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RV propane basics

RV Propane: The Road Warrior’s Guide

Published on December 6th, 2021
Updated on January 30th, 2024

RV propane systems make camping in your travel trailer, fifth-wheel trailer, tent trailer, motorhome, or camper easier, more comfortable, and more convenient. Propane, a versatile and efficient fuel, is the lifeblood of many RV systems.

When used safely, it not only heats air, water, and food but can also be used in refrigeration systems to cool food. Understanding how these systems work and maintaining them properly is essential for a safe and enjoyable RV experience.

Here’s an overview of your RV’s propane system, how it works, and how to maintain it.

Understanding Propane in RVs: Properties, Uses, and Storage

Propane is a liquified petroleum gas (LPG) compressed into a liquid and stored in tanks of various sizes. Propane is non-toxic, colorless, and odorless; an odor (often described as “rotten eggs”) is added to help identify a leak.

Propane is used in recreational vehicles to heat space, water, and food, as well as to operate refrigerators. Some vehicle engines operate on propane fuel.

Propane, commonly obtained as a byproduct during the production of natural gas and other petroleum products, is known for its relative affordability compared to other petroleum-based fuels. This cost-effectiveness is particularly noticeable when purchased in bulk. The transportation of propane to markets is efficiently handled through pipelines and trucking systems.

RV propane tanks range in size from one-pound tanks for use with small gas cooking grills to 100-pound tanks or tank combinations for large motorhomes.

The most common is the 20-pound propane tank used in combination with travel trailers and small motorhomes.

Vertical DOT (Department of Transportation designed) tanks are often installed on the trailer hitch, while horizontal ASME tanks are usually permanently installed on the frame of motorhomes.

ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers designed) propane tanks have built-in meters to indicate fuel level. DOT tanks can be equipped with indicator strips on the outside of the tank to measure the propane level inside.

RV Propane for Heating

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Propane is a relatively clean fuel that is efficient for heating with lower greenhouse gas emissions than many other fuels. Propane heating appliances typically use a piezoelectric igniter to start a pilot light, which can start a larger flame in the element.

The flame then heats up the air or water, depending on the appliance. A thermostat or manual switch controls the element flame to turn on, increase, decrease, or turn off the element flame as desired.

Burning propane produces a small amount of carbon monoxide. In an enclosed space, such as inside an air-tight RV, the carbon monoxide can build up to an unsafe health level. When operating propane appliances, open a vent or window slightly to circulate air inside the RV.

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Many RVs, especially newer and larger units, include two alarm systems: propane gas and carbon monoxide. In fact, larger RVs may have more than one of each in the living spaces.

It is recommended that all RVs be equipped with propane AND carbon monoxide alarms and that they be tested frequently. Carry an extra set of alarm batteries if so equipped. Many alarms are hard-wired into the 12-volt DC house system.

(Before storing RVs with wired alarms, be sure to disconnect the alarms so they don’t run down the house battery. Most modern RVs have a 12-volt disconnect switch.)

RV Propane for Cooling

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An RV refrigerator works on the principle of “gas absorption,” which means that heat (from the propane flame or another power source) moves the refrigerant solution inside the cooling unit.

The unit pulls the heat from the surrounding air and sends it out the vent at the back or top of the refrigerator. What’s left is cooler air. (Refer to our article on RV refrigerator tips for more information on efficient RV fridge operation.)

Maintaining RV Propane Systems

An RV propane system

Propane appliances are relatively trouble-free, especially if regularly maintained.

Maintenance can save you money and make your RV camping experiences more enjoyable.

8 Propane Appliance Maintenance Tips

  1. Know how to accurately read the propane level meter on your RV, if so equipped, to make sure you don’t run out of fuel.
  2. At least once a season, remove the furnace cover and clean out any cobwebs, debris, or critter nests to make sure they don’t catch fire when the heating element is turned on.
  3. Make sure you read all the owner manuals you have on RV propane appliances; if you don’t have them, find them online.
  4. Be sure that you have and understand the use of your propane and carbon monoxide alarms.
  5. Remember NOT to use propane to run your refrigerator when driving. It is unsafe.
  6. Perform regular leak checks on all propane connections and hoses. Use a soapy water solution to identify any leaks. If bubbles appear, this indicates a leak that needs immediate attention.
  7. Inspect and clean the ventilation systems for your propane appliances. Proper airflow is crucial for safety and efficiency, so make sure vents are clear of obstructions and debris.
  8. Check the propane regulator for signs of wear or damage. The regulator controls the gas pressure and should be replaced if it shows signs of malfunctioning or is more than 10 years old.

RV Propane: What You Need to Know (Video)

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