Do Propane Tanks Explode When Caught On Fire?

Propane is relatively environmentally friendly, convenient, and affordable, making it an obvious fuel choice for powering operations in both homes and businesses. But have you ever wondered if propane tanks can explode, like they sometimes do in the movies? The more you know about propane tanks and how strong they are, the better prepared you will be to use them effectively and safely.  

Propane tanks can explode when caught on fire, but only under very specific conditions. The possibility of an explosion is incredibly slim, and it will only occur if the tank is subject to flames and high heat for a long time. The tank will not explode if it’s simply mishandled or hit by a car. 

So, whether you’re using a portable tank for your gas grill or have a stationary one in your backyard, it’s important to understand how it functions and to take the right safety measures. Let’s look at how propane tanks work, if they can explode in a fire, and how to prevent such explosions, so that you don’t worry about your safety anymore!

How Do Propane Tanks Work?

Three gray propane tanks

The first part of understanding propane tanks is familiarizing yourself with the various parts. All propane tanks come with a standard set of valves. These include a: 

  • Fill valve: Connects to the delivery hose of the truck
  • Vapor return valve: Keeps pressure within the acceptable limits during delivery. 
  • Service valve: Converts liquid propane into vapor. 
  • Relief valve: Releases excess pressure during emergencies.
  • Liquid withdrawal valve: Monitors the amount of propane you withdraw from the tank.  

There are also two types of gauges: 

  • A float gauge: Displays the amount of liquid propane in the tank. 
  • A fixed level gauge: Alerts the supplier when the level of propane is close to the maximum allowable 80% fill. 

The actual operation of a propane tank is quite simple. It does not need any special converter or other mechanism to convert the liquid into gas. The fuel has an incredibly low boiling point of -44˚F, so it self-vaporizes as soon as it’s released from the tank at any temperature that’s higher than the boiling point. 

Once the service valve discharges the gas, it travels through pipes to your house or building, where you can use it with your propane-fueled appliances. 

Do Propane Tanks Explode?

A propane tank doesn’t just burst into flames if it falls over or is hit by a car, as you might’ve seen in a blockbuster film. It’s actually hard to say with certainty that the tank will implode, even if it’s hit by a bullet or an airplane. Most people wrongly believe that a propane tank will explode if it’s mishandled in any way. 

Propane tanks don’t explode, implode, come apart, or rupture on their own. It’s actually extremely difficult and time-consuming to bring a tank to its explosion point, and not as easy as most people think. 

It’s important to understand that a propane tank functioning under normal conditions will not rupture or explode. In fact, there are several safety mechanisms and devices in place to prevent accidents, explosions, breaches, and ruptures. 

Can a Propane Tank Explode in a Fire?

Although a propane tank can technically explode in a fire, it’s not necessarily going to happen. A propane tank boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion (BLEVE) occurs when the tank is subject to extremely high temperatures, like in a fire. 

The high heat increases the temperature of the tank, which in turn heats the liquid propane, causing it to expand. This results in the opening of the safety relief valve, allowing it to release excess pressure. 

If the pressure in the propane tank increases at a rate faster than the rate at which it’s being expelled through the safety relief valve, the tank might rupture. If there are any flames or sources of ignition nearby, the propane could ignite and cause an explosion. 

It’s essential to understand that a BLEVE will only occur with the right conditions, such as the propane tank being subject to flames for a long time. The actual possibility of a BLEVE is, in fact, extremely remote. 

How to Protect Propane Tanks From Fires

Propane tank

It’s important to keep an eye on fire weather watches, fire warnings, and droughts if you have a propane tank. Make sure you keep the tank’s surrounding area clear of debris and any flammable materials.

Keeping the tank raised off the ground and installing it properly on blocks helps protect it from flames. It’s advisable to clear a 10-foot radius around the tank and keep anything that might add fuel to the fire at a distance. This includes leaves, tires, trash, uncut grass, and other combustible materials. 

You can also take a few additional steps to protect propane tanks from fires, such as: 

  • Cut any grass or weeds around the tank until you see the bare ground. 
  • Spread gravel or base material around the propane tank to stop vegetation growth. 
  • Use grass/weed killer around the propane tank after removing all vegetation. 
  • Ensure that you fulfill all propane tank distance requirements. 
  • Make sure that the color of the tank is reflective and rust-free to prevent initial pressure buildup. 

You should store both propane cylinders and large residential propane tanks in the same way. Place them on a solid, fireproof surface and clear the surrounding area of tall grass, debris, or any other combustible material. Since cylinders are portable, you can also move them to a new location easily in case of a wildfire or grass fire. 

What to Do in Case of an Evacuation

If you are in the direct path of a fire and have been asked to evacuate, there are a few important steps you should take before leaving the area. You should only take these propane-specific actions if you have the time and if these steps don’t violate any of the fire evacuation orders given by the safety personnel and authorities.  

  • Turn off the tank’s service valve by rotating the handwheel clockwise. 
  • Don’t move your propane cylinders to your garage or anywhere near your house. 
  • Keep propane cylinders far away from your house and in an area where you expect minimal fire impact. 
  • Turn off all gas valves and propane appliance valves in your house. 
  • Call your propane company and tell them your evacuation status once you safely leave the area. 

If you leave any propane valves open, the escaping LP gas might damage your property, or even worse, your life. If the safety relief valve opens during a fire, it might worsen the damage, which is why you must ensure that your tank meets propane gas container distance requirements. 

What to Do After a Fire

There are certain steps you need to take once a fire has been put out. Hopefully, your house will not have sustained much damage, and safely returning to your home will help relieve some of your worries. 

Make sure you have your propane supplier inspect your propane tank system and activate your gas supply before you enter your home. It’s advisable to keep a few additional points in mind before returning home:

  • Evacuate the area immediately if you smell gas. Don’t try to check the situation yourself. 
  • Call your propane retailer and inform them of your situation. 
  • Don’t drive your car directly up to your house after a wildfire or bush fire. 
  • Don’t open any gas valves, propane tank service valves, or appliance valves. 

Propane companies continuously monitor wildfires and grass fires in their service area and respond immediately to all calls by an affected customer. Calls concerning fires and propane tanks are of the highest priority and are dealt with accordingly. 

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