If you’ve read any of my articles, you’ll notice that most of them start with some sort of disclosure. Sorry everybody, I’ve got to be careful. I try to give sound advice that makes sense, but I don’t know everything about everything. Most of what I write about comes with some sort of experience I’ve had in the past, or questions asked by customers that I haven’t been able to answer, thus leading to research.
With this topic, I can’t stress this enough. Do your own research. What you are about to read is based on experience and what I’ve been told by those who are experienced. Third-party communication can sometimes lead to inaccuracies, and this article is no exception.
That said, let’s dive into propane tanks. I’m not sure if it was a weird coincidence, but I’ve never been asked how long a propane tank might last until recently, I’ve been asked twice this week. After speaking with a few professionals, I’ve learned that the answer is basically: “a long time”. One professional I spoke to mentioned that the oldest tank he had seen still in operation was dated back to 1939. The next question might be, how long does the propane itself last? The answer is the same, a long time. I myself had (still have) a 500 gallon auxiliary tank that had been filled (by my closest estimation) between 15 and 20 years ago, I started burning that fuel this Spring and have had no issues. This is contrary to what my initial thought would have been, knowing that gasoline goes “bad” over time.
Getting into this a little bit deeper, here or a few tips about both above ground, and below ground tanks, all of which should be verified by your local propane provider. Before getting into that however, remember that you should always check to determine if your propane tank is owned, or leased. If it is leased, you are not likely responsible for the tank maintenance, but should still confirm that it is being performed.
Above-ground propane tanks are obviously much easier to visually inspect. Experts have advised that you watch for areas of rust on the surface, and keep a fresh coat of paint on the tank. If rust exists, it can be removed with a wire brush prior to a fresh coat of primer and metal paint. Though it wasn’t explicitly stated, I would imagine if you see any signs of pitting, you should contact your propane provider to see about the viability of continuing to use that tank. An important note, propane tanks are usually white for a reason. Painting a propane tank a dark color is usually not advised because the sun can create heat, which can create additional pressure inside the tank. Propane companies usually won’t fill your tank past 80% to leave room for this additional expansion, but I am told that you might be surprised how much this can change on a hot day, especially if you have a dark colored tank. You should also remember not to cover or paint over the data plate on a propane tank. Regulators can last a couple of decades and valves can last even longer – but they will begin to leak overtime. You can request a leak test by your local provider for little to no cost.
Below-ground tanks are a bit of a different animal, you can’t see much of them in order to inspect. They do have a durable finish, and combat rust with what is referred to as “cathodic protection”. Due to the fact that they are in contact with moist ground and other conditions that would promote corrosion and rust, they are equipped with what is called an anode bag. The anode is buried 12 to 18 inches below the surface next to the tank. There’s a wire that then runs to the anode from another portion of the tank. This bag contains magnesium (or other elements acting as an anode) which takes the place of the propane tank (which would otherwise be the anode) and absorbs what might equate to rust or corrosion on your tank. Look up “cathodic protection”, and you’ll likely find some explanations using a potato as an example, it will start to make sense. Anyway, in a perfect world, these anodes should be tested frequently. The company I spoke to recommend a test every 3 years. This test is done with a volt meter, and they want to confirm that the voltage is within the proper specifications which would indicate that the anode is still working as designed. These tests are not free, but they are affordable and should be performed regularly. Again, if your tank is leased, this is likely handled by your provider. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
Methanol: Most of the propane providers add methanol to their propane that is delivered in the winter to help valves from freezing. However, not all of us take delivery of propane in the winter because the fuel usually costs less in the Summer months. Methanol is added to combat any residual moisture inside a tank which can cause corrosion and icing on the valves and regulators in the winter months. The way I understand it is that methanol absorbs water, and is then burned with the propane. Water is otherwise heavier than propane, and often times remains at the bottom of a tank. It might be a good idea to ask your provider if it would be wise to add methanol next time you fill up.
Snow: Snow and ice can cause problems not just for your tank, but where your propane line leaves the tank and again where the propane line enters your home. Most propane lines come up, and out of the ground and into the home as opposed to entering the home underground. Make note of these locations, and watch these areas in the winter. Snow and ice build-up can damage these lines from the weight alone, and a cracked line can lead to propane leaking and even entering your home. Propane is heavier than air, so it tends to sink and absorb into basements and crawl spaces, a dangerous combination.
Smell: Propane companies deliberately add a ethyl mercaptan (which smells similar to rotten eggs) to propane. It would be a good idea to teach everyone in your household what propane smells like. If you ever smell propane, or think you smell propane, avoid sparks or flame (don’t turn on any lights) leave the home and contact your propane provider immediately. They all have emergency contacts to help with potential problems.
Detectors: It’s not a bad idea to install propane detectors in your home. While you’re at it, carbon monoxide detectors go hand-in-hand. Propane burning appliances generate carbon monoxide. This carbon monoxide is usually vented outdoors, but bird nests and other blockages can bring heightened levels of carbon monoxide into your home. Carbon monoxide can be just as deadly as propane under the right conditions.
There’s a lot to know about propane safety, and if I were to guess, most of it is ignored. From what I can tell, it’s pretty simple stuff. Find out whether or not you own your tank, and who is responsible for the maintenance. If it’s not you, make sure it’s being done. ask your propane provider when the last time the inspections occurred, and ask them if there are certain inspections or maintenance you should have completed sooner than later. Look at your tank, and any lines are regulators that are exposed, and make sure they don’t get buried in snow. If they do, be careful, especially if you choose to shovel them out.