Prior to our first charter trip, I had no idea how to use propane on a boat — I hadn’t even used a propane a camp stove or gas grill! And I had very little experience with a gas stove or oven; about all I remember is a few friends having them and seeing them when I helped in their kitchens, but never using one.
So you could say I had more than a few questions . . . and more as we bought our own boat and began cruising!
I’m not going to try to cover absolutely everything about how to use propane on a boat in this article (in particular, I’m not covering maintenance or troubleshooting), but basically hit on the important things to know if you’re not very familiar with it.
Propane is a potentially explosive fuel. Be careful around it! While some charter companies require you to turn it off at the tank any time you’re not actually using it, most boaters only turn it off when they are going to be away from the boat for an extended period of time . . . say, more than a day.
Propane actually has no odor, but one is added to it so that you can tell if there is a leak. If you smell propane, turn the propane off at the tank immediately and turn off all electricity and be very careful not to generate static electricity sparks. Propane is heavier than air and “flows” with gravity very similarly to water; it will collect at the lowest point it can reach — generally in the bilge. On most boats, it is safest to use the manual bilge pump to rid it from the boat; do not use an electric pump because of the risk of a explosion from a spark. Be very careful as you locate and repair the leak (specifics of that are way beyond the scope of this article).
Three Important Safety Items
Your propane system has numerous parts, from the tank to the stove. But I want to talk about three in particular and the role they play in your safety.
If you store your propane in a locker, the locker must be vented directly overboard (not through a hose) from the lowest point in the locker. Propane is heavier than air and any leaked from the tank will collect in the bottom.
A solenoid is a valve in the propane line from the tank to the stove. It’s electrically operated and typically there is an on/off switch near the stove. You turn it on when you’re ready to light a burner and off when you’re done using the stove (with many, a red light comes on when the solenoid comes on as a visual reminder that it’s on). It’s a safety feature and designed to fail closed — which means that if there is no electricity coming from the batteries, it will not operate. Should you lose all power on the boat, you will have to devise a way to bypass the solenoid in order to cook.
As a safety precaution, it’s recommended that when you are ready to turn the last burner off that you’re using to prepare a meal, you first turn the solenoid off and let the propane in the line go to the burner and burn. When the flame goes out, then turn the burner off. Unfortunately, this is often hard to remember in real life and I often found myself either just turning the burner off and later remembering to turn the solenoid off, or turning the solenoid off and forgetting the burner until later!
Another safety device, this designed to ensure that propane does not flow to the burner if there is no flame there. That is, if the flame accidentally goes out, propane won’t keep flowing (since it is invisible as a gas, it could collect along the floor or bilge and cause an explosion). That’s great, but the question is then how do you get the propane to the burner so you can light it? You have to turn the knob on and push it in — pushing the knob in causes the propane to flow regardless of whether there is a flame or not. Generally, you have to hold it in for a few seconds after the burner is lit until the thermocoupler has a chance to warm up. Check with your stove’s documentation for more details as every stove can be a little different.
Lighting a Propane Stove
Many marine stoves have some sort of automatic or push-button igniters, where you don’t need a match or other lighter. Many use an AA or AAA battery somewhere in the system for the igniter, so if your igniter stops working check your documentation for this. And always keep some kitchen matches and/or long-nosed lighters (like you’d use for lighting a grill) on hand — those igniters are notorious for not working (mine never did, Jan’s doesn’t).
To light a burner with the starter, first turn the solenoid on. Turn the knob for the burner to the “start” or “light” position (or to medium-high if there is no marked “start” or “light”) and push it in and hold it in. Then press the starter — it may take several tries. If it doesn’t light in three or four clicks, let the knob out and wait several minutes before trying again, in order to let the propane dissipate and reduce the risk of a mini-explosion (or worse) when it does light. Continue to hold the knob in for a few seconds until the burner is nicely burning, then let the knob out. If the flame goes out, repeat and hold the knob a little longer (with time, you’ll learn how long it takes with your stove and it’ll be second nature). Now you can adjust the burner to the setting desired.
To light a burner with a “fire starter” (long-nosed butane lighter), again begin by turning the solenoid on. Light the fire starter and hold the flame beside the burner element. Turn the knob for the burner to the “start” or “light” position (or to medium-high if there is no marked “start” or “light”) and push it in and hold it in. It may take a couple seconds until the propane is at the burner, but the burner should light. Remove the fire starter but continue to hold the knob in for a few seconds until the burner is nicely burning, then let the knob out. If the flame goes out, repeat and hold the knob a little longer (with time, you’ll learn how long it takes with your stove and it’ll be second nature). Now you can adjust the burner to the setting desired.
NOTE: If the directions that came with your stove state a different procedure, follow those instead. These are sort of “generic.”
How Long Does a Tank of Propane Last?
Well, that depends on the size, how much and what types of cooking you do and so on. But what I can say is that with full-time living, a 20-pound tank (also called a 5-gallon tank in some places) will last me about 3 months. I bake and do everything I would ashore — in some ways, probably more as I heat dishwasher on the stove and also boil water for coffee instead of using a coffeemaker. I hear this same number from other liveaboards, and even a friend who lives ashore and uses a 20-pound tank.
For boats, the two sizes of tanks most often used are 10-pound and 20-pound tanks. Many full-time cruisers have two tanks, so they are never without. A spare tank needs to be kept where any leak will not drain into the boat.
Refilling the Tank
Our first question was whether the propane tank had to be empty before it’s refilled or could we do it when it was convenient? Nope, it doesn’t have to be totally empty . . . although you’ll probably won’t be charged any less.
Many marinas do a refill service, where you take the tank to the office or other designated place by a certain time on a certain day and someone takes them to the tank farm and returns them generally the same day (sometimes the next day). Other times, you’ll have to go to the tank farm yourself.
In the US, more and more often tanks are exchanged in many places such as home improvement stores, groceries, pharmacies and big box stores. These are easy but note that they usually only have 15 pounds of propane in a 20-pound tank and thus last about 25% less time.
Many boats, particularly in saltwater, have aluminum tanks. If this is the case, don’t use the “swap-a-tank” services you see at so many convenience stores, supermarkets, and so on — those tanks are steel!