VIDEO: Meet Señor Propano!

Posted In: Airstream, Blog, Fuel Costs, Maintenance, Video


One of the primary missions of our website is to document RV ownership. We like to help educate newcomers to RV camping. It can all be a little perplexing at first. So why haven’t we talked about liquefied propane (LP)? Well folks, now you know what’s inside those mysterious aluminum canisters resting at the fore of every Airstream. Propane is one of those not terribly sexy expense items in your RV camping budget. It’s kind of like electricity and water — you never fully appreciate it until you don’t have it. In an RV, it works together with electricity to help tame the wild.

Let’s put it this way: if your RV was a baseball team, propane would be the utility player — the guy who plays shortstop, right field, and occasionally pinch hits for the pitcher. It’s the unsung hero of RV camping. So let us gather together, my friends, in praise of gaseous hydrocarbons.

Why do we use propane? It’s an alternative source of fuel, and it powers some of our appliances (the oven, stovetop, and furnace) exclusively. It powers other appliances (refrigerator, water heater) occasionally when electricity is not available.

Wait a minute. Did he say refrigerator?

Yes. Although it seems counter-intuitive, an RV refrigerator is capable of operating on either electricity or propane power. If the refrigerator senses we have no electricity available, it switches to propane. This feature is essential when you’re traveling across the Arizona desert and you want milk that passes the sniff test.

Can a person legally operate RV propane tanks when driving down the highway? State laws vary — I think that some states actually forbid the use of propane when traveling down the road. Those states also boast an excess of spoiled milk.

In truth, the majority of RVers traveling down the highway are powering their refrigerators with propane. This is a classic case of, “Hey, everybody else is doing it!” It’s legal in many states. But bear in mind that it increases the risk of fire if you have an accident. So please, don’t have an accident.

With regard to powering appliances, propane has some unique real world advantages over electricity.

The hot water heater, quite simply, gets hotter faster when we engage propane heat. We have two switches for the hot water heater – one activates electrical heating, the other propane. So one can choose whether or not to engage the propane. If you are already paying for electricity (as in a campground) then perhaps you will prefer to conserve your propane for those times when you really need it.

The heat furnace, since it generates heat from beneath the trailer, warms our Airstream’s pipes as it operates. (The so-called “heat pump” refers to heat generated by our ceiling mounted A/C unit; this works fine for human warmth, but does NOT protect the pipes on a cold winter night.)

Prices vary, but in our area propane seems to costs about a dollar a pound. Of course, as with any fuel tank, you just pay for what you need. In the video I refer to our tanks as “empty,” but in actuality they were about one third full.

Here's a typical receipt after filling ONE 30-pound tank of propane. It costs about $22 for a tank, money I'd really rather put towards a case of Sam Adams.

In the video I reference the notorious unreliability of our propane gauges. The interior gauge is pretty much useless because it ALWAYS reads 100% full. The exterior gauge is more accurate. Yet it now apparently reads “empty” when the tanks still are one-third full. More on this little dilemma in a future episode. Hopefully your digital gauges, if you even have digital gauges, are more accurate.

Our two 30-pound tanks of propane will last quite a while. How long is a while?

During summer, the two tanks probably last the entire season. This is because we don’t do daily oven cooking, and the propane supply is really just tapped for occasional refrigerator and water heater power.

During winter, quite frankly, it all depends on the weather. We live in an area with mild winters. Temperatures rarely dip below freezing. When they do, they rarely stay freezing for long. So we can get along without winterizing our RV, so long as we’re prepared to turn on the heat furnace on those “hard freeze” occasions.

Propane is a gaseous fuel, so there’s at least a slight element of danger associated with it. Our RV cabin is equipped with a carbon dioxide detector. It emits an ear-piercing alarm when it detects too much gas (or Kristy’s perfume!) in the air.

The worst accidents I’ve heard associated with propane have been fires. Remember that refrigerator power I mentioned? Recently the huge RV refrigerator manufacturer Dometic recalled about a trillion refrigerators due to a potential propane fire hazard. Leaks and sparks are not a good combination. If you have an RV with a refrigerator manufactured between April 1997 and September 2006 (this went on for NINE years, guys?), please Google “Dometic recall” and make sure your refrigerator is safe.

Can we camp without propane? Sure! We can camp without anything. Heck, we can lie down on a pile of leaves and call it a night.

Okay smart ass, does it make sense to RV camp without propane? In our case, it does not make sense. Our oven and stove would be useless without propane. And then there’s the refrigerator. We spend so much time on the road, we need to fuel our well stocked refrigerator at all times. It’s crucial to EVERYONE’S morale that my beer is maintained at proper temperature.

So that, in a nutshell, is propane – your silent but deadly camping friend.

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