Having sufficient fuel for cooking and heat following an emergency is always an concern for preppers. If you are lucky, you live in a wooded area and have access to a wood burning stove as well as plenty of wood to feed the fire. Most of us, though, turn to propane as our primary source of emergency heat and cooking fuel.
Alas, the only experience many folks have with propane is limited to the backyard barbecue and perhaps a Coleman lantern. That tells me that if the stuff hit the fan, many of us would be lacking in the knowledge needed to use propane efficiently and safely.
Today I begin a series of articles titled Propane for Preppers. This topic may sound familiar since I wrote about propane back in early 2013 but even so, the importance of this topic called for a focused update.
This time around, I have started from scratch by asking my friend Ron Brown to write a series for us that is well-grounded and includes some real-life, real-time testing. In this series he will be sharing information on how to use propane with an emphasis on safety and storage concerns. Over the next couple of months, this series will provide you with tips, tools and tricks that will facilitate the use of propane in an emergency.
Part one begins with the basics.
Propane for Preppers – Part One
This has been a difficult article to write. The word ‘prepper’ covers a lot of territory.
Whether it’s a blackout or a race riot – and both have occurred in these United States during my lifetime – what’s the plan? Shelter in place? But is that a single-family dwelling with a cellar? Or a one-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor?
Or is ‘the plan’ to get outta Dodge? On foot? Bicycle? Motorcycle? Car? And where will you go? To a relative with a spare bedroom? Hunting camp? Boat? RV?
Not only is the audience hard to pin down, propane (the subject of this article) is so versatile that it’s hard to know where to begin.
You can convert your automobile to run on propane. And the outboard motor on your boat. And your motorcycle. And your lawnmower. And your electric generator. My sister has a backup system, a generator that runs on propane, that will support most of the electrical needs in her home – including the electric range in the kitchen. Every Friday night her lights flicker as the system goes into its weekly self-test.
There are refrigerators that run on propane. Little ones for RV’s and big ones for full-time off-grid living. Not to mention furnaces and space heaters (both vented and unvented) and catalytic heaters, plus gas lamps, water heaters (with tanks and without), air conditioners (absorption chillers, by any other name, that work on the same principle as gas refrigerators), fireplaces, clothes dryers, kitchen stoves for cooking, salamanders for the construction site to keep the freshly poured concrete from freezing, and toilets.
Yes, toilets. If your land has poor drainage, you can install a gas-fired toilet that will incinerate human waste after each deposit thereof.
So which prepper am I talking to? The single gal living with her grandmother on the 17th floor? Or the survivalist with more ammo than he can carry? And what are the topics I should cover? I just now discovered an adapter, for example, a wand-like tube with a fitting on one end, that converts an old-time Coleman liquid-fuel camp stove to propane. And another adapter that allows you to run a BBQ grill from a little 400-gram Bernz-O-Matic soldering cylinder. And another that will let you hook up natural gas devices to propane.
OMG. It hurts my head to think so much.
Safety is a good place to start. Safe-mindedness.
Propane has been sold commercially since the 1920’s. A lot of safety features have been engineered into propane devices – the storage tanks, for example, as well as BBQ grills and camping gear. It’s best to not bypass these features. Let me give you an example.
Today, propane tanks are made such that they can’t be filled more than 80%. When ‘full’ the bottom of the tank contains liquid propane and the top 20% of the tank contains propane in the gaseous state. Gas can be compressed. Liquid cannot.
If you bypass this safety feature and fill the tank 100% and leave it out in the sun, heat will make the liquid expand. First the blowout plug (a fuse of sorts) will go. If the blowout hole cannot accommodate the volume of propane trying to escape, the tank will burst, creating a propane cloud. A mere spark can ignite the propane cloud, sending both you and your propane tank to join all the computer files you previously sent to ‘the cloud.’
There’s a lot of Attitude out and about. “Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do.” It’s a control issue. I get it. But you might want to make an exception when it comes to propane. Just this one time you might want to consider following the rules.
Call it food for thought on your journey to the hospital.
Crude oil is the stuff that gets pumped out of the ground. Crude oil is refined into a whole range of products from gases (propane, butane) to liquids (gasoline, kerosene) to solids (paraffin wax).
All of these products are hydrocarbons. The ‘hydro’ part of the word stands for hydrogen (symbol = H). The ‘carbon’ part of the word stands for carbon (symbol = C). Am I going too fast?
In refining, distillation breaks or fractures the crude oil into groups of hydrocarbons with similar boiling points. The five major fractions are (1) refinery gases, (2) gasoline, (3) kerosene, (4) diesel oil, and (5) residues.
Our interest here is in the first group, refinery gases. And there are four: methane, ethane, propane, and butane.
The refinery gases have the following chemical formulas: Methane is C1H4. Ethane is C2H6. Propane is C3H8. Butane is C4H10. This is simply a reference list. Sometimes we need to be precise in our language so as to remove any confusion regarding which gas is under discussion.
Note that the C-number or carbon-chain number climbs one step at a time throughout the progression: C1; C2; C3; C4.
The English language can be ambiguous. The word ‘gas’ has several meanings:  it can mean gasoline (petrol to the British), or it can mean  methane or propane (“Now you’re cooking with gas.”), or it can mean  a vapor (as in the three states of matter – solid, liquid, and gas), or it can be  a euphemism for farting (“He passed gas.”). As we go along I’ll do my best to make the meaning clear.
Methane (C1H4). Methane is used as a fuel, commonly called natural gas, and is transported via pipeline in LNG form (liquefied natural gas). Methane is also the swamp gas of UFO lore. Methane is lighter than air.
Lamps that burn natural gas inside your home, common in the gay ’90s – the 1890’s – back when ‘gay’ meant happy – are still manufactured today. Paulin, Mr Heater, and Humphrey  are three U.S. brands. Their use requires that you have a natural gas line into your house. If you heat with natural gas, you do. Lamps burning natural gas are wall-mounted (or ceiling-mounted) and thus not portable. Note that such lamps can readily be converted to propane.
If you put in one of these wall-mounted lamps (and, personally, I think it’s a great idea to do so), I urge you to have it installed by a certified-licensed-authorized technician and not attempt the installation yourself.
Should you ever have a house fire, the insurance company will look for excuses not to pay. So let’s not void our fire insurance to save a few bucks on installation, shall we?
Ethane (C2H6). Ethane is used as a catalyst in other chemical processes, more so than as a fuel in and of itself.
Propane (C3H8). I live in the country, beyond the reach of natural gas pipelines. As a consequence, I have a 200 lb. propane tank behind the house. We use propane for cooking.
The company who delivers our gas is Suburban Propane. I can drive to their storefront and refill a small 20 lb. cylinder  to use on a camper or RV (recreational vehicle) or propane BBQ grill. The tank behind my house and the 20 lb. cylinder contain exactly the same stuff – LPG (liquefied petroleum gas).
The skinny little propane cylinders sold for Bernz-O-Matic  (brand) soldering torches hold 14.1 oz. (400 grams). The more squat ‘one-pounders’  sold for camping stoves and lanterns hold 16.4 oz. (465 grams). That’s how much they hold. What they hold is LPG. That is, propane. That is, C3H8. Propane is propane is propane.
Can you hook up a propane camping lantern,  the kind that customarily runs on a one-pounder, to a 20 lb. propane tank? Sure. The fittings and extension hoses to do so are sold as a kit  under the Century brand name. And the Mr. Heater brand name. And the Coleman brand name. I bought one myself in the camping section at Wal-Mart.
Wall-mounted propane gas lamps (and other appliances such as refrigerators) are often employed in cottages and hunting camps located at a distance from both electricity and in-town natural gas lines. These appliances burn LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) rather than LNG (liquefied natural gas).
LPG and LNG lamps can look identical on the outside but propane is more highly pressurized. Propane lamps therefore use a nozzle with a smaller orifice (the hole through which the gas comes) than do natural gas lamps. If you move from city to country, or vice-versa, your gas clothes dryer presents exactly the same orifice problem. Fortunately, conversion kits are readily available.
Propane, by the way, is heavier than air. It pools in your basement. And it pools in the hull of your boat; it only takes one spark to cut your vacation short. Check out ‘boat explosions’ on YouTube. It will likely make you sit up and take notice. It did me.
Butane (C4H10). Like propane, butane is also heavier than air. Please note that we are still climbing the C-numbers.
It’s interesting that, given the right adapters, propane can be substituted in camping lanterns and stove burners originally designed for butane. It’s not just theory. I’ve done it. You can too.
Most butane cigarette lighters are disposable; some are refillable.  If refillable, you’ll find a small fitting on the bottom of the lighter. Note that the butane cartridge  must be turned upside down to fill the cigarette lighter. In your hands, you can feel the butane cartridge get cold as the transfer of gas takes place.
Butane is used in cigarette lighters, in pressurized cartridges for one-burner stoves, and in camping lanterns for backpackers. It turns from a gas to a liquid at 31º F (almost the same as the freezing point of water).
Mexico has a warm climate and butane, they say, is favored over propane as cooking gas. Butane is even called ‘Mexican gas.’ If you Google for images of butane tanks, you’ll find many pictures of large tanks (100-pounders and the like).
In cities with a large Asian population (e.g. Toronto, Canada), one-burner stoves  that run on butane cartridges  are for sale in all the ethnic food stores. I’ve also seen them on eBay and in restaurant supply stores (caterers use them). The fuel cartridges are lightweight, similar to shaving cream containers. They hold 8 ounces (227 grams).
These butane stoves are a pleasure to use – easy to light, regulate, and extinguish. Why they’re not more popular with the state-park-camping crowd is no doubt their low-temperature limitations. Ditto for the use of butane in lanterns. Below freezing, a lantern that runs on butane (and there are some) will not light. How wonderful is that? (FYI, I’ve seen lanterns that run on these 8-ounce butane cartridges under the brand names of Kovea, Glowmaster, and American Camper.)
Adapters & Substitutions
American Camper sells (1) a butane-only lantern as well as (2) a Multi Fuel Lantern that comes with an adapter; it will run on either the 8-ounce butane cartridges or propane one-pounders.
It is interesting, is it not, that propane (C3) can, given the right adapter, be burned in the same appliance that uses methane (C1). A clothes dryer, for example. At the other end of the spectrum, propane (C3) can be burned in the same appliance that uses butane (C4). The American Camper lantern, for example.
Mini-lanterns and micro-stoves using butane cartridges (in 110-gram, 230-gram, and 450-gram sizes) are made for backpackers. Unlike the 8-ounce canisters discussed above, the cartridges have a threaded 7/16″ male coupling. (And, typically, they contain a propane-butane blend – to avoid freeze-up – rather than pure butane.)
Tip. Butane lanterns use mantles  (just like Coleman lanterns). Butane lamp instructions (auto-translated from Chinese via computer) typically say ‘wicks’ or ‘gauze.’ Oops! Sorry. They are mantles. Although mantles are beyond the scope of this discussion, it’s ‘mantles’ you need to ask for in the sporting goods department, not wicks or gauze.
Back to our story. Say you have a butane lantern or stove made with the screw-type coupling but you only have a propane one-pounder for fuel? Solution. A different adapter. The adapter shown below is the Kovea VA-AD-0701. 
Aside. There’s one application for propane one-pounders that I don’t much care for. It’s the direct-screw-on single-burner stove.  To me, it looks awfully top-heavy when loaded with a pot of water. Boiling water being sterilized in a grid-down situation – let’s just hope the cat doesn’t jump on the table and knock anything over.
Speaking of adapters, you can use an adapter to refill  a propane one-pounder from a 20-lb. cylinder. That will be covered in an upcoming article in the series. But before we embark upon the ‘how-to’ of refilling, we first need to understand some basic plumbing stuff – tanks and valves and such – so that we have our terminology straight. Plus there are safety issues that we need to understand.
And even before that, let me mention MAPP gas. MAPP originally stood for MethylAcetylene-Propadiene Propane although today (since 2008) products labeled MAPP are really MAPP substitutes.
Small MAPP ‘welding sets’  are widely sold. They employ oxygen cylinders as well as MAPP gas cylinders. The MAPP gas cylinders are the same size and have the same threads as the soldering cylinders (Bernz-O-Matic variety) that hold propane.
So let’s put MAPP gas in context.
Given the right adapter (and there are several brands of adapters we’ll identify when we get to that part in an upcoming part of the series), we can refill a propane one-pounder.
And, using the same adapter, we can refill the skinny Bernz-O-Matic-type soldering cylinders. The shape of the cylinder is different from a one-pounder but the threads are the same.
And we can refill a MAPP-gas cylinder with propane. Again, the threads are the same so we can use the same adapter. Let us be clear. The MAPP cylinder comes from the store holding MAPP gas. When empty, we can refill it with propane. From a technology point of view, it’s no more complicated than storing salt in a sugar canister.
But leave yourself a clear trail. A label on the cylinder would be a good place to start. As an analogy, how good are you at finding stuff on your computer? Stuff that you, yourself, tucked away for future reference. And remembering today which gas cylinder it was that you refilled two or three years ago . . . and where you stored it . . . and how you labeled it. “Houston, we have a problem.”
… to be continued © Ron Brown 2014
Sources – For Reference Purposes
Ron has provided a list of items available at Amazon that are footnoted above. They may or may not be precisely the items/brands displayed in the article.
Treat this list as a starting point. At the very least, the items on this list will reveal the terminology manufacturers themselves use in describing their products (e.g. is it a canister, a cylinder, or a cartridge?). Just knowing the terminology will provide some clues about what to search for.
 Natural Gas Wall Lamp: Humphrey Gas Light, Natural Almond (9NA), Pre-formed Mantle
 20-lb. Propane Tank: Worthington 336483 20-Pound Steel Propane Cylinder With Type 1 With Overflow Prevention Device Valve And Sight Gauge
 Bernz-O-Matic Soldering Cylinder: CRL Standard Propane Fuel Cylinder
 One-Pounder: Propane Fuel COLEMAN 16.4OZ CAMPING FUEL CYLINDER
 Propane Lantern: Stansport Compact Single Mantle Propane Lantern
 Propane Distribution Post: TXS PROPANE DIST TREE 2-PIECE
 Refillable Butane Lighter: 2PK Comet Lighter
 Butane Refill Cylinders: Ronson Universal Lighter Refill Ultra Butane
 Butane Stove: Camp Chef Butane 1 Burner Stove with Camping Case
 8-oz. Butane Canisters: Butane Refill Fuel Gas Can Cartridge for Camping Portable Stove Gas Range  Butane Lantern: Snow Peak GigaPower Auto Start Stainless Steel Lantern Auto One Size
 Butane Stove (for backpackers): Ultralight Backpacking Canister Camp Stove with Piezo Ignition
 Butane-to-Butane Adapter: Kovea Dual Stove Adaptor
 Slip-On Mantles: Coleman Double-Tie Fuel Lantern Mantle #51
 Butane-to-Propane Adapter: Butane-to-Propane Adapter
 One-Burner Propane Stove: Coleman PefectFlow 1-Burner Stove
 Refill Adapter: Gascru Brass Propane One Pound Tank Refill Adapter EZ Coupler
 MAPP Welding: Welding, Brazing, and Cutting Torch Kit
The Final Word
When I first discussed this project with Ron, I had proposed a relatively simple rewrite of the articles posted in early 2013. Somehow, however, as we got into the details, Propane for Preppers took on a life of its own and became something quite different.
Many hours of research went into this article as well as the subsequent parts. Due to its unique nature, the copyright belongs to Ron Brown, and not Backdoor Survival. I do, however, have permission to use it in whole or in part, both now and in the future.
All that being said, I would like to thank Ron for sharing his time and patient research with us. The complete series on Propane for Preppers consists of multiple parts that I will be posting over the next couple of months. As always, if you have something to add or even if you have a question, please leave a comment below.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!