Is Propane Safe? Let's Talk!

Some people have a very real fear when considering the use of propane and natural gas (NG) in their homes. Why wouldn’t there be? Both create a lot of energy when ignited and do so at a rapid rate. That’s the reality of the products. But the other reality is that there are so many things around us every day that are just as lethal when not properly handled. We still use them because we have learned how to do so with no harm to ourselves.

Using Propane and NG safely also begins with knowledge, both from those who install the piping and appliances that use these flammable gases and from those who use the appliances that burns them. First, let’s begin with the people installing your propane and NG equipment and piping. Be certain when you are planning a propane or NG project that the installer choose to working with is qualified and knows what they are doing. Feel comfortable that this person is not doing the propane or NG work as a side hustle and that they are licensed with the authorities to do the job in question. Experience from your installer is imperative to having the job done right.

Now, what about you? Your part in using propane or NG safely is really quite simple. The key is to know what a propane leak smells like. Propane and NG, in their natural state are odorless and colorless gasses, therefore they are treated with an odorizing agent for safety. The additive used in the propane and NG industries is called ethyl mercaptan. Ethyl mercaptan is a highly concentrated, organic, non-flammable, non-toxic additive that gives the propane and NG a pungent smell similar to rotten eggs or cabbage, sulphur, decaying organic material, and even skunk urine are a few of the descriptive examples of what "treated" propane and NG smells like.

If you smell this odor and you fear that it may be a gas leak, are you in imminent danger from an explosion? Not necessarily. But if you smell gas, shut off your tank and call your propane delivery company or propane technician asap. Propane leaks can sometimes occur, but generally a leak in your propane system does not happen spontaneously. Many times other causes for smelling propane are the culprit. For example, because ethyl mercaptan is such a concentrated active chemical additive, an LP storage tank that is low in fuel will have an overwhelming proportion of ethyl mercaptan to propane that the ethyl mercaptan doesn’t completely burn and slips into the atmosphere. Once the LP tank is filled, the ethyl mercaptan becomes diluted again and the odor goes away almost immediately.

Another odor causing event can come from having a recent propane delivery. Propane, unlike NG, is delivered by truck to your home and is heavier than air. When a propane delivery is being done the delivery person allows propane vapor to be released into the atmosphere during the filling of your tank. This is a safe and necessary part of the process. This vented propane vapor can go to the ground and collect in low spots and stay there for quite some time, hence smelling like propane is escaping via a possible leak.

One of the most reported concerns from customers regarding propane and NG gas odors come from their gas ranges. People complain that sometimes when they turn on the burner (usually the larger one) they get a whiff of gas that causes them concern. The common reason for this, and it happens a lot, is that sometimes the gas with its ethyl mercaptan odorant intact gets pushed out of the burner a split second before the gas is ignited, therefore pushing a minuscule amount of unburned gas directly up the customers nose. Once the burner has lit, the smell goes away.

Even a recently startled skunk making its way through your yard on a warm summer night can waft its distinctive aroma through an open window giving one pause to wonder if they have a gas leak.

And lastly, when talking about safety regarding propane and NG take into account the amazing technology built into the new gas appliances of today. The built in safety devices and fail safes designed to protect you from catastrophic failure are remarkable. The rigorous testing done by so many quality control agencies regulated by governement and willingly by the gas industry has done even more to make the use of propane and NG appliances safer. And, whether you have oil burning, wood burning, or propane or NG systems heating your home, a carbon monoxide monitor is an absolute must to have in your residence.   

Propane and NG are amazing sources of energy. When installed properly and using the guidelines of the propane or NG appliance manufacturers, the authorities having jurisdiction in your area (Fire Marshal, Building Inspector), and the national Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) codes 54 & 58, your propane or NG piping and appliances are no more dangerous than the electrical wires in your walls. Propane and NG are at the top of the list as the "cleanest" sources of carbon based energy. Once you experience the benefits, comfort, enviromental and economic advantage of propane and NG you will undoubtable join the millions of other people who already know the best option in heating and cooking fuels.