The Do's & Don't Of Propane Storage And Transportation

by Glen Moyer

One hot air balloonist discovered the hard way that storage of propane tanks in a garage can be hazardous. A propane tank leaked resulting in an explosion that removed the foundation from under the house. The bedroom floor is sitting on the boat in the picture above. Fortunately no one was hard in this accident.

The assignment seemed simple enough, produce a Special Report article on the proper storage and transportation of propane, paying special attention to rules and regulations that apply and of which some balloonists may be unaware.

To begin I turned to the NFPA Code 58 titled "Standard for the Storage and Handling of Liquefied Petroleum Gas." The NFPA or National Fire Protection Association has authored codes on all sorts of things. NFPA codes are recognized as federal standards in the fire protection industry. Code 58 is a full 92 pages and was written by a committee of more than 30 members and alternates from all facets of industry and the fire protection services. It is an impressive document, but having read those chapters I thought would help, it raised more questions than it answered. And, not being fluent in "codeese", there were no answers forthcoming. I did learn that while the NFPA code deals with storage of propane, the transportation of propane is generally addressed by the Department of Transportation. Having had difficulty reading a code written by a private association, you can imagine how excited I was at the prospect of tearing into a bunch of regulations written by a government bureaucracy the size of DOT.

My solution was to find someone who knows and works with these codes and regulations and to ask them what applies and what does not. In other words, I turned to my local fire department. The answer I got was surprising. There are no federal regulations that address the storage or transportation of propane in the amounts generally associated with the sport of ballooning.

However, there are some "common sense" practices everyone should follow, so let's examine those, beginning with storage.

Again let's emphasize that there are no federal regulations that address storage of propane in single or multi-family homes in amounts usually associated with balloons... that is 30-40 gallons. But that does not mean you should start stockpiling propane in your garage. NFPA Code 58 does address storage in industrial parks, buildings, retail establishments, etc. But common sense should prevail whenever storing propane fuel tanks.

For example, always store the tanks in an upright position. That's because the top of the tank is where the pressure relief valves (safety valves) are located. When upright, if excessive pressure builds up, these valves will pop and bleed vapor off. While this is not good, it is not as bad as the consequences of having the tanks resting on their sides. In that position, the safety valves would bleed off raw liquid propane.

Fuel lines should be capped in order to prevent foreign objects from becoming lodged inside and possible resulting in a fuel flow blockage at a critical moment during flight.

Certainly you should never store tanks near a water heater, furnace, or other potential source of ignition.

Also make sure that all valves are securely closed. Bleed valves, if not securely closed have been known to work themselves open due to the expansion and contraction caused by temperature changes.

A good option is to store the basket and its tanks in an exterior workshop with the lawnmower, gardening tools, etc. In simple terms, the further away from you that you can remove the potential danger of a propane fire or explosion, the better.

Any storage area should be well ventilated, but don't put the tanks right next to a vent for washers or dryers, as any leaking vapors could be sucked into these machines or your home and create a potential hazard.

While tanks can be stored out-of-doors, this is not recommended. But if left outside, be sure never to store a propane tanks beneath a powerline where a break in the line could create disaster. And never store tanks under a stairway that might be needed to escape in the event of a fire.

As a general rule of thumb, allow ten feet of clearance around the storage area. And if your tanks become rusty, bent, or deformed in some other way, have them pressure tested immediately.

Where transportation is concerned the DOT standards do apply to the transportation of propane within a closed bodied vehicles, such as passenger cars and vans, when the amount of propane exceeds 90 pounds or about 21 gallons. See Legal Log on page 34 for more information.

All of us should be familiar with the danger of storing propane tanks in a van or enclosed trailer. Ventilation is always a concern, so be sure to provide plenty. And always check for any leaks before storing the basket with tanks in an enclosed area of your vehicle.

Just as in storing, tanks should be transported in the same fashion, upright, and for the same reasons.

When parking your vehicle, remember that any explosion of the tanks could create a disaster. So always use parking spaces as far away as possible and practical from occupied buildings. That doesn't mean you have to park in the next county, but don't back your van or truck right up the door of your hotel room or a restaurant. Any explosion or fire could send debris into the building. If fire is discovered, it's much easier for firefighters to isolate the back section of a parking lot than an exploded side of a busy, crowded restaurant. Again the ten foot rule is a good one to consider

. To put all of this into perspective, consider that most balloonists seldom store or transport more than 30 or 40 gallons of propane. In relative terms, we operate our balloons much as we do the family automobile. That is, we fill the tank, drive and garage the car until the tank nears empty and then fill it up again. Seldom do we worry about storing or driving with flammable gasoline right behind the back seat even though the danger of fire and explosion is always there.

Finally, you will do well to remember that the FAA, state fire marshall's office, and your local fire department may have something to say about the above. Indeed, local fire departments have the authority to amend the NFPA codes to fit their own local concerns. So, be sure to check with them if you have any questions.

Copyright © 1997 Balloon Life. All rights reserved.