RV propane - everything you need to know

RV Propane – Everything You Need to Know

When you RV, you rely on propane just as much as electrical power to provide many of the camping comforts you expect, like cooking dinner or keeping warm.

Basic needs are met by your camper’s built-in propane system or via portable tanks of various sizes, but the information and refills can get confusing.

To help you decipher all your propane for RV options, I put together this guide that explains:

  • Types of propane tanks
  • Sizes of propane tanks
  • Uses for propane for travel and at the campsite
  • How and where to refill tanks safely
  • Cost of propane refills and ways to save

You’ll never be caught off-guard with an empty tank and nowhere to fill it when you know everything there is about RV propane. So, be a wise camper and stay here to learn more!

RV Propane Tank Types

RV propane tanks

There are two types of propane tanks RVers use:

DOT (Department of Transportation) tanks are not attached to your camper but are connected by a hose and sit inside a compartment or housing on the travel trailer or fifth-wheel.

Most travel trailers have two tanks, so one can run if the other needs a refill.

The ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) rated RV propane tank permanently mounts to the motorhome chassis.

ASME tank design sits horizontally within your camper’s metal framing, and the propane flow functions properly at this orientation. The tank comes with a built-in fuel gauge.

DOT tanks stand upright, with the valves at the top. The metal collar protects the valves and doubles as a carry handle.

Both types of tanks come in standard 20, 30, and 40-pound sizes, which are easier to manage during RV outings versus larger tanks.

There’s one other difference between propane tanks. Some are made for refills, while tiny tanks you attach to camp stoves or space heaters are disposable.

You can get adapters to refill tiny LP tanks, but in general, you won’t find a dealer or campground that will fill tanks under 10-gallons.

RV Propane Tank Size and Weight

Different propane tank sizes

Here are the common propane tank sizes RVers will encounter:

  • 1 pound
  • 5 pound
  • 10 pound
  • 20 pound
  • 30 pound
  • 40 pound (fairly rare size)
  • 50 pound
  • 100 pound

The “pounds” of a tank can be deceiving as the metal tank is already heavy, and a gallon of propane weighs 4.2 pounds.

You must also remember that any propane tank never fills 100%. Tanks fill to 80% capacity to allow for heat expansion of the gas during warm weather and prevent excessive pressure build-up inside the tank.

To get an idea of weight, know that a 5-gallon (or 20-pound) LP tank holds 4.5-4.7 gallons of propane. A full tank will have 18.9-19.74 pounds of propane, along with the tank’s weight.

The average weight of an empty 20-pound LP tank is around 17 pounds. So the total weight of a “full” 20-pound tank is about 36-37 pounds.

The larger the tank size, the heavier it will be, both empty and full.

There should be a two-letter and two-number stamp on any LP tank, aside from the date of manufacture, that tells you the weight when empty.

A stamp that says TW20 weighs 20 pounds when empty. TW stands for tare weight, and the number after is the weight of the tank when dry.

1-pound propane tanks are prevalent for small camp grills or stoves. You screw the canister into a fitting, which allows the propane to flow when you turn a knob.

The tanks are affordable and available at just about any major retailer like Walmart or camping and RV stores. When it’s empty, you throw the canister away.

Five and 10-pound tanks run small space heaters or grills but are less common than the 20-pound tanks you see on gas grills or small travel trailers.

30 and 50-pound LP tanks are more common on motorhomes, travel trailers, and fifth wheels and often mount in pairs.

100-pound propane tanks hold 25 gallons and are most often only seen on large travel trailers that double as a food cart for carnivals or roadside eating.

Most standard RVs cannot handle the weight stress of a single 100-pound tank.

Propane Uses for Travel Days and Campsites

An RV using propane

RV propane is a camper’s lifeline, especially when dry camping or boondocking.

Many RV appliances run off both propane and electricity, so you can take advantage of campground shore power when available but can camp off-grid and still enjoy all your camper’s amenities.

Propane will:

  • Keep your fridge full of cold drinks and food
  • Run the furnace so you stay warm during cold-weather camping trips
  • Bring flames to your stove top burners
  • Fire up your outdoor grill
  • Run the water heater
  • Fuel a space heater or lantern
  • Power a propane generator

While you can enjoy camping without using any propane, having it as a safe-to-transport and clean-burning fuel source is extremely handy for all types of uses.

Is It Safe to Drive with the Propane On?

I get this question often from new RVers, and the answer is that recreational vehicle owners with a fridge full of food often drive while running the propane, so the contents stay cold.

The most common problem with keeping the propane on while driving an RV is that people reach their campsite and find the tank is empty.

I’ve yet to hear of campers having a fire or dangerous carbon monoxide build-up inside their RV by keeping the propane running during travel, but it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

The biggest concern with running your RV’s propane while driving is if you’re in an accident, as the tank could explode.

Another issue is laws generally forbid running propane while passing through tunnels or while on a ferry, so keep that in mind if your travels take you on such routes.

Where and How to Refill RV Propane Tanks Safely

Parked an RV with propane

You can fill propane tanks at these locations:

  • Major propane dealers like FerrellGas, AmeriGas, or Blossman
  • Local propane gas distributors
  • Some hardware or home improvement stores
  • RV Parks and Campgrounds
  • Propane exchange kiosks like Blue Rhino

Depending on where you camp, a fill station may be convenient or require you to drive quite a distance. Prepare beforehand by researching two or three propane sources near your destination to avoid problems when your tanks run low.

Refilling Portable Propane Tanks

When it comes time to refill your RV portable propane tanks, you’ll need to unhook the units from your camper and carry them to the filling station.

Place the units where the staff directs you and walk back from the area. Do not place them on the scale or stand within the safety fence or lines, and please do not smoke!

Don’t expect staff to remove or replace tanks directly from or to your vehicle, as each state has laws about the legality of doing this.

Remember that a full 30 or 50-pound tank is heavy, so bring along someone with muscles if you can’t lift it yourself.

TIP: Check your tank expiration date. A reputable and licensed propane distributor will not refill outdated tanks that aren’t recertified.

The manufacture month and year stamp is on the tank’s metal collar. The Ferrel Gas website has a handy picture that shows where to find the propane tank date stamp.

Most standard portable propane tanks 100-lbs or under are suitable for 12 years of use. Recertified tanks are good for another five years.

If a certified propane dealer requalifies the tank, it will have an “E” stamp after the date or have a dated sticker.

Many propane-exchange kiosks are famous for repainting tanks that are out of date and sell them to unsuspecting campers. Always check the date on the “new” propane tank before you exchange your cylinder to avoid issues at refill sites later on.

If you can’t read or find the date, that means they painted the tank so many times it fills in the stamp, so avoid it!

WARNING: Even newer propane tanks can have so much corrosion or rust that they can be dangerous to fill. Look for rust under the plastic label on the main tank or around the fill valve.

I would never fill a tank if I saw excessive rusting in these two areas, as I won’t risk my life so you can grill burgers.

INSIDER TIP: If you transport propane tanks in your vehicle, never lay them on their side, as this can cause the float inside the filling valve to stick, causing the propane not to fill or dispense correctly.

If you’re at a campground that dispenses propane, ask the office how they deal with propane filling needs.

Some RV parks want you to label your campsite number on the empty tank, set it at the edge of your campsite, and call the office to alert them. The office will have an employee pick it up, fill it, and return it to your site.

The office will charge the cost to your credit card on file. Other parks will require you to bring your tank directly to the filling station during office hours only.

Refilling Permanent Motorhome Propane Tanks

A station for refilling propane-tanks

Motorhome propane tank fills require you to bring the camper to the filling site.

If you’re new to a filling station, ask staff about proper procedures before you drive the camper to the propane dispensing hose.

Know which side your motorhome’s propane connections are on so you can pull up to the site correctly. Many propane fill areas are tight, and hoses only reach so far, so parking in the wrong direction can jam things up.

Some propane fill stations let you self-serve, but most will require certified employees to dispense the propane for you.

For safety, do expect to have staff ask you to remove all people and pets from the interior of your RV while filling the motorhome tank.

Cost to Refill RV Propane Tanks

Most refill stations outside of campgrounds will charge you per gallon of propane they put into your tank, rounding to the nearest tenth.

Some campgrounds don’t have the elaborate scales and tabulators to get exact measurements of propane, so they offer a flat rate for fills based on the size of the tank.

The current cost of a gallon of propane in the US averages around $2.50. Refill dealers or campgrounds often raise this price to $3.00-$4.00 depending on supply and demand.

How to Save on Propane Fills

If you need to refill RV propane often, it does pay off over time to shop around for the best price and follow the other cost-saving tips below.

CAMPGROUND PROPANE FILL SAVINGS TIPS

First, find a propane fill station where you pay by the gallon. I did propane fills at several campgrounds as part of my workamping experience, some that did flat-rate fills and others that charge per gallon.

The charge was $16 for a 20-pound tank fill at the flat rate, regardless of the actual amount going into the tank. I had many customers bring in half-full tanks and expect to pay half-price, but the scale (and campground pay systems) didn’t work that way, and people would get angry.

The price was reasonable to fill an empty 20-pound tank, but in reality, most people still had some propane inside the tank, so they weren’t getting a good value.

Many campgrounds and LP dealers close to each other often have price wars on propane, and you can grab a deal on a refill if you don’t mind taking a short ride.

PROPANE-EXCHANGE KIOSK SAVINGS TIPS

A Coleman travel trailer

Another reason to avoid propane-exchange kiosks is they notoriously underfill tanks, so your initial purchase is already smaller than what you would get by going to a refill station.

The lesser amount isn’t to handle the standard 80% fill of any propane tank but to short customers and increase profits. The average person doesn’t know how much a correctly full 20-pound tank should weigh or have a scale handy to check it.

Even if you buy a tank from a kiosk, it’s always cheaper to refill it from a dealer or campground than to exchange it.

GET A PROPANE FUEL GAUGE

Get a fuel gauge so you can monitor how much propane you have left. When you can fill your tank at your convenience and look for the cheapest LP, you can avoid paying a high price at a “last resort” filling station.

Some large tanks come with a gauge, but you can purchase propane tank fuel gauge adapters to fit smaller tanks.

Final Thoughts

Understanding all the ins and outs of RV propane uses, sizes, refills, and costs will make your camping experiences better and safer.

Once you master your RV’s propane system, you’ll see it isn’t as confusing as it first appears, and it doesn’t take much effort to keep it running efficiently.

By reading the guide above, I hope you can prepare for future camping trips properly and never be without RV propane when you need it most!

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RV Propane. What You Need To Know! (Video)

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