Call it serendipity if you will but a couple of months ago when I was contacted by Chris Newman, developer of the InstaBed Cubic Garden System, I had no idea that I was about to meet and get to know a really smart guy with MacGyver like skills and knowledge in all aspects of prepping and survival.
Chris has been generous in sharing his knowledge with me – from gardening to solar energy to grains and more – and has graciously agreed to become a technical consultant to Backdoor Survival. He is doing this in the spirit of spreading the preparedness message and hopefully making our world a bit greener and more livable in the process.
Today I am thrilled to share a primer on propane that Chris wrote specifically for Backdoor Survival. He covers a topic near and dear to me personally since my household cooking and heat as well as my backup generator is fueled by propane. And whereas my home is served by a large, community-based propane tank, I now have some workable strategies for stockpiling a backup supply of propane in portable tanks not only for my own use but for barter purposes.
This article covers the basics of propane as an important prepping energy resource. The subjects include safe propane handling, storage, assembling a stockpile of bulk tanks for long term storage at the lowest possible cost and refilling the smaller one pound canisters that are commonly used with portable camping gear, for about 1/5 the cost of new. We’ll also examine a variety of entry-level propane appliances and their suitability in a survival scenario.
For convenience, value, air quality and long term storage stability, nothing beats propane.
Firewood is cheaper, if you have access to it and you don’t count the value of your time. But, when you’re burning all day and every day, it isn’t all that convenient if you have to go out and cut/gather it yourself. The stuff is heavy, especially if you’re hauling it a long distance. And, how are you at swinging an ax for hours at a time?
If you’re short on survival labor, which is a fair probability, having the option to cook with propane for an extended time, at least until things settle out, will let you channel that considerable fuel-wood time and energy into other important tasks, such as hunting and growing food, or warding off predators. Also, the ease of using propane allows the delegation of cooking etc. to a lesser-able member of your party, allowing all to contribute to the general welfare.
A Hedge Against Inflation
From an investment standpoint, the prices of both propane and the hardware/appliances that use it are directly tied to monetary price inflation – the “hidden tax” that steadily gnaws away at the purchasing power of your hard-won savings. Inflation is currently being deliberately manipulated to keep it low for now, but some price categories, like food, are still skyrocketing, with wages not keeping up. And, the economic stage is strongly set for hyper-inflation in the not-too-distant future.
So, one of the best investments in pre-inflationary and inflationary times (aka hedges against inflation) is hard goods and consumables, like food, that you’ll be using anyway and that will surely cost even more in the future. In other words, to combat inflation, the best place to store your surplus wealth is in tangible stuff, not pieces of paper, or electrons. For sure, no matter how the future shakes out, the retail prices for propane and propane hardware won’t be getting any cheaper, and they probably will go up by a lot.
Properly stored, both fuel and hardware will last indefinitely without degrading, ready to use on a moment’s notice. For all intents and purposes, unlike food, there’s no limit to its shelf life.
So, you’ll save money in the long run, anyway, by stockpiling consumables. But, if the grid goes down, there won’t be any more propane available to buy at all and the value of your investment will go way up. So, the larger your stockpile and the smaller the appliances that use it, which use less fuel, the longer it will last you.
If you play your cards right, you can stockpile at least a year’s worth of cooking and minimal lighting fuel for an average family (10 full five gallon bulk tanks that are equal to 200 small green canisters) for about $200, and do so $20 at a time.
If not handled with respect, Propane is DANGEROUS! As in dynamite dangerous and AK-47 dangerous. As in blowing up your whole house into kindling dangerous. This isn’t vegetable oil. So, treat it with prudent caution and always, always, always read, understand and follow the safety directions that come with every propane product.
Never store tanks of propane indoors or in any other sealed environment. Especially, if you see, smell or hear a gas leak, shut off the source immediately and then fix the problem before you continue. If you can’t shut it off, move away, warn others and cross your fingers. Otherwise, you’ll very likely go up in a cloud of smoke and all your hard-won prepping will have been for naught.
On the plus side, propane has been used as a consumer product for nearly 100 years and stringent government regulations require hardware designs that are fairly, if not perfectly, fool-proof. So, it’s not like you’re handling nitroglycerin. But, unless you really know what you’re doing, don’t try to modify or override the hardware safety features.
Unlike gasoline vapors, pure propane is nontoxic, though it’s certainly not healthy to breathe it and you should avoid it as you would with wood smoke. However, as with all combustion, there’s a real risk of oxygen depletion in a sealed room and proper ventilation should be an ongoing consideration. If you find yourself starting to gasp for air, triggered by a buildup of carbon dioxide, that’s an early warning sign that the oxygen is running low and it’s time for some fresh air, no matter how cold it might be.
Unlike natural gas, propane is heavier than air (1.5 times as dense). In its unburned state, propane vapor sinks and pools at the floor level. So, simply opening a couple of high windows to vent a leak may not be enough: You need to open a door or something else at ground level to let the heavy unburned vapors “drain” outside to disperse.
Liquid propane, say from a broken hose or leaking tank valve, will flash to a vapor at atmospheric pressure and the vapor appears white due to moisture condensing from the air. A big cloud of propane in the open air will blow up with the slightest spark, even static. So, you want to avoid coming even close to these.
Those basic risks described, however, if you treat propane with respect and understanding, there is no better fuel to stockpile for long term storage and multiple uses in survival situations, at least where you are not on the run, and while it lasts. Especially, when you use propane for just vital things like cooking and night lighting, the use rate is surprisingly low and a little propane will go a long ways.
What is Propane?
Propane is a gaseous byproduct in the refining of both oil and natural gas. It can be compressed into a liquid at relatively low pressures and will readily convert back into a burnable vapor under any conditions which humans can tolerate. First synthesized in 1910, it has been in commercial production since the 1920′s and the technology of using it at the consumer level is very well refined.
90% of all propane used in the US is from US sources, with 70% of the remaining amount coming from Canada. So, using propane fuel doesn’t fund jihad by our enemies and the money remains within the US economy, which are two of the reasons why I like it, beside the many practical prepping utilities.
Propane combustion is much cleaner than gasoline and other liquid hydrocarbons, though not quite as clean as natural gas combustion. Environmentally, it’s usually greener to cook with propane than with electricity. With a perfect burn, attainable only in theory, the only by-products are heat, carbon dioxide and water vapor. So, it can be used for indoor heating applications, but use a stove that provides a very high combustion efficiency and, especially, a low-oxygen sensor that will shut it down if the O2 gets low.
Convenience and Labor Savings
Another way to look at propane is as a serious labor saving device. In a self-subsistence scenario, your greatest critical shortages are going to be labor and the energy to power it. With propane in your resource inventory, the large amount of work that would normally have to be expended gathering and processing fuel for a cooking fire can then redirected into other critical tasks, such as growing food etc.
When cooking is less labor-intensive, it can also be assigned to the lessor-able in the party, such as older folks with more enthusiasm than physical stamina, while they simultaneously babysit and teach the young ones how to cook, freeing up the parents to work elsewhere.
The easiest way to implement propane into your prepping strategy and to start climbing the learning curve is to start looking for ways to incorporate it into your day-to-day life. It doesn’t much matter where you start, but probably the best place is cooking. So, if you don’t already have one, start shopping for a camping cook stove. Amazon has a good assortment and you can often find propane stuff at very attractive prices at yard sales etc. Generally speaking, you want appliances that use those green 1 pound propane canisters that cost so much new, but that can also be easily refilled at a huge savings.
To develop your proficiency in advance, fire up the camping stove and cook at least a few meals with it, perhaps practicing your prepper cooking recipes at the same time. Maybe hold a “grid-down weekend” drill, where you live off nothing but assembled resources, in order to test your resources and quickly determine what’s missing. You’ll be killing at least three prepping proficiency birds with one stone: Propane, using your portable stove and subsistence-style cooking from stored food.
Propane on the Run
An empty bulk tanks weighs 19 pounds and, when full, will weigh 39 pounds. So, they’re not exactly ideal to bring along when running for your life on foot. However, if mobility is mandatory until you reach your safe haven (you do have one lined up, don’t you?), simple single-burner stoves can be quite small and compact.
When combined with wok cooking, which includes stir-fry, steaming and soups/stews etc., you can feed a feed a lot of people with very little fuel. Asian folks, where fuel is always in critical shortage, have been using woks to cook for countless years as the most fuel-efficient way to prepare food over a tiny flame.
For truly minimalist propane use, such as in your bug out bag, a good choice is the Coleman PefectFlow 1-Burner Stove that screws directly onto the top of the canister.
Between the stove and fuel canister, you’ll add about two pounds to your load. But, you’ll also be able to boil a lot of questionable water for drinking, instant soups, coffee etc. which will also help cut the chill, and heat some quick meals whenever you can stop running for a few minutes.
Adding a small Cantonese style hammered steel lightweight wok and a couple of utensils won’t add much more weight, and will give you even more subsistence options. The tiny stove and a canister will pack, mostly, inside the wok. Don’t forget to pre-season your new wok, as you would with cast iron.
All things considered, propane as a backup energy supply is dirt cheap. There’s a huge amount of high cost technology involved in the production of the gas and storage containers that you won’t be able to replace on a DIY level. Since propane is a byproduct of other processes, the market price doesn’t reflect its true cost to create it, as with, say, solar panels.
As for cost per heat unit, propane is cheaper (and a lot safer to use) than any of the liquid fuels, though not quite as cheap as piped-in natural gas, none of which will be available in a grid-down situation.
The market price range will generally fluctuate along with the rest of the hydrocarbon market, so stock up shortly after gasoline prices go down, after the propane dealer has had a chance to catch up to lower their prices, which they are frequently not in a hurry to do, unless prices are going up.
For the first couple of bulk tanks in the stockpile, at least, I wouldn’t stress too much about waiting for prices to drop to rock bottom. Even a 50 cents/gallon price difference is still only $2.50 for a bulk tank and I’d hate to get caught in the dark and cold because I delayed and tried to save a little pocket change. Once you’re basically prepared with a couple of bulk tanks, you can then start extending the time that you acquire the balance of your stockpile on a timely and cost-effective basis. Even one bulk tank, with sparing use, should keep you going comfortably for a month of grid-down.
Just to make things confusing, propane is sold in two different measurements: In pre-filled container form, it is sold by the pound of fuel. But it’s sold by the liquid gallon in bulk form. One gallon of liquid propane weighs just over four pounds, or will fill four green one pound canisters.
Since refilling, either by the dealer or the prepper, is never 100% to a container’s capacity, your results will likely vary a little from the measured theory, but this is close enough for long term planning,
A brand new empty 20 pound (aka five gallon) bulk tank, the kind that your outdoor barbecue uses, will cost you about $25-$30. It must then be filled with 5 gallons of propane (currently $2.59/gallon at the farm co-op near my home in the Seattle area), which will cost another $12.95. So, the total cost for a brand new full bulk tank will run about $40.00.
If you obtain your propane by trading in your tank for a pre-”filled” tank at the local store, it’s going to cost you about $18-$25. The higher price in the above recent photo at the local Walmart is if you don’t have a trade-in tank. The lower price is if you do: A difference of about $26, or about the price for a brand new tank. Some propane kiosks will also charge a higher price if your trade-in tank is “non-OPD,” which we’ll cover a little later. You wan to avoid these like the plague.
But, the tank that you receive in trade won’t be full, because the suppliers deliberately do not fill it to capacity. To me, this is on a par with watering the booze. The shortage can vary from 2 pounds (10%) up to 5 pounds (25%) so, in order to figure out how badly you’re being ripped off, check the new tank’s label for the net weight in pounds and subtract that from 20. Around here, trade-in tanks are often 3 pounds (15%) light, so I’ll use that figure.
Trading in is a very costly way to buy propane, at least if that’s your only intent. On a trade-in basis, assuming a $20 trade-in price for the tank, each gallon of propane is going to cost you $ 4.71/gallon, which is a lot more than $2.59 in bulk, especially when you’re talking about five gallons per tank and multiple tanks in the stockpile. If the shortage is greater than 3 pound, you’re paying an even higher price for the fuel.
Propane prices, whether bulk or trade-in and besides market fluctuations, will also often vary by a great deal within the same region. It all depends on where you buy it. I have found that the cheapest place to buy bulk propane is at the local farm co-op. The most expensive is at gas stations near freeway interchanges that see a lot of RV traffic, where the price can be double the co-op’s price. For trade-ins, Walmart has always been about 10% cheaper than other outlets, and that’s one reason to trade in your tanks there. So, shop around and find the best bulk prices in your area.
Another reason to not buy brand new tanks, if you’re going to be trading them in, is that you will lose that shiny new tank, getting a used one back. On a practical level, this doesn’t really matter. But, the idea of trading new for used still grates on me.
One Pound Canisters
A brand new 1 pound small green propane canister will run anywhere from about $2.50 to $7.50. $3.00 is about average locally, so I’ll use that figure. A gallon of propane in one pound canisters is going to cost you about $12.00. So, while this is certainly convenient, it’s also very expensive. Fortunately, these small canisters can be refilled many times for about 65 cents each and we’ll detail how to go about refilling later in this article.
Something worth mentioning is to not confuse one pound propane cylinders and hardware with butane-powered ultra-light gear, which are primarily designed for backpacking. A tiny 4 ounce tank and stove might be great in your bug out bag, but this is not a good ongoing fuel source: The tiny tanks won’t last long, bulk butane is difficult to find in the best of times and there is no easy way to refill the tanks. The way that the tanks connect to the hardware is different than propane, too, so there’s no chance of mixing up the two.
One other caveat is that bulk propane tanks require a pressure-reducing regulator before you hook them up to most appliances. You can find these on gas barbecues and RV’s and they generally are very durable. On the other hand, the small one pound canisters do not require regulators and can be directly connected.
Yet another warning is to avoid tanks with rust in the metal, if at all possible. This rust weakens the strength of the tank wall and, if it gets bad enough, it will blow out from internal pressure, releasing all the gas in an explosive cloud, with no way to shut it off. For this reason, a brand new tank is supposed to be inspected and recertified 12 years after it was manufactured. After that, the tank is supposed to be recertified ever five years. As a practical matter, I have never had a bulk dealer check the certification date on any tank that I was having filled.
A few small scratches with a little rust is common and no big deal. But, if there’s serious rust, such as on the tanks in the above photo of my trade-in stockpile, you need to trade them in, whether they have the new style valve or not. The trade-in companies will clean, repaint and re-certify them, if possible.
But, if you’re keeping your tanks and plan to refill them with bulk gas, try to avoid scratching and dinging the paint as much as possible. If you really want to preserve them, add a can of white Rustoleum paint to your supplies, which is designed to go directly over rust, and touch up any scratches to protect the exposed steel from rusting further. If you store them outdoors in the weather, the tanks will eventually look like those in the above photo. So, the best place to store them is dry and out of the weather, but with plenty of ventilation. (Don’t just cover them up with a plastic tarp, which will concentrate condensation and be even worse than normal weathering.)
Finally, keep in mind that the threads into which you connect things to a bulk propane tank are *left handed.” That means that they need to be screwed in in the opposite direction as normal, counter-clockwise, instead of clockwise. In this case, “Lefty tighty, righty loosey.” This is especially important to remember when you’re disconnecting something from the tank valve: If you crank down hard in what would be the normal loosening direction, all you’re doing is making it tighter. If you’re strong enough, you’ll actually strip out the brass valve threads and that will destroy the tank for any further use, except trading it in, if the stores are even still open.
Thanks to a change some years back, bulk propane tank valves have been upgraded to what is known as OPD (Overfill Protection Device). This valve prevents over-filling the bulk and it also prevents gas from leaving the tank if the valve is opened, but nothing is hooked up to it.
You can easily see the difference between old-style valves and new-style in the above photo: The old-style, with a star-shaped knob, is on the left. The new-style OPD, with a triangular knob, is on the right. Replacing an old-style valve with a new-style valve on an old tank is not something that amateurs should do, except in an emergency.
By law, bulk propane dealers cannot refill tanks with old-style valves. But, they will happily refill trade-in tanks, even with the labels still on, which will save you $10.60 per five gallons over the trade-in cost. If you have 10 bulk tanks in your stockpile, refilling your own tanks creates a savings of $106, so it’s well worth the extra trouble.
In theory, your bulk propane dealer can top off the partially-filled trade-in tanks, but it would be a real imposition to ask them to go to the trouble for a gallon or so. If it’s a friend who would do you a favor anyway, that’s another thing, however. I wouldn’t feel too badly asking for a top-off of one recently acquired trade-in tank, if I was also having two empty tanks filled at the same time.
New-Style Tanks for Old
One of the really cool things about change, as much as most people hate it, is that this is where you find the best opportunities to save/make money. In this case, there is the opportunity to save a lot of money by obtaining empty old-style bulk propane tanks free or cheap and trading them in for “full” new-style tanks. For each old-style tank that you trade in, you’re going to save about $20, even factoring in the higher price of gas and the shortage. When you’re first setting up a stockpile of 10 tanks, that will reduce your total cost by $200, or about half the price of brand new, which will buy a lot of other prepping gear.
The reasons to go to Walmart for your exchanges are 1. They’ll probably be the least expensive and, 2. The employees aren’t going to care what you’re trading in.
While the changeover happened more than 10 years ago, there are still lots of old-style tanks kicking around, of the countless millions that were produced. Since they can’t be refilled, they’re too light (18.5 lbs.) to be worth a trip to the local metal recycler and too heavy/bulky to throw in a garbage can, they tend to stick around, taking up space. A great place to find them is on the front of old RV trailers that haven’t moved in years.
In my experience, most people who are stuck with old-style tanks have been delighted to give them to me for free. So, look around and see what you can spot at friends and neighbors. I obtained many of my stockpile of tanks in the days when I was buying and selling vintage RV trailers. The unit may have had old-style tanks when it came in, but it didn’t when it sold.
Another good place to check for old-style tanks is local RV dealers who deal in a lot of trade-ins. They may just have a stockpile out back and be happy for you to haul them off.
If I really wanted to score a lot of trade-able tanks, I’d run an ad on CraigsList and offer to pay $5 each, delivered to my home. There are lots of amateur metal salvagers scrounging around, who work cheap, that the metal recycler would pay them less than $1 per tank. So, they would love to find a $5 buyer and you’ll probably have offers for more trade-in tanks than you need. Even paying $5 each, and not counting all the time and trouble you’d have to go through to obtain them for “free,” as well as the missing fuel in trade-in tanks, you’ll still be saving $14 per tank, over buying them brand new.
(At the same time, in the CL ad, I’d also be looking for 1 pound propane canisters and offer to pay up to $1 each for them. When you refill them the first time, your total cost will be $1.60, about half the price of new. Since the valves in these canisters are designed for a one-time use, though they will usually support many refills, they will eventually wear out. So, you want plenty of spares in your stockpile. I have about a dozen and want a couple of dozen more.)
Yet another place to look for old propane tanks is at your local metal recycler, who often sorts out re-sellable items from the general scrap and keeps them off to one side for customer purchase. The scrap yard near my house has a pile of about 50 used propane tanks and will be happy to sell them to me for 20 cents a pound, or about $3.80 each, which is still a huge savings over a new one for $25.
Part Two – Coming Up Next
This ends Part One of “Prepper Propane 101,” which mostly covered the what’s and why’s. In Part Two, we’ll get into the how’s and learn how to refill small green one pound canisters from bulk tanks, for a tiny fraction of the cost of new. This refilling can get a little complicated when you’re trying for a full fill, but it needn’t be if you understand what you’re doing. We’ll also go over some of the basic propane appliances that you should add to your resources.
THE FINAL WORD
It goes without saying that learning how to safely use propane is a good idea. Campers, RV’ers, boaters and off-grid homesteaders are already familiar with propane but for many city dwellers, the gas BBQ represents the extent of their experience with propane gas.
Next month I will be sharing part two of this primer on prepper propane. In the meantime, if you have any specific questions, be sure to leave a comment below and I will send them over to Chris for a response. You can also visit Chris at his website at his Cubic Foot Gardening website.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Gaye Levy, also known as the Survival Woman, grew up and attended school in the Greater Seattle area. After spending many years as an executive in the software industry, she started a specialized accounting practice offering contract CFO work to emerging high tech and service industries. She has now abandoned city life and has moved to a serenely beautiful rural area on an island in NW Washington State. She lives and teaches the principles of a sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle through her website at BackdoorSurvival.com. At Backdoor Survival, Gaye speaks her mind and delivers her message of prepping with optimism and grace, regardless of the uncertain times and mayhem swirling around us.