You might be using a propane tank to heat your house during winters or for other unique reasons. No matter the use, safety should always be your first priority whenever you handle combustible fuel. And carbon monoxide poisoning is an extremely important concern you should take into account when using a propane tank or when combusting any fossil fuels, especially indoors.
You can get carbon monoxide poisoning from burning propane or ay other fossil fuel in an enclosed space. Ensuring good airflow will prevent issues. If you experience any symptoms of CO poisoning (headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach) leave the area immediately, and use a simple CO detector.
In order to prevent issues, it’s important to take the right safety measures before using a propane tank. Let’s look at why propane tanks release carbon monoxide, the dangers of high carbon monoxide levels, and how to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, so you can enjoy your next barbecue party without worrying about the safety of your guests!
What Is Carbon Monoxide?
Carbon monoxide is a tasteless, odorless, and colorless gas produced by burning propane, gasoline, charcoal, wood, and other fuel sources. Poorly ventilated engines and appliances, especially those kept in an enclosed or tightly sealed space, can lead to dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide.
Once carbon monoxide enters the body, the CO molecules displace the oxygen in the body, resulting in carbon monoxide poisoning.
Do Propane Tanks Release Carbon Monoxide?
Approximately 25% of propane-related deaths are caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. Improperly adjusted propane appliances have incomplete gas combustion, which leads to the creation of carbon monoxide.
But not all propane tanks release carbon monoxide. Properly adjusted and functioning appliances produce an ‘ideal burn’ that doesn’t release any carbon monoxide during combustion.
Proper combustion requires three things: air, ignition, and fuel. Once you have these three things, you’ll further need to make sure that the ratio of air to gas is within an acceptable range.
For example, if you introduce ignition to a mixture that’s equal parts air and propane, combustion will not occur. For proper combustion, the gas in the mixture should be within the ‘limits of flammability,’ or more specifically between 2.2 and 9.6.
In simpler words, you’ll need a mixture that’s 2.2 parts propane gas to 97.8 parts air or 9.6 parts propane gas to 90.4 parts air for proper combustion. You can achieve the ‘ideal burn’ with a mixture that’s 4 parts propane gas to 96 parts air (1:24).
The ideal ratio is when combustion is at its most efficient. You can tell you’ve achieved complete propane combustion if you get a blue burning flame.
Incomplete Propane Combustion
Incomplete propane combustion occurs when the gas in the mixture is within the limits of flammability, but lower or higher than the ‘ideal burn’ ratio of 4 parts propane gas and 96 parts air. There are two types of incomplete propane combustion:
Propane-rich burn occurs when the propane to air ratio is more than the ideal ratio. 8.5 parts propane gas and 91.5 parts air will result in a rich burn. It’s very easy to recognize a rich burn, as the flames are mostly yellow in color and much larger than they’re supposed to be.
Propane-lean burn occurs when the propane to air ratio is less than the ‘ideal burn’ ratio (4 parts propane). For example, 2.5 parts propane and 97.5 parts air will create a lean burn. In the case of a lean burn, the flames lift away from the propane burner or go out.
You should take action immediately if you recognize any signs of incomplete combustion. Visible signs include soot on appliance windows, burner flame appearance like those mentioned above, and excessive water vapors on cool surfaces and windows when you operate the appliance.
You should adjust and service your appliances immediately if you notice any of the aforementioned signs of incomplete propane combustion.
Dangers of High Carbon Monoxide Levels
Improperly adjusted appliances can lead to the accumulation of high carbon monoxide levels. Some signs of high CO levels include:
- A burning or unfamiliar odor
- Sooting, particularly on vents and appliances
- Excessive moisture on windows
High carbon monoxide levels can give you headaches, cause flu-like symptoms, or make you dizzy. In extreme cases, extended exposure to carbon monoxide can even lead to permanent brain damage or death.
Children, older people, those suffering from heart disease, and individuals under the influence of drugs, medication, or alcohol are more susceptible to CO poisoning.
Common symptoms of CO poisoning include:
- Shortness of breath
The symptoms of CO poisoning are similar to symptoms of flu and food poisoning, but CO poisoning does not result in a fever.
These symptoms can gradually worsen the longer you’re exposed to carbon monoxide. However, they may become less severe when you’re away from the propane appliance or tank.
Prolonged exposure to low CO levels can also result in neurological symptoms, such as:
- Frequent emotional changes, such as making irrational or impulsive decisions and becoming easily depressed or irritated
- Difficulty concentrating or thinking
Long-term exposure to carbon monoxide can lead to more severe symptoms, such as:
- Personality changes and an impaired mental state
- Vertigo or feeling like the room is spinning
- Breathlessness and an increased heart rate of more than 100 BPM
- Damage to the nervous system and brain, resulting in a loss of physical coordination
- Chest pain due to a heart attack or angina
- Muscle spasms or seizures caused by sudden electric impulses in the brain
- In rooms with extremely high CO levels, death can occur within a few minutes.
How to Prevent Carbon Monoxide Poisoning From Propane Tanks
The most effective method to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning from propane tanks is by closely following all safety rules. Some of the best ways to prevention issues include:
Good Propane Appliance
Make sure that your propane appliance is in excellent working condition. For instance, if you use a propane heater in your garage, make sure it functions without any problems. This will help decrease the amount of CO the appliance releases during combustion.
Don’t try to install or service boilers, cookers, or heating systems yourself. Instead, hire a registered engineer to do the job.
If you’re using a propane stove indoors, check if it’s giving out an ideal burn. As long as the flames burn blue, the level of carbon monoxide will be significantly reduced.
If you notice orange or yellow flames, turn off the propane tank immediately and call a professional to assess the problem and fix it.
Proper ventilation is the cheapest and easiest way to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. As long as there’s enough fresh air coming into the place where you’re using your propane stove, you don’t have to worry about harming anyone. Just make sure you keep a window or door open while cooking.
Carbon Monoxide Detector
A carbon monoxide detector alerts you when there are high levels of carbon monoxide in your house. Carbon monoxide is colorless, tasteless, and odorless, so make sure you order a detector, like this one from First Alert (on Amazon).
While the detector cannot stop the spread of carbon monoxide, it can alert you of its presence so that you can take action immediately before it gets worse.
Follow Safety Guidelines
It’s essential that you follow all safety and maintenance guidelines to the letter. For example, if you have a wood-burning stove or a fireplace, clean out your chimney at least once per year in the fall or spring. Also, ensure that there’s no leakage or blockage in your chimney.
Take the Right Precautions
It’s essential to take proper safety measures during the installation, use, and handling of propane appliances. In order to prevent CO poisoning, special measures should be in place during certain situations, including the following:
In Case of a Power Failure
If you experience a power failure, never use a gas appliance or a heating device, such as a camping heater, portable heater, barbecue grill, or stove.
In case of extended power failure during winters, it’s advisable to go to the nearest emergency shelter.
If you have a generator, install it outside your house and as far away as possible from windows and doors.
Special Measures for Vacationers
Propane appliances that release carbon monoxide can be dangerous to your health, no matter where they’re used. Even when you’re on vacation, whether it’s in a hunting or fishing camp, a caravan, or a chalet, you need to take the right precautions.
Ensure that you have a portable, battery-operated carbon monoxide detector with you at all times, and check regularly if it functions properly. Also, make sure that you use your propane appliances properly and carefully.
What to Do if You Suspect You Have Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
If you suspect you have mild carbon monoxide poisoning, visit your general physician for medical advice. If you think you have severe CO poisoning, go to the emergency room immediately.
Your symptoms will usually indicate whether you’ve been exposed to carbon monoxide, but it’s advisable to undergo a blood test, as it will help confirm the exact amount of carboxyhemoglobin in your body. If you have 30% or higher levels of carboxyhemoglobin in your blood, you’ve been severely exposed to carbon monoxide and need treatment immediately.
Smokers usually have a higher than normal amount of carboxyhemoglobin in their bodies, which makes it hard to accurately interpret the results.
Mild exposure to carbon monoxide does not necessarily warrant hospital treatment, but it’s still crucial to seek medical advice. Make sure you don’t return to your house until it’s been declared safe by a professional.
If you’ve been exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, you’ll need to undergo hospital treatment, which may include:
Standard Oxygen Therapy
You’ll need to breathe in 100% oxygen using a tight-fitting oxygen mask. This concentrated oxygen will allow your body to replace carboxyhemoglobin.
The hospital will continue this treatment until your carboxyhemoglobin levels drop down to 10% or less.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT, floods your entire body with oxygen, helping it replace the oxygen it lost due to CO poisoning. However, there’s not enough evidence to support the effectiveness of HBOT as a treatment for severe carbon monoxide poisoning.
Doctors usually recommend standard oxygen therapy. However, your doctor might recommend HBOT in certain cases — for instance, if you have severe carbon monoxide poisoning and there are symptoms of nerve damage.
The time you’ll need to fully recover from CO poisoning depends on the amount of carbon monoxide you have in your blood and the length of time you’ve had it for.