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    With a two stage regulator, we dont generally have problems with our propane until it hits about -30 or colder. When we were using a standard appliance type regulator we had issues at -20 or so. I've done as AKDoug said above and can get it to work for a while longer, but usually if its -30 to -40 that method is a losing battle. When I know the temperature is gonna get cold, I'll make sure both 100#ers are full and put an old sleeping bag over the tanks and the regulator until the weather warms. That helps some.

    I may do what Big Bend said above and build a little insulated enclosure. That sounds like a pretty slick deal.

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    Member dkwarthog's Avatar
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    I'm not disagreeing with you Taiga, and I surely dont condone people messing with things they dont understand. But I will say that I have had a line under my old cabin that once, (at -50F) when I opened the gas valve on my propane light and lit the mantle little flaming balls of liquid propane fell to the floor of my cabin and sputtered til they went out. It was kind of cool actually.

    Based on what you posted, wouldnt that have turned back to vapor once it entered the heated space? Then again, it may have been below zero in my cabin at the time too, lol....

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    Supporting Member iofthetaiga's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dkwarthog View Post
    I'll make sure both 100#ers are full and put an old sleeping bag over the tanks and the regulator until the weather warms. That helps some.

    I may do what Big Bend said above and build a little insulated enclosure. That sounds like a pretty slick deal.
    I've done this too, and it's a viable option. Just make sure the full length of your line is also under the sleeping bag/inside the enclosure.
    He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. ~Thomas Jefferson

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    Supporting Member iofthetaiga's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dkwarthog View Post
    I'm not disagreeing with you Taiga, and I surely dont condone people messing with things they dont understand. But I will say that I have had a line under my old cabin that once, (at -50F) when I opened the gas valve on my propane light and lit the mantle little flaming balls of liquid propane fell to the floor of my cabin and sputtered til they went out. It was kind of cool actually.

    Based on what you posted, wouldnt that have turned back to vapor once it entered the heated space? Then again, it may have been below zero in my cabin at the time too, lol....
    Nope, we're not going to argue... :-) I do know of people who have blown up their kitchens when liquid gas made it to the stove, while they were standing in front of it cooking...

    It probably was well below zero inside your cabin in the scenario you describe. Which allowed you to get away with it....

    Be safe.
    He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. ~Thomas Jefferson

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    Supporting Member iofthetaiga's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dkwarthog View Post
    Based on what you posted, wouldnt that have turned back to vapor once it entered the heated space? Then again, it may have been below zero in my cabin at the time too, lol....
    Yes, and that's the whole point. What is now turning back to gas is an unregulated large volume of accumulated liquid propane. It's as if you plumbed your bottle directly to your appliances without the regulator....
    He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. ~Thomas Jefferson

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    Member dkwarthog's Avatar
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    When we built our home, I made sure that there was "no" pipe outdoors. The regulator is mounted on the house and the pipe turns 90 immediately into my home.

    Even with the sleeping bag, I have still had problems when the temps stayed at -40 for days and days. I do suspect that some of the problems stem from regulator freezing up. Seems to me that the temperature drop associated with the phase/pressure change freezes any condensation in the regulator and they seem hard to get thawed out sometimes.

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    Supporting Member iofthetaiga's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dkwarthog View Post
    When we built our home, I made sure that there was "no" pipe outdoors. The regulator is mounted on the house and the pipe turns 90 immediately into my home.

    Even with the sleeping bag, I have still had problems when the temps stayed at -40 for days and days. I do suspect that some of the problems stem from regulator freezing up. Seems to me that the temperature drop associated with the phase/pressure change freezes any condensation in the regulator and they seem hard to get thawed out sometimes.
    Interesting. Must be a lot of h2o seperating out of your gas for some reason. Or perhaps you're getting atmospheric moisture condensing on/in your regulator. I've never experienced this problem. Is your regulator vent oriented properly?

    A compact design with a wall mounted regulator and no exposed line after the regulator is the way to go. It also lends itself to building an insulated enclosure around the tank/regulator/line. I've done this, and it does trap heat loss from the house and makes a big difference when the temp bottoms out for a long time. I think this is the smartest/safest way to go.
    He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. ~Thomas Jefferson

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    I probably didnt word that quite right. I was referring to similar to what AKDoug was saying. I can heat the regulator with a hair dryer or hand warmers and it will work for a while. Maybe its not actual water freezing but as simple as the cold temps stiffening the diaphram rubber in the regulator (?). I've never actually pulled a regulator apart, maybe I'll take one of my old ones and tear it down just for s&g's.

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    Supporting Member iofthetaiga's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dkwarthog View Post
    I probably didnt word that quite right. I was referring to similar to what AKDoug was saying. I can heat the regulator with a hair dryer or hand warmers and it will work for a while. Maybe its not actual water freezing but as simple as the cold temps stiffening the diaphram rubber in the regulator (?). I've never actually pulled a regulator apart, maybe I'll take one of my old ones and tear it down just for s&g's.
    Hmmm. Is age (of the regulator) a potential factor? Mine have always worked flawlessly all the way down to the gas condensation temps. I have had them crap out due to old age, but all of mine have always been flawless to that point.
    He who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors. ~Thomas Jefferson

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