This article covers the basics of propane as an important energy preparation resource. Topics include safe handling of propane, storage, setting up a bulk tank reserve for long-term storage at the lowest possible cost, and refilling the smaller one-pound containers commonly used with portable camping equipment, for about 1/5 of the cost of new ones. We will also examine a variety of basic propane appliances and their suitability in a survival scenario.
Why should I use propane?
For convenience, value, air quality, and long-term storage stability, nothing is better than propane.
Firewood is cheaper, if you have access to it and don’t count the value of your time. But, when you’re burning all day long, it’s not as convenient if you have to go out and cut/pick it up yourself. The goods are heavy, especially if you are transporting them over long distances. And how do you manage to use an axe for hours?
If you lack survival work, which is a good chance, having the option of cooking with propane for an extended time, at least until things calm down, will allow you to channel that considerable time and energy from wood into other important tasks, such as hunting and growing food, or protecting yourself from predators. Also, the ease of using propane allows for delegation of cooking etc. to a less skilled member of your group, allowing everyone to contribute to the overall well-being.
From an investment standpoint, the prices of propane and the equipment and appliances that use it are directly linked to money price inflation, the “hidden tax” that constantly gnaws away at the purchasing power of hard-earned savings. Inflation is being deliberately manipulated to keep it down for now, but some price categories, such as food, continue to rise sharply, without wages being kept at the same level. In addition, the economic scenario is heavily prepared for hyperinflation in the not too distant future.
Therefore, one of the best investments in pre-inflationary and inflationary times (also known as inflation hedges) are hard goods and consumables, such as food, which are used anyway and are likely to cost even more in the future. In other words, to combat inflation, the best place to store your surplus wealth is in tangible things, not in pieces of paper or electrons. To be sure, no matter how the future shakes out, retail prices for propane and propane hardware won’t be getting any cheaper, and they’ll probably go up by a lot.
If stored properly, both fuel and hardware will last indefinitely without degrading and be ready for use in an instant. For all intents and purposes, unlike food, there is no limit to their shelf life.
Therefore, you will save money in the long run, anyway, by storing the consumables. But, if the net goes down, there will be no more propane available to buy and the value of your investment will go up a lot. Therefore, the larger the reserve and the smaller the appliances that use it, which consume less fuel, the longer it will last.
If you play your cards right, you can accumulate at least a year’s worth of cooking fuel and minimal lighting for an average family (10 full five-gallon tanks that equal 200 small green cans) for about $200, and do it for $20 at a time.
Is propane convenient?
Another way to look at propane is as a serious labor-saving device.
In a self-sustaining scenario, your biggest critical shortage is going to be the labor and the energy to power it. With propane in your resource inventory, the large amount of work that would normally have to be invested in collecting and processing fuel for a cooking fire can then be redirected to other critical tasks, such as growing food, etc.
When cooking is less labour-intensive, it can also be assigned to party tenants, such as the older ones with more enthusiasm than physical stamina, while at the same time taking care of the younger ones and teaching them to cook, freeing up the parents to work elsewhere.
The easiest way to implement propane in your preparation strategy and start to climb the learning curve is to start looking for ways to incorporate it into your daily life. It doesn’t matter much where you start, but probably the best place is cooking. So, if you don’t already have one, start buying a camp stove.
Amazon has a good assortment and you can often find propane items at very attractive prices at garage sales, etc. Generally speaking, you want appliances that use those green 1 pound propane cans that cost so much, but can also be easily refilled at great savings.
To develop your competence in advance, turn on the camp stove and cook at least a few meals with it, perhaps practicing your food preparation recipes at the same time. Perhaps conduct a “network weekend” drill, where you only live off of gathered resources, to test your resources and quickly determine what is missing. You will kill at least three birds with one stone: Propane, using your portable stove and cooking subsistence style with stored food.
Are propane tanks portable?
An empty tank weighs 20 pounds, and when it’s full, it weighs 17 pounds. Therefore, they are not exactly ideal for carrying when running for your life on foot. However, if mobility is mandatory until you reach your safe haven (you have one lined up, right?), simple single-burner stoves can be quite small and compact.
When combined with wok cooking, which includes sautéing, steaming, soups, casseroles, etc., many people can be fed with very little fuel. Asian people, where fuel is always in critical short supply, have been using woks for cooking for countless years as the most efficient way to prepare food over a small flame.
For a truly minimalist use of propane, such as in your exhaust bag, a good option is the Coleman PefectFlow 1-Burner Stove that screws directly into the top of the can.
Between the stove and the fuel container, you will add approximately two pounds to your load. But you’ll also be able to boil lots of dubious drinking water, instant soups, coffee, etc., which will also help reduce the cold and heat up some fast foods whenever you can stop running for a few minutes.
By adding a small lightweight Cantonese style hammered steel wok
and a couple of utensils won’t add much weight, and will give you even more options for survival. The small stove and a jar will be packed, for the most part, inside the wok. Don’t forget to pre-season your new wok, as you would with cast iron.
How much does propane cost?
All things considered, propane as a backup energy source is very cheap. There is a great deal of high cost technology involved in the production of gas containers and storage that you will not be able to replace on a DIY level. Since propane is a by-product of other processes, the market price does not reflect its actual cost to create it, as is the case with solar panels, for example.
Is propane cheaper than gas?
In terms of the cost per unit of heat, propane is cheaper (and much safer to use) than any of the liquid fuels, although not as cheap as piped natural gas, neither of which will be available in a downsizing situation.
The market price range will generally fluctuate along with the rest of the hydrocarbon market, so stocks will increase soon after gasoline prices drop, after the propane dealer has had a chance to catch up to lower prices, which they are often in no hurry to do, unless prices rise.
A small, 1 liter bottle of brand new green propane can cost between 2.50 and 7.50. 3.00 is the local average, so I’ll use that figure. A gallon of propane in two-pound cans will cost you about 12 euros. So, while this is certainly convenient, it’s also very expensive. Fortunately, these small bottles can be refilled many times for about 65 cents each and we’ll detail how to do that later in this article.
Propane vs butane
One thing worth mentioning is not to confuse the one-pound propane cylinders and hardware with the ultra-lightweight butane gear, which are designed primarily for backpackers. A small 4 oz. tank and stove may be excellent in your bug-out bag, but this is not a good continuous fuel source: small tanks won’t last long, bulk butane is hard to find at the best of times and there is no easy way to refill the tanks. The way the tanks are connected to the hardware is also different from propane, so there is no possibility of mixing the two.
Propane while camping
What you learned in part was how, with a little creative research and smart shopping, to acquire enough tanks to provide at least a minimum of cooking and night lighting for about a year, at a nominal cost.
Next, we will cover the easy, low-cost refill of expensive one-kilogram cans (when new) and some of the challenges they can pose. We will also cover some of the major low-power propane appliances that will make life easier, and safer, in a downsizing scenario while making the transition to a possible new world order.
Refilling One-Litre Cans from 10-Litre Bulk Tanks
With the right type of adapter, described below, it is a fairly simple process to transfer liquid propane from a bulk tank to small green containers and vice versa. However, there are a couple of critical things to keep in mind:
The container is in two forms: liquid and gas. Both are pure propane, but at room temperature, the liquid will expand rapidly and greatly in volume to a gas as the vapor pressure is reduced. There are no practical uses for liquid propane, other than transferring it between containers, and many potential problems (such as explosive clouds of white gas), so you want to avoid releasing liquid propane at all costs. For example, if liquid is supplied to a small propane heater, the liquid fuel can cause real damage, making the heater inoperable, with no easy repair.
A more critical example would be if you connected a one-pound can to a camp stove, with the can overfilled or upside down, so that the outlet is liquid, rather than gas: The liquid propane could come out of the burners, quickly expand into a large cloud of gas just as you’re trying to light it, and something will boom! With a little luck, the only thing that will scorch is your eyebrows, but it can also destroy your equipment and even cause eye injuries that will be painful and take a long time to heal, just when you don’t have time to get lost.
But, if it was a huge cloud of flame and you happened to inhale heavily at that moment, as for example by surprise at the huge cloud of flame that currently envelops your face, you will literally end up breathing the flame into your lungs. When you burn the lining of your lungs they will start oozing fluid to the point of filling up and you will probably die of pneumonia within 15 minutes, if you are lucky. If you’re not lucky, it will take even longer.
When you play with propane, you’re literally playing with fire, and more than you’ve probably ever experienced.
Like a firearm, propane is a powerful and valuable survival tool, but it needs to be handled with the utmost understanding and respect. That’s why I keep hitting safety issues so hard and so often.
So before you start down this propane road, especially if you are going to be coloring outside the lines, you better have a very clear idea of what you are doing. That’s the purpose of this long article, which is intended to bring the average reader up to speed from the beginning.
But, if you keep in mind some possibly new basic principles and carefully read all the instructions that come with each propane appliance, propane can also save your life, or at least make it much more enjoyable in a network situation.
Propane: It’s a gas and a liquid, in the same tank
Once again, the propane inside the tank is in the form of a gas and liquid that can expand rapidly into a surprisingly large gas cloud and can be triggered into a large explosion with the slightest spark.
Fortunately, it’s easy to choose which form, gas or liquid, you want to dispense out of the container, depending on whether you’re transferring fuel from one container to another or using it for practical purposes:
When the container is standing upright with the outlet at the top, the liquid propane is at the bottom of the tank, so what will come out is the gaseous form, which will quickly replenish itself from the liquid form as the pressure inside the tank drops. When propane is used for practical purposes, this gas is what is desired.
But, when the tanks are upside down or are possible on their sides, what will come out is liquid propane. Generally, the only time you want this liquid is when you are transferring fuel from one container to another.
Just keep in mind, for consumer-level propane hardware: “The upright gives you gas and the inverted gives you liquid.
The process of filling one-liter containers
The key component you need to refill small one-pound propane cans is an adapter that costs about $15 and is called a MacCoupler Adapter.
Don’t forget that this is an inverted thread, so turn it *counterclockwise” (tight left). You can start threading this by hand. Tighten slightly, but with a wrench.
This video below show the correct orientation of the containers during various operations.
Above: The correct position for transferring fuel from the bulk fuel tank to the container. (The plastic wrapper on the tank has been removed).
Above: The proper orientation for transferring fuel from a canister back to the bulk fuel tank. If you wish to completely refill the bulk tank, you will need to go through this operation at least 20 times. But, if you’re throwing a big barbecue and you’re running out of gas, this could save the day. Ditto, if you need to run something that is set up for bulk tanks, but all of yours are empty.
The process of transferring fuel
Transferring fuel from one tank to another is relatively simple:
- With the tank valve closed, install the reverse threaded adapter on the bulk tank. Tighten it with a wrench until it is moderately tight, and do not forget that it is a reverse thread direction to normal. The sealing mechanism is a rubber O-ring on the adapter and does not require high torque pressures to seal. “Just comfortable” is fine. You will find specific instructions on how to tighten a bit below.
- If filling a small can, turn the tank upside down and place it on a flat, sturdy surface to prevent it from tipping over. Remember, you want to transfer the liquid form, which is at the bottom, so the outlet has to be at the bottom. Keep the bulk tank valve closed.
- Fix the can to be filled on the other side of the adapter. This time, however, the threads run in the normal “right-tight” direction. Again, the sealing mechanism is a rubber ring, so just tighten it in place. Important note: If the connection of the adapter to the tank is too loose and the canister is screwed on the other side with too much force, it will actually start to unscrew the adapter from the tank, potentially releasing gas into the airspace it is currently occupying. Again, “not good”. This is why you need to keep the bulk fuel tank valve closed at all times, except when you are doing the fuel transfer.
- Once everything is properly oriented and connected, now is the time to open the tank valve and let the transfer begin. Stay alert and keep your ears open for gas leaks, in the form of a white gas cloud. The transfer may take about one minute to complete, depending on the temperature and remaining contents of the supply tank, which affects the supply pressure. When the whistling stops, you have transferred everything you are going to move right now. This will give you a 50% fill of the jar.
(Transferring fuel from a canister to a bulk tank is the same process, but the canister should be upside down and the bulk tank on its side, as in the picture above).
How to fully refill propane tanks
But wait! We haven’t run out of surprises yet! The most common challenge when filling one-litre cans is that it is usually very difficult to completely fill the can.
This last surprise is due to the fact that, while the temperature of the liquid fuel decreases as the supply decreases, at the same time, as the fuel enters a new vessel, the internal pressure increases, the vessel becomes hot and, as a result, the pressure that resists transfer to the vessel increases almost exponentially. At the same time, during the transfer process, the supply tank pressure decreases and the dispensing pressure decreases.
The end result is that a one-pound can receiving will typically only be half full during transfer, not to mention quite hot. Therefore, it will only last half as long before it dries out. Assuming we want a full refill, or almost.
The most accurate way to keep track of the fill level is to weigh the can with a small scale when it is empty (no liquid is heard splashing around inside) and then weigh it again after it is filled. With a full fill, you should weigh exactly 16 ounces more than when it is empty.
Safety Note: You do NOT want to overfill a receiving container, and this is possible if the supply tank is too hot. Otherwise, there is a risk of spilling liquid fuel into the appliance, even if the container is properly oriented, which can cause clouds of flame and/or damage the appliance itself, as described above. Conceivably, you could even risk bursting the canister by overfilling it, explosively releasing a pound of vapor. The insert that comes with the adapter contains a couple of dozen warnings and you should read and memorize all of them, as well as the safety warnings that come with each device. This is not salad oil.
The factory that fills the new containers uses high pressure pumps to overcome this temperature resistance phenomenon. But, we don’t have that option, which is probably the best.
What you want for the best filling is a hot (not hot) supply tank and a cold receiving tank. The Web is full of suggestions on how to get it, some good and some very bad.
One of the worst ideas I have seen is to heat the tank by letting it sit in the sun for hours. As we learned in the cautionary tale from scout camp above, again, not good. DO NOT fill or refill a one-pound canister from a hot bulk tank (over 85 degrees F.). If the ambient air temperature is above 85, it is not a good time to refill the bottles. If this is a problem in your situation, first thing in the morning, after a cooler night, is the best time.
Other suggestions, including inserting the MacCoupler adapter, suggest pre-cooling the receiving container, either by sticking it in the freezer or by immersing it in ice water before filling it. These are quite effective in precompensating for “thermal resistance”, but in a diminished net scenario, freezers and ice water can be very difficult to achieve.
This is the easy way to get a complete fill: Fill the canister twice.
That is, fill the can as much as you can without special temperature tricks, turn off the tank valve and then let the can cool down in the shade or, if you have it, some cold water. Then, once it has cooled down again, fill it with a second transfer. This will usually give you a 90% fill, which is good enough and leaves a little more safety cushion to prevent overfilling. It never hurts to go out on a little safety cushion.
If you have a scale, you can check your fill rates by weighing the can before and after both steps. With a little practice, you will be able to make a good guess without a scale just by the weight of the can and the amount of “slosh” heard inside.
Drive carefully with propane tanks
Since we are talking about the use of propane adapters, etc., in a situation of network failure, these will simply be irreplaceable. They are the critical link in the can recharging system and there is no way to easily assemble one to get it out of the can. For this reason alone, it would be prudent to have a new spare adapter in stock. If you do not anticipate being able to easily replace this adapter, or even if you can, you need to treat these things with a little care.
These adapters are made of relatively soft brass. Therefore, it is very easy to damage or even wear out the threads due to repeated and hard use, which could render the adapter unusable and make it no longer possible to refill the small vessels in bulk tanks. If that happens, you’ll be stuck with all these handy portable propane devices, but with no easy way to fuel them.
Here are several things that will extend the life of the adapter threads:
- The first, obviously, is not to drop the adapter on a hard surface: hitting a rock can totally ruin the threads. You may be able to clean the threads with a file or by gently starting them on the bulk tank threads and carefully using a wrench to restore the position of the struck threads, although they will not be as strong as to withstand pressures up to 200 PSI. Of course, make sure that every time you start threading the adapter, you start it straight, not “cross-threaded”. If you can easily thread it for a couple of turns with just finger pressure, you’re in good shape.
- Another strategy for prolonging life is to lubricate the threads of the adapter before screwing it in or threading something into it. A thin layer of shaft grease or petroleum jelly will work well. But, be sure not to let anything get into the end opening or it will end up inside your smaller canister and eventually inside the device, which could clog it up and prevent it from working properly. In a pinch, pull the dipstick out of your vehicle’s engine oil and let a drop or two drip from the bottom of the dipstick onto the threads. Even a light touch with a soap bar will help prolong the life of the thread. Simply do not use more lubrication than necessary to reduce frictional wear on the threads.
- Another tip to minimize thread wear is to start threading the adapter into the tank by hand, as tightly as possible, until it starts to resist. Only then, tighten it with a 1 1/8″ wrench. Over-tightening is the quickest way to wear out the threads and with a wrench this big, that’s easy to do. The main sealing mechanism is not friction or compression, as with other fittings, but a small rubber O-ring on the adapter that mates with another O-ring inside the tank throat. The new OPD type tanks have a second internal spring-loaded valve that prevents gas from escaping when the valve is opened, but there is nothing attached to it.
“Hand tightened at first contact, about 2 to 2 1/2 turns more with a wrench” should be about right.
And, of course, when you remove the adapter, remember the reverse thread and turn the adapter clockwise. There is no faster way to remove the threads and then turn them in the wrong direction with a large wrench during extraction.
Watch out for leaks!
Finally, one thing to keep in mind is that, when refilling one-pound propane canisters, which are actually meant to be a one-time deal that you throw away when you empty them, the internal valve in the canister may only develop a slow leak. This is not uncommon with multiple fills, or even just one.
At best, you won’t have the fuel when you need it. In the worst case, that pound of gas can leak into a closed environment, such as a trunk or a hot car locker, and cause a very satisfying explosion, unless you are in the middle of it.
Therefore, when you refill a bottle, always test it by putting a little soapy water on top of the bottle. If you see that bubbles are forming, you have a leak that will empty slowly (or quickly). This is also a good way to test all new propane connections. Rinse the soapy water from the outlet of the bottle with a little clean water and let it dry before use.
You can usually smell a small leak as well. Refineries add an “odorant” that is very distinctive. If you can smell it, you have to act quickly.
If the canister drips enough to hear the whistle and you see a cloud of white steam, you must carefully move it to a safe, well-ventilated place outdoors, remove it, let it empty, and then throw it away. That is a dead body, although it might be useful to you, for example, to use a fishing float or to recycle the sheet metal to repair something else. Remember, we’re talking about a grid situation that may be long-term, so don’t throw away anything that can be recycled or reused. Even leaking tin cans and fuel cans.
If you have a moderate leak, there are some things you can do about it:
- Mark the boat, if only by putting an “L” in the paint on the top of your shoulder, so you can easily identify it later. They all look alike.
- Attach something to the threads on the boat to prevent further leakage. This is not a bad idea, however, when storing and transporting containers. This “something” will be either screwed-on lids or some kind of device that has a shut-off valve.
The least expensive option I could find is the Mac Coupler Propane Bottle Cap, also known as MacCaps. Two of these heavy duty brass caps will cost you about 8 Euros, plus shipping. They are also quite common in sporting goods stores and departments for the same price, but without the shipping cost.
This will certainly stop leaks as well as protect the threads of the boat, which are actually quite durable. But, if you have dozens of irreplaceable containers in your inventory, this can be an expense.
Another option is to connect the leaking container to a propane appliance and use the control valve to stop the leak. One of my preferences is a small, inexpensive propane torch, the kind plumbers use to solder copper pipes and that can thaw frozen locks, etc. These torches also do a great job of lighting fires even in windy situations, at least with fairly dry wood.
For new torches, a good option is the Mag-Torch MT200C propane pencil flame torch. One thing I like about this is the brass construction, which should be durable in most conditions. Other brands use a lot of plastic and its durability may be questionable. With one of these and a stone chip welder (described below), you can light a flame in a hurricane and it is very unlikely to go out. In a pinch, you could even boil some drinking water in a small tin can without having to build a fire.
A small flashlight that lights itself can also be very useful as a safe flame source in almost all conditions, like a Bic lighter on steroids. But, these will tend not to be as durable, so they should be kept in reserve when the use of a torch is needed.
You can also often find these torches, and other cheap propane camping equipment at yard sales, too, and it doesn’t hurt to have reinforcements, especially if you need something to “cap” a small flask that has started leaking, in order to keep it in service. I have bought used torches for less than the cost of a new cap. Of course, test any used propane equipment as soon as you can, preferably before you put in any cash. But it usually tends to be quite durable. If you’re going to sell in the yard, it wouldn’t hurt to bring your own gas can to test it, properly capped, of course.
- A third option for slow leaking containers is the “just in time” method: Simply don’t refill them until you need them, and then quickly put them in the appliance. Have a couple of spare cans on hand that are filled with some sort of capping device and leave the bulk supply tank set up for quick refills when requested. The remainder of your empty canister reserve is your reserve to replace the inevitable leaks.
When working with slow leaking containers, if necessary, do so outdoors, away from ignition sources, of course, and don’t waste time plugging or capping. Again, if it is a rapidly leaking can, unless there is no other option, remove it from inventory and find another use for it.
That’s it for filling small green cans from bulk tanks. With a little common sense and a little patience waiting for the can to cool down before refilling it, you’re all set.