Propane-Fired Appliances – Properties – Let’s Do Better

By Dave Cornell, BSA Architect

This will be a continuing series of articles on various aspects of the properties we own, lease, care for, and look to make better.  As we all know, the program of Scouting is valuable to the growth of youth in this country and around the world.  Where we deliver that program needs to convey that value and the coming articles are intended to assist us all in making that conveyance to our current users, as well as all our future users and their families. 

Having read in the news about several instances of people either requiring immediate medical care, getting sick with no apparent exposure, or even death due to exposure to fumes from gas appliances, it’s time we talked about our use of specifically, propane-fired appliances.  With the change of seasons comes the need to warm our homes, shops, and workplaces. 

Many facilities within the BSA system of camps or offices utilize propane-fired heating appliances.  Depending on your location around the country and the age of your home, this too may be heated via a propane-fired heater.  Similarly, an oil-fired boiler or heater may also be utilized to provide us warm air so we can comfortably live within those spaces of our homes, shops, or workplaces.  The key in each of these is knowing they are properly vented!  Why?


                   Carbon Monoxide Carbon Dioxide
                   Sulfur Dioxide Nitrogen Dioxide
                   Nitric Oxide Volatile Organic Compounds
                   Hydrocarbons Coarse and Fine Particulate



Hopefully, most of you recognize these are not necessarily kind to the human animal.  These and other items occur in the combustion of propane which is a fossil fuel product.  Another byproduct of the combustion of propane is H2O, water.  In fact, this can be an indicator that your appliance combusting propane is out of tune as you would see water vapor condensing on surfaces in the space, you’re using the appliance in.  But, most importantly, the occurrences of people dying each year due to asphyxiation from gas poisoning is all too real and is an issue we all need to be conscious of.

The first item in the list presents us with 25% of annual fatalities that are propane related.  While the other items are important to know about in the combustion of propane, they may not necessarily cause the harm that carbon monoxide does.  Or, how that should be worded is the concentrations of those has to be much higher than carbon monoxide.

I’ve seen too many instances of our use of propane-fired instruments in our housing units without proper ventilation being incorporated.  Some instances that come to mind are cabins with propane-fired heaters that are not vented to the outside.  Some of these same cabins may have lighting that is also propane fired.  In many cases we have cooktops or ranges that are propane fired with no hood above the appliance to vent these gases as they are produced while we cook to enjoy a meal together.  In numerous instances, windows are not even opened while operating the appliance so there is no active venting of the exhaust gases produced in the combustion of propane, or even natural gas should that be used.  Any instrument that combusts a fossil fuel HAS to be vented!  There’s really no way around this issue.  This includes camp stoves!

 So, why does this occur in some confines and not in others?  Most notably is how the appliance is tuned to burn the propane.  What do we mean by this?  This is how each unit can be adjusted to burn the gas more efficiently.  And by simple observation right now you can go and look at the flame as the appliance burns the gas.  Ideally, you want a very blue flame.  Yellow is not so good as it’s indicative of a rich burn also characterized by a larger flame than what it should be.  A flame that is “away from the burner” is a lean burn with the potential of going out leaving the appliance putting off just propane gas.  Not so good.  Either of these circumstances are what describes an inefficient burn which is where the bad substances are generated.  The color of the flame is affected by the gas and air mixture it is combusting to produce the heat we’re looking to receive from it to heat the air or our food.  So, in your observation you note the flame is not so blue, you should call your propane supplier or other professional who’s trained to tune your appliances to fully combust the gas that propane is.  Does this eliminate the need for ventilation?  NO! 

When you’re at home and you turn on your gas burners for your cooktop, do you also turn on the vent hood above the cooktop?  If you don’t why not!?  The other item to know is if your vent hood exhausts to the outside, or as is common, pulls the vapors off the cooktop to run them through a filter and then exhausts into the room.  This is typical in house and apartment settings.  A natural gas fired cooktop is similar to a propane fired cooktop.  The oxides are similar as those generated by the combustion of propane, although it does burn ‘cleaner’.  This should become a good practice so you’re not accumulating enough oxides to affect you.  Ventilation is key!  Even though there are appliances manufactured that when properly installed may not require venting, I would highly recommend that ventilation be provided anyway.  Why?  You can’t guarantee the tuning of the combustion will always fall within the guidelines for the appliance to not be vented.  You properly vent all appliances, burner, or instrument that combusts a gas in order to be safe! 

What are some of the effects to recognize you may becoming susceptible to propane gas poisoning?  Lightheadedness or dizziness are common symptoms.  What’s concerning is with enough of a concentration of the oxides you can become disoriented, sleepy, and can pass out, and given enough time you will succumb to the vapors by asphyxiation.  Your body will not receive enough oxygen to survive! 

I would encourage all of you to have your appliances checked whether propane or natural gas, but especially if propane fired.  If your equipment is not vented, make it happen, sooner than later!  If it is vented, is your vent working properly?

Across our country in the winter season, we see too many casualties due to noxious gas poisonings.

Use your appliances appropriately but take the precautions necessary to be safe in their operation.  Camp stoves were mentioned previously.  Don’t use these indoors unless you’re providing ventilation as well.  Ideally, just don’t use them indoors!  Store your camp stoves outside the cabin as well.  Even though they are typically small, the canister when it explodes will be much larger than its size!

The Outdoor Programs / Properties Team is ready to assist and guide in any respect to making the program of Scouting the best youth program!  Reach out to any member of the team and we’ll endeavor to provide quality answers to any issue you may have and/or facing.  We look forward to working together to make the program the best ever!