Uh-oh, you thought about getting your propane tank filled a few days ago. You still had nearly 1/3 left then. Plenty of time to get a propane refill, right?

Now it’s 6:00 pm, the weather service says the barometric pressure is dropping, and a cold front is moving in.

Your propane gauge is in the red. A propane gauge is usually marked at the 20% line. You need heat now. Why is that number important? Running empty is an inconvenience, but is it dangerous?

What happens if you let the gas go below that? Read on to learn more about home propane tank care.

How Does Propane Work?

Propane (also called LP gas or LPG-liquefied petroleum gas) is widely used to fuel heating, refrigeration units, generators, BBQs, and appliances. It is transported and stored in thick-walled steel containers as a very cold, pressurized liquid. The liquid propane expands into a gas inside its tank.

Propane is naturally non-toxic, without color and without odor. An odor compound is added to make propane easier to detect in the event of a leak or spill. Propane gas vapors are heavier than air and can collect in low areas like basements, floors, and crawl spaces. 

Propane is highly flammable when mixed with oxygen. Watch out for ignition sources, such as unshielded flame, smoking materials, electrical sparks, and static electricity. For this reason, propane tanks and their filling ports are generally located outdoors so that vapors may dissipate. 

Your Propane System

Become familiar with the parts of your propane system. Quick action may someday be needed in case of a leak or other emergency. If you have an underground storage tank, only the cover will show above ground. This cover protects the shut-off valve, pressure regulator, pressure safety release valve and propane gauge.

Propane is delivered as a pressurized liquid. It is pumped into a specially-designed, thick-walled storage tank. The liquefied petroleum changes to gaseous form before it leaves the tank. Propane leaves the tank via a series of underground pipes to your boiler, furnace or appliances.

You may also have a second pressure regulator at the point the gas line enters the structure. If your gas comes out of your tank at excess pressure, the pressure regulator kicks in and does not allow the pressure to ruin your equipment. There should be a manual shut off valve to stop the gas flow at each appliance. 

The final segment of the gas pipeline is the flexible connector that attaches the appliance to the fixed pipes. This short connector allows the appliance to be moved without disconnection for service or cleaning. Inspect the connector for leaks or cracks every time you clean around and under a connector. 

What Happens if I Let the Propane Gauge Go Below 20%

Propane tanks are heat sensitive. Too much heat forms high pressure inside the tank. Above ground, tanks are painted white or silver to reflect heat. In cold weather or when the tank is too empty, the gases do not expand enough to fill the space within the tank. This results in low pressure.

There are serious safety hazards to running out of gas. Fire or explosion are among the most serious. 

Really? Explosion? How does that happen?

  • Valves or gas lines are left open when the gas runs out, refills leak out
  • Air and moisture cause rust in an empty or nearly empty tank and that weakens the tank
  • Rust removes the odor from propane and leaks go unnoticed

All it takes is stray gas vapor to reach an ignition source, and fire or explosion can result.

Less distressing, but no less inconvenient, is the process to recharge a tank that has gone empty.

  • Pilot lights on all appliances go out and must be restarted
  • Check for leaks before restart

For your safety, many states require a qualified service technician to perform a leak check before restarting pilot lights. This can be both costly and time-consuming.

What to Do if Your Propane Tank is Below 20%

First off, don’t panic. Unless you have drained your tank to less than 10%, you have a few days. Call for service. 

You can reduce your use for a few days if you need to stretch it out. Limit your propane burning activities to necessities. Do not let your pilot lights go out if you can avoid it. A certified technician must relight your system and that can be expensive.

Call your propane dealer. They may be able to set up a delivery outside of regular delivery routes. Just be aware that you may have to purchase a minimum number of gallons and/or pay a higher price to buy less.

If you must burn alternative fuels while you are waiting for propane, take the time to close all propane valves. Ventilate your area thoroughly. Incomplete fuel burning, especially wood or coal, can fill your space with dangerous carbon monoxide and soot.

To Avoid Emergency Delivery of Fuel

Keep an eye on your propane gauge. Some people find it helpful to make a habit of something simple like putting on socks, then glancing at the gauge. Others prefer regular reminders sent to their mobile phones. You can even get remote monitoring gauges that will phone or text you at certain preset levels.

Always plan on delivery at 20% or so.

Set up a regular delivery schedule with your dealer. Many dealers have a regular route. There may be a minimum size for delivery. For best prices, try to avoid calling for fuel in the middle of a cycle.

Know the parts of your propane system and keep your appliances in good repair. Efficient burning of propane leaves almost no residue or pollution. A well-maintained system uses less fuel than one that gets no service.

To discuss your propane appliances and their proper running, contact one of our experts today. 

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