Safe Usage of Propane in an RV

One of the greatest characteristics of an RV is the house-like features it can provide within a movable vehicle on wheels. This includes a full kitchen with a stove and an oven, a refrigerator, and a bathroom. Being able to cook food and store it properly while traveling is a game-changer, and propane appliances make this possible. Most RV refrigerators operate off of propane or electric, and many hot water heaters and heating systems in RVs also require propane to operate efficiently. Being able to switch your refrigerator to propane makes it easier to boondock on both public lands and at Harvest Hosts locations.

That being said, propane is typically an essential component of RV life. However, as a fossil fuel that exists within a moving vehicle, using propane on a regular basis does carry some risks. In addition, there are some road rules and laws regarding propane and traveling with it that RV owners should be aware of. RVers should also understand how the substance works, how to inspect their propane systems and ensure everything is running smoothly, and what to do if something goes wrong. Continue on for a full breakdown of how to efficiently and safely operate with propane inside your RV.

1. Understand propane characteristics

Propane is a fossil fuel that is stored in a pressurized tank at a temperature of -44 degrees Fahrenheit. Outside of a tank, it presents as a white gas, and it burns at temperatures greater than -44 degrees. If you ever see or smell this gas coming from anywhere near your propane tanks or near any of your propane-burning appliances, turn the appliances and/or tanks off, and call a professional. Because it is so cold, propane can cause frostbite, and any spark near a leaky tank can be incredibly dangerous and even fatal. Do not attempt to repair leaks yourself, and know what to look for in case of emergency.

2. Regularly inspect your propane tanks

To avoid leaks or mishaps, RVers should regularly inspect their propane tanks, propane lines, and regulator. Rust or dirt buildup can cause leaks and cracks over time, which, as stated above, can be very dangerous. Regular inspections can catch this ahead of time, avoiding catastrophe and costly repairs. If you notice anything that looks worrisome, replace your tank, or speak to a professional about repairing your tank.

3. Inspect all propane appliances regularly

In addition to inspecting your propane tanks, you should also regularly inspect your propane-burning appliances. In most RVs, this includes your stove and oven, your heater, your refrigerator, and your hot water heater. Closely examine these devices and any propane lines running to or from them. If you suspect a leak, turn off the propane tank(s), and test the lines using the soap method.

In a spray bottle, add dish soap and a small amount of water and shake it up. Generously apply the solution to the lines where you detect a leak. If the soap bubbles, your suspicions are correct. If the soap does not bubble, you (most likely)  do not have a leak. However, if you try this method and do not produce bubbles but still suspect damaged gas lines, it is always best to consult a professional to be sure. Likewise, you should seek help if you do find any leaks, and do not turn on the propane for any reason until the necessary repairs have been made.

4. Check for debris in/around tanks and in any propane appliances

Issues with fuel-burning appliances, especially your hot water heater, are often caused by a debris build-up around the lines of the appliance. Pesky bugs and dirt can find their way into the lines, causing damage or even potential fires. Inspect these appliances and clear any dirt before attempting to use them. Use compressed air or a long duster for any hard-to-reach places, and ensure that all dirt has been cleared before turning appliances back on. This is necessary to perform regularly even if your hot water heater is used frequently.

5. Install and maintain detectors

Although checking frequently for leaks is necessary, occasionally leaks or issues can arise without the RV owner’s knowledge. This is why you must always use and maintain safety detectors in your RV. Most RVs come equipped with both a propane gas leak detector and a smoke detector and carbon monoxide detector combination alarm. The gas leak detector will typically be found near your stove, while the smoke and carbon monoxide detector is likely located near the sleeping area. 

Both are essential components to propane safety, as one can detect leaks, while the other detects fires, which can be caused by leaks or debris buildup, as well as carbon monoxide, which can accumulate in a faulty propane appliance. Gas leak detectors should be tested regularly and replaced every five to seven years. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors should also be inspected regularly and replaced every seven to ten years. Check the dates on each, and replace them within the timeframes given above.

6. Ensure proper ventilation when using a propane device

When cooking or running your heat, you should always properly vent your space by cracking a window or a fan. While this may seem counterproductive to trying to heat your home, it gives the fumes somewhere to go and ensures you maintain clean air inside your home at all times. This is especially important for RVers who use Mr. Buddy heaters to heat their space, as the directions for these require that you maintain proper ventilation at all times.

7. Be aware of rules for traveling with propane

When traveling with propane-burning appliances, it’s essential to know the rules of the road. It is considered safest to turn avoid using propane inside of a moving vehicle. Because of this, you should consider switching your RV to electric mode while you are driving. If your house batteries cannot handle the switch, consider shutting the refrigerator off and keeping all the refrigerator doors closed while you are en route. Most RV refrigerators can keep everything plenty cold for a few hours. You can also add a bag of ice in the refrigerator and freezer until you reach your destination and can switch the fridge back on. In addition, keep in mind that many tunnels do not allow RVs to pass through because of their propane tanks, so be sure to examine your route and avoid tunnels wherever necessary.

8. Know what to do if you smell gas

Finally, if your leak detector has not sounded the alarm, yet you smell gas, you should know what to do. Begin by looking for the obvious. Check to make sure that your stove and oven are off and that all burners and dials are in the off position. Ensure your hot water heater is off, and check outside to make sure the flame is not lit. Switch your RV to electric or temporarily turn it off, and do the same for your heating system and anything else that may use propane.

Whatever you do, do not light a match or lighter of any sort, as this is the biggest potential mistake when there is a gas leak. If you continue to smell gas after all propane devices have been shut off, you are likely experiencing a leak in your system. You should seek professional help to repair the damaged device(s) immediately and continue to not use the devices until necessary repairs have been made.

While these rules and potential scenarios may sound stressful, propane is a relatively safe fuel, and its efficiency and lightness make it a popular choice for RV manufacturers. Following these rules should ensure that your RV can safely operate using propane wherever necessary. Be sure to follow these steps and considerations to avoid running into problems and ensure safe travels with propane devices.

Does your RV utilize propane? Do you follow these maintenance and safety steps? Are there any additional steps that you would recommend? Feel free to share in the comments below!

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  1. Michelle
    19th January, 2022

    I am having trouble with carbon buildup in my propane line to my water heater. How does this occur and what can u go to avoid it?

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  2. Sam Leash
    18th October, 2021

    Hey there! Thanks so much for sharing your insider tips and knowledge!

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  3. Sam Leash
    20th September, 2021

    It’s considered a general rule of thumb for safety, but many RVers still leave their propane on while driving. It’s up to you and your personal comfort levels. Hope this helps!

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  4. Pinzira
    11th September, 2021

    I had a propane and natural gas license in our business and any and all vent free appliances can be doctored by the user and made unsafe! Bottom line, any vent free appliance out there must have a window open enough to allow for the gases being driven off by the appliance. I have seen ODS systems wired to keep from shutting the heater off and windows tightly shut. Even vent free logs that we set inside of a real fireplace must have a clamp installed on the damper to keep it open enough to vent. Believe me, in the 22 years of service business, I have seen it all. Stupidity has no bounds and does not discriminate!

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  5. Teresa
    2nd July, 2021

    The only thing we were told when we purchased our travel trailer was to turn our propane off while fueling up the truck. I’ve never heard that we shouldn’t drive while using propane, heck that’s part of the benefit of having two tanks! I’m curious how many RVer’s actually do either of these things?


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  6. Randy
    6th November, 2020

    Usually they are used to shut the batteries down during storage. They should be charged but little things, like the carbon monoxide detector can drain the batteries over the winter. If batteries get too low, they will no longer keep a charge.

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  7. jim and diane kenny
    29th September, 2020

    i don’t understand the battery disconnect…how and when do i use it ?

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