CAMPING - POWER & LIGHTING
The most common cooking and water-heating fuel used by Australian campers is liquified petroleum gas (LPG). It’s relatively cheap and readily available Australia-wide. However, there are fire and explosion risks with LPG and precautions must be taken.
Many caravan, camper trailer and RV makers are moving away from LPG, because of hazard risks. Diesel-fuelled cooktops are becoming increasingly popular, as are diesel water and room heaters. Also, lithium batteries and solar power have made induction electric cooking possible.
However, the bulk of campers have LPG and, if proper installation, usage and maintenance are employed, all will be well.
Let’s recap the often-repeated RV and caravan LPG safety procedures:
Read the vehicle manufacturer’s operating instructions
In the case of outside BBQs, do not use LPG in windy conditions
Always keep cylinders cool and away from flames, sparks and heat.
Use approved or certified hoses and connections designed for gas: not home-made ones.
Protect exposed pipes and hoses from flying-stone damage and make sure all gas connections are tight.
Regularly turn on the cylinder valve and test for leaks at all connections, using a squirt bottle with soapy water.
Close all appliance valves before opening the cylinder valve.
After you have finished using your LPG appliance, close the cylinder valve first before turning off the LPG appliance, to empty the plumbing line.
Gas cylinders are required to be replaced or re-tested and stamped every 10 years.
Close the cylinder valve when appliances are not being used.
In the event of an accidental gas leak, close the cylinder valve and ventilate the vehicle until the air is clear.
Never use cooking appliances as room heaters: carbon monoxide is a silent killer.
All additions or alterations to the LPG system must be performed by an authorised person. Be sure to consult your LPG supplier.
Make sure that all caravan users are familiar with the odour of unburnt LPG to assist in the detection of leaks.
Ensure all permanent ventilators, flues and vents are clear.
Stop dirt from entering external gas connections, such as BBQ bayonet fittings.
Real-time leak detection
Years ago, we came back to our moored yacht, after night at the club and there was a strong smell when we opened the hatch. Instantly, we recognised the possible danger and didn’t touch any electrical switches.
Using a torch we discovered the source of the smell: a ruptured aerosol can of ‘Start Ya Bastard’ rolling around in the bilge, with its one-time contents of ether and hydrocarbon propellant making a nice explosive-gas cocktail!
The event taught us a valuable lesson: gas detection in a sealed vessel is vital.
Even with the best will in the world, sometimes things go wrong. An LPG leak inside an RV or caravan can be catastrophic, with the potential to cause fire or an explosion that can be life-threatening. Also, if you’re operating an inside LPG stove and LPG or diesel heating for comfort or hot water, you need to monitor carbon monoxide (CO) levels inside the vehicle.
It’s important to have gas detectors inside your vehicle.
There are plenty of gas detectors available on-line, with prices as low as fifty bucks, but for such a vital piece of equipment, we’d suggest doing some homework before trusting a ‘cheapie’.
There are some Australian legalities that some overseas units may or may not comply with. Australian Standards and safety requirements stipulate alarm set point levels at 25-percent low explosive limit (LEL) of propane.
LEL is the minimum concentration of a particular combustible gas necessary to support its combustion in air. Below that concentration the air/gas mixture is too ‘lean’ to burn.
A well-made gas detector that complies with LEL requirements should eliminate ‘nuisance alarms’ that trigger a detector to alarm as a result of other contaminants, at low levels, such as cleaning products and fly and hair spray. More than one cheap LPG detector has been disconnected due to nuisance alarms.
Another critical component of a gas detector is a ‘test’ function that proves the unit is working correctly. Don’t even think about a detector that doesn’t have a test button. An LED that ‘says’ the unit is working may just indicate that the power is getting to it, not proof that the sensor is active.
Some gas detectors need an extended ‘warm up’ time before they’re functional – as much as 24 hours after being switched on!
There’s not much point in having an LPG leak detector if it doesn’t function as a gas shut-off device. A detector that only warns of a leak is fine, if you’re in the vehicle at the time, but, if you’re elsewhere and forgot to turn off the gas cylinder, your vehicle could be a potential bomb by the time you get back.
Top quality LPG detectors can be supplied with a shut-off solenoid in the gas line. They also have long leads between the wall units and the sensors, allowing the sensors to be placed in ideal positions.
It’s also very important that you can buy replacement parts for your gas detectors, should something go wrong. Buying from a ‘fly by night’ on-line source means it’s most unlikely you’ll get any after-sale support.
We all like to find a bargain, but life-saving gas detectors need to be totally reliable. Budget around $500 for a pair of detectors — one for CO and another for LPG – with all the kit you need, including a shutoff solenoid.