RV propane systems make camping in your travel trailer, fifth-wheel trailer, tent trailer, motorhome, or camper easier and more convenient. Used safely, propane can heat air, heat water, heat food, and even cool food.
Here’s an overview of your RV’s propane system, how it works, and how to maintain it.
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 is a byproduct of natural gas or other petroleum product production. Due to its abundance, propane typically is less expensive than other petroleum-based fuels, especially in larger quantities. It is transported to market via pipelines and trucks.
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.
Most common is the 20-pound propane tank used in combination on travel trailers and small motorhomes.
Vertical DOT (Department of Transportation designed) tanks often are installed on the trailer hitch while horizontal ASME tanks usually are 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
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 then 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.
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
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
Propane appliances are relatively trouble-free, especially if regularly maintained. Maintenance can save you money and make your RV camping experiences more enjoyable. Here are some propane appliance maintenance tips:
- 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.
- 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.
- Make sure you read all the owner manuals you have on RV propane appliances; if you don’t have them, find them online.
- Be sure that you have and understand the use of your propane and carbon monoxide alarms.
- Remember NOT to use propane to run your refrigerator when driving. It is unsafe.
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