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Like many (most?) boats, we use propane to cook with. Propane is also the fuel that is used to heat our hot water, even though we haven’t felt the need to run our on-demand hot water heater in some time. While propane is a great fuel source, it is not without its dangers and thus deserves some respect. Propane is not only very explosive, it is also heavier than air meaning that if a leak develops in the propane system, the volatile gas can build up in the lower portions of a boat. One spark in a situation like that and KABOOM!

Because of this danger, most boats have at least a couple of safety systems in place to deal with the gas. For starters, the gas bottles themselves must be stored outside the living areas of the boat in a vented locker. Vented meaning that if the bottle or hoses attached to it start to leak, the gas will harmlessly vent overboard.

In addition to the above, in order to operate our stove, or the heater that I mentioned, we need to turn on both a breaker on the electrical panel, located in the starboard hull of our boat and turn on the solenoid switch beside the stove in the galley, located in the port hull.

Before you comment on it, yes I am aware that the little LED associated with the propane (LP) breaker is not working. It never has since we bought the boat.

To ensure that we always leave both of these switches in the off position when not cooking, we have developed the following system. When we are through using the stove, whoever is doing the cooking, Rebecca typically, will turn off the solenoid switch first, allowing the flame on the stove to burn out over the course of a few seconds. As soon as that is done, the person cooking will then turn off the burner control(s) on the stove. I know that not everyone does this in that order, some preferring to leave the gas in the system for a quicker start the next time. Our method however proves that the safety solenoid is functioning properly each time we cook which, in my opinion, is a valuable test. After both the burner controls and solenoid have been switched off, whoever is in the galley calls out “propane and burners off,” signaling the other one of us to turn off the breaker on the electrical panel (if the other person is not in the salon, the cook would just walk across and flick the switch off). Is all this necessary? No, but boats do blow up every year from propane explosions and we’d prefer not to have ours be one of them.

The tragic explosion in the photo above was reportedly caused by gasoline fumes, not propane. The results of a propane explosion would be similar though.

*Some vessels also have a propane detector installed on their boat. We do not.

27 Comments

  1. Stupid Powerboaters! That was actually a powerboaters beach bon fire!!!

  2. There is no such thing as “over-cautious” where propane is concerned. The stuff is terrifying. Methane (CNG) is much less scary, as it vents harmlessly in most cases, but most places have no infrastructure to distribute it to boats.

    Frankly, I prefer the solution used in new Dashew boats- cook with electricity (induction cooktop and convection oven), and leave the propane on shore. But the electric solution is only feasible on boats with seriously big battery banks and the means to charge them.

    Alcohol’s expensive and dangerous (alcohol burners sometimes spill rivers of flaming fuel if you don’t get it quite right). Kerosene, naptha, etc. are cheaper but also troublesome.

    So propane, plus paranoia, remains the galley fuel of choice. Grr….

    • A friend just posted that his new boat is electric.

      His quote about its issues:

      ” (110v + Water- No GFI=Potential(Pun) Disaster). ”

      Safer undoubtedly but nothing is perfect I guess.

  3. One more step in safety, we usually turn the propane of at the tank while the burner is still on. This leaves no chance of propane left in the system and not relying on an electronic solenoid to shut the gas of. It’s more of a pain in the ass but leaves no doubt.

    • That would certainly be the most safe method but given the location of our tanks, we don’t do this nor do I know of many other live-aboards who do either. I do do this on our barbecue though.

  4. Good advice. My big worry is fumes in the bilge, where I can’t detect it. Yes there are sensors, but best have have a situation where there’s no path to the bilge for the fumes to go.

  5. Looks like a Blue Sea panel? Amber LED is #8033, about $2 on Amazon. Does your panel breaker and galley switch operate/energize the same solenoid, or do you have two?

    I have a detector under the stove also. The sensor started to go and it was alarming in the middle of the night (of course)They are crazy expensive, but I was able to win a great auction on eBay to get a new detector which came with a sensor, which I then changed.

  6. According to safety statistics Americans are much more likely to blow up their boat than are Canadians. As I observe my fellow Americans I can totally believe this.

  7. Shoal survivor came with detectors in both hulls (we have a hot water heater in the starboard bow and a cabin heater near the electrical panel, and a frig and stove on port). I know they work, since I have triggered them inadvertanatly with very small amounts of polyurethane varnish. I have also teted them with lighter (just blow the flame out). Iwonder if they could be retrofitted to your system?

    In the summer, when the propane frig is on, we need the detectors, since we cannot turn the solenoid off. This is one down side of a propane frig (it’s suposed to work on 12v and 110v, but those failed long ago).

    • How much propane do you use with that propane fridge?

      • I think a bottle goes about 10-days uninterrupted (we have the same small 10-pound bottles you have, I assume), along with some cooking. But I’m not very sure. We also have the cabin heater and the hot water.

        I’ve heard people say they don’t like sail boats, but it seems to work well weather at anchor or sailing hard. Perhaps that’s a mono-hull thing. It takes about 12 hours to go from off and hot to frozen water bottles.

        I’m not saying propane is better. I don’t know about electric, but I’m guessing it’s cheaper.I don’t like the idea of leaving the gas on (I turn it off if I’m awau for more than a few hours). I’m sayin’ it’s what we’ve got and we’re OK with it.

  8. P.S. There are VERY few pure sailors in the world…most use engines of some sort at various times………which makes them sailors and powerboaters.

  9. Great advice. I have seen the propane solenoid go many times. They just don’t seem to do well in the marine environment. Your advise is prudent. I switch off at the tank myself, if it is accessible. Your method is next best. A gas sensor located in a lower portion is also a great safety addition.

  10. I hate propane. I love to bar-b-que but never do anymore because it freaks me out so much. I had a friend whose neighbour was seriously burned, over 10 years ago, when her tank exploded in her face as she bent down to figure out where the hissing noise she could hear was coming from. Since then, I have owned a bar-b-que for exactly one month – I bought it while my son in law to be was over from England as I wanted him to have the full Canadian summer experience – and then I gave it away. And I paid more for the tank – $90 – than I did for the small bar-b-que – $70 at Canadian Tire – because I wanted the best one they had (it was a little half sized one).

    If I had a boat, I think I’d have to go electric or I’d never get a good night’s sleep.

    • I also used to be fearful of gas stoves, etc, because I wasn’t brought up with one. Used with respect as I said, they are fine.

      Believe it or not small tanks cost as much or more than the standard 20lb tanks.

  11. RE the breaker light: we found that breakers added after the fact sometimes get wired in without attaching the separate light feed wire. They needs to be connected as well in order for the light to actually work. In fact, I have one breaker in that condition right now (the desalinator), it being one that I added and did not connect the light wire. Just havent gotten back to it. Further, I discovered this when I added an additional breaker panel and the last 3 blank spots (without breakers) had their light circuit wires tied off. When I added breakers to those slots and the lights didn’t go on, I had to go in search of them. I believe they were connected off over on the ground side of the panel. The desal one being at the bottom was the hardest to connect for my fat fingers and I didn’t want to shut down the desal unit at the time. Just a thought.

  12. Do you have spare breakers ?
    Breakers are not made to be a switch. ( yes I know they can last a long time. )

    I would take that breaker panel off the bulkhead and see if maybe you have a loose connection or a wire came off of the LED. ( it doesn’t cost anything except time to check ) :))

    Bill Kelleher

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