Safe Boat Propane Installations

My intent with this article is not to encourage you to install your own propane system (leave that to a pro) but to help you determine if your existing system or the system on your prospective next boat is safe. The standards are much more detailed than what I present here but I think I have covered the key elements. A licensed gas fitter should be consulted prior to commencing any work on an LPG system.

Note: All photos are from actual surveys we have done.
1 . What are the relevant laws and standards for propane installations on boats.
2 . Show how a proper propane installation should be done.
3 . I'll break down the system one piece at a time showing photos of bad examples and why they are wrong.

The Law ! - Transport Canada Construction Standards For Small Vessels (TP1332E , 2010) do not even mention propane but have told me that propane systems that meet the standards of a recognized body are ok with them. How they reconcile diametrically opposed standards such as CE and ABYC® (American Boat and Yacht Council ) is beyond me (apparently it's beyond them too).

Some photos below will show why I think the CE standards are dangerous. Unfortunately they are allowed to import boats into North America unchallenged. If you are in the USA, your situation is pretty much the same as your law (CFR. Title 33) makes no mention of propane systems in pleasure craft at all. To quote Charles Dickens " The law is a ass - a idiot ".

The Standards - ABYC® Standard A-1 "Marine Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) Systems" . All of the recommendations made below are based on ABYC® standards which I whole heartedly endorse but paraphrase in the interest of brevity. NFPA also has a recognized standard but since they are in tune with ABYC®, we'll stay with ABYC®.

A. The Good

Locker Drain - Propane is heavier than air so the drain hose must lead from the bottom of the locker to outside of the hull above the static waterline and have a minimum inside diameter of not not less than 1/2" (this means you must use a 3/4" throughull and hose). This drain, like the locker itself must be dedicated. It cannot be T'd into a scupper hose like many CS boats. The drain outlet may not be within 20" of any opening into the boat

2. Propane Tank - must be approved type with an OPD valve. No problem as you cannot buy or get any non-approved tanks filled anyway.

3. Controls - In order from the tank - first the pressure gauge, then regulator, then the solenoid shut-off. All such equipment must be inside the locker. Pressure gauges are often omitted by the DIY'r to save $12 but are a critical leak detection safety feature.

A solenoid valve is not required if the tank can be shut off from the vicinity of the appliance, unlikely but I did see it on a 27' Vancouver sailboat.

The Locker must be above the waterline, top loading with a tight fitting gasketed lid that opens to the atmosphere, be vapor tight to the interior of the vessel (all apertures to be sealed) and must be used for no other purpose. ie. don't keep your anchor in there.

Black line from locker to appliance if the fuel line. Green line is wire from solenoid to control panel. Note that the power supply to the solenoid is not clipped to the fuel line. This done to avoid having hot conductors on the hose.
5. Fuel Line - Type approved (UL21) hose or grade K or L annealed copper in one continuous length from the locker to the appliance, must be chafe protected where it passes through bulkheads and secured with clips (plastic). There must be no other connections to this line outside of the locker other than at appliance and for your families sake, don't run it through an engine compartment. The photos in the next section will show why I don't like metal fuel lines approved or not. Each appliance must be supplied by it's own line directly from inside the locker. Any junctions must be inside the locker.

6. Chafe protection - - Wherever the hose passes through a bulkhead it must be chafe protected. You'll see why in the following photographs.

7. The appliances - Must have a flame failure device (thermocouple) to shut off the fuel supply if the flame goes out. Must not have a pilot light. Camping stoves are not fitted with these.

8. A pressure gauge should be installed installed on the cylinder side of the pressure regulator. This gauge allows you to quickly and easily check the system for leaks via a “leak-down test.” To conduct a leak-down test, turn on the stove or grill, then close all the burner valves, leaving the solenoid switch on. Note the pressure gauge reading, then close the tank valve – the gauge reading should remain constant for at least three minutes. If the pressure drops, then you have a leak (or leaks) and must inspect the entire system before using it again.
9. Control panel - The panel should have a shut-off switch to activate the solenoid in the locker a light to show that the solenoid is open. and a propane fume detector alarm.

10. The fume detector - The panel should also be fitted with a fume detector test switch and alarm. The sensor (s) themselves should be mounted directly under the appliance. Many install the sensor in the bilge. If the fumes reach the bilge .... it's too late. Many install the sensor on a bulkhead under the appliance which can leave several inches of propane to collect before it is sensed (if it ever is).

ABYC A-1, 1.5.2 Each system shall be fitted with a pressure gauge. The gauge shall read the cylinder pressure side of the pressure regulators.
ABYC A-1, 1.7.2 Each appliance shall be served with a separate low pressure, regulated fuel line that shall originate within the locker.
ABYC A-1, 1.7.3 A readily accessible manual or electrically operated (eg. solenoid) shut-off valve shall be installed in the low or high pressure line at the fuel supply.

The Bad & The Ugly - A picture is worth a thousand words, but I still couldn't resist adding a few :)
The tank -
ABYC® Standard "A-1 Marine Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) Systems" says that tanks must meet D.O.T or A.S.M.E. requirements. Pretty straight forward. As I said I don't know where one would buy a non-approved type tank.

There are stainless steel, aluminum and fiberglass tanks available but by far the most common are plain ol' painted steel like for your home BBQ and they all have advantages and disadvantages.

It is becoming more difficult to find a place to refill your tanks as many outlets are moving to a tank exchange program. We found when traveling the ICW it was really difficult to get our tanks re-filled, so we have gone to the painted steel variety.

A little bit of surface rust can be cleaned and painted but when you see a tank like the one at far right, get rid of it.

If you see a small dent or hair line fracture regardless of tank material, get rid of it. Liquefied petroleum gas,although very safe if handled properly, is not to be toyed with.

Dented - Get rid of it !

Rusty - Get rid of it !
The fuel supply - ABYC® says you have two options for fuel lines, 1.) Corrosion resistant metallic tubing such as annealed copper, grade K or L conforming to ASTMB88-75a with a wall thickness of not less than 0.032". or 2.) UL 21 approved type Gas Hose". .... Buy the hose. It's cheaper, safer and easier to install.

Copper does corrode and quite quickly in salt water in the right conditions. It also suffers from fatigue due to vibration. Combine the two and you have a relatively short life span. The copper in your home plumbing system does not vibrate at the 3200RPM of your Yanmar nor hum like a tuning fork from your rig vibration. Reduce vibration and protect the line as much as possible by securing with clips or straps. If you have copper lines, the securing material must be galvanically compatible. If the copper shows a crease at a bend, corrosion or just looks old get rid of it ...... unless your boat is a dock queen in which case the copper will last longer than you.

Flexible fuel lines don't last for ever either and should be replaced when they become hard or at the slightest sign of cracks.

Fuel hose against sharp FRP edge.
No chafe protection fitted.

Corroded copper fuel lines - to da dump !

Rusty electric solenoid, you'd trust this ?
ABYC® requires fuel lines be continuous with the only joint between the propane locker and the appliance being at the appliance. I should put this in great big type (and in French) All propane fuel connections must be made inside the propane tank locker with one more permitted at the appliance. Exception - A flexible section shall be used at gimbaled appliances if copper tube is used.

ABYC® says All hose connections must be made with permanently attached end fittings such as swaged sleeve of sleeve and threaded insert, not gear clamps !

Gear clamp fuel connection. Typical of
DIY installers and European builders

This copper to hose connection is bent and corroded.
Again - get rid of it.

At right - if you add up all the various connections (including 4 gear clamps) you come up with eight potential sources of propane leaks in this engine compartment. This is a prime example of why all connections must be made inside the propane locker.

Far right - The poor installation of fittings in the propane locker of this brand new boat severely bends and stresses the fuel line. This hose will crack sooner rather than later.

Multiple gear clamp connections
exposed in the engine compartment.

New boat - hose so severely bent it will fracture
sooner rather than later
At right - Two valves and seven connections under the aft berth without drainage ! Many French boats are, and most Whitby and Hinterhoeller (Niagara's and Nonsuch's) boats were built with connections and valves inside accommodation spaces like this.

Far right - This brass home plumbing gate valve is the "remote" propane shut-off device and is in the galley over the stove. Do you think this valve is gas rated ?

These valves are under the aft berth typical of European builders !

This plumbing gate valve is right over the stove and is the propane "remote" shut-off valve. Gas rated ?
The locker - ABYC® says the locker should be "dedicated". This means it should be used for no other purpose and that it should be designed to discourage other uses. It also means that the drain (from the bottom of the locker) should be dedicated and should not be T'd into exhaust lines, scuppers or anything else. The locker must be "top loading" so leaked gas does not spill out when you open the locker. and the hatch should be gasketed. Also, the drain (min. 1/2" I.D.) must exit the boat. All connections, regulators, solenoids, pressure gauges.... in short any fitting must be inside the locker

This is pretty simple and is little more than common sense. The purpose of the locker is to contain propane leaks and direct any fumes safely overboard. Simple goal, simply achieved as propane is heavier than air. Now it is not so heavy that it can't be pushed around by a light breeze so we don't want any drain fitting next to a port.

At right - DIY at it's finest. Honest, this is a genuine photo from an actual survey. Once again proof that Darwin was wrong or this guy would have been extinct. I find it hard to believe that I share DNA with this fella.

Far right - To shut off the propane on this C&C you have to remove 28 screws from the deck plate. Yes. They built it this way.

No drain, no remote shut-off, no easy access to shut-off valve, no pressure gauge, no approved fuel hose and no brains.

Remove 28 screws to remove the deck late then turn off the propane, no pressure gauge, no remote shut-off
Right & Far right - Both of these French boats have propane tanks openly stored in the cockpit. A slight breeze from astern and any propane fumes are going right down the companionway. That is, if they make it past the lit cigarettes.

My experience with English cars convinced me that English people should not be allowed to play with electricity. My experience with French boats has convinced me that French people should not be allowed to play with propane.

I've heard that many French people are heavy smokers !

Note the CE certification label on the steering pedestal and
the factory installed propane bottle open to the cockpit.

A CE certified boat. Thats not a tank securing strap, It's the UV degraded fuel line going to a hole in the transom.
Right - This Bayfield 36 has a side loading non-gasketed locker. Any leakage is going right into the cockpit. Hope there aren't any Frenchmen on board.

Far right - This Marine Trader was built without any means on securing the tank which is exposed to all the non-ignition protected equipment under the helm and is only inches away from a pipe that leads all the hydraulic steering lines and electrical cables directly into the engine compartment.
I don't remember ever seeing a Taiwan trawler that wasn't built this way.
At right - In the center you can see the copper fuel line and in the lower right you can see the rope and rusty chain. I had to remove the very rusty anchor to get this photo of the fuel line. The copper was fractured from all the pulling back and forth to get it connected to the tank.

Far right -
This after market polyethylene propane locker is actually a pretty good product (when the lid is fitted) but this guy forgot to read the instructions. Propane is heavier than air but he connected the drain hose to the top and ran the fuel line out the drain hole at the bottom of the locker.

At the Toronto Boat Show this week I looked at one of the new Jeanneau powerboats, a Jeanneau sailboat and a Dufour sailboat. They all had side loading lockers ! The power boat locker opened directly ( far right )over the engine compartment hatch with batteries and a whole load of non-ignition protected equipment directly underneath. On a side note none of these boats had the Transport Canada Certification label so were being offered for sale against the laws of this country.

Transport Canada has abdicated.

CE Certified ! -Side loading, non-gasketed hatch of propane locker among other non-compliant issues on Dufour at 2012 Toronto Boat Show.

CE Certified ! -Side loading propane locker directly over 3 AC breakers and battery box in Jeanneau power boat at 2012 Toronto Boat Show
At right - Toronto Boat Show - Jeanneau sailboat with a side loading propane locker in the cockpit with no gaskets which doesn't really matter anyway since they put those pretty vent hole in the door.

Far right - This fella went to the trouble of buying a proper poly propane locker (lid not shown) then installed it under his dinette and led a drain hose to a throughull higher than the top of the locker.

CE Certified - Jeanneau at Toronto Boat Show - side loading, no hatch gaskets which would have been pointless anyway since they put those vent holes in the hatch

Arrow points to drain hose outlet
The appliances - ABYC® says .... stoves are required to have a means of securing cookware from sliding and of normal operation when inclined to 30°, oven doors shall be fitted with a latch and be installed in accordance with manufacturers instructions. No fabrics within 27 1/2" of a burner and all other materials within that range must be flame retardant. All appliances must be fitted with flame failure devices (thermocouples). The shut-off (solenoid) switch must be near the stove and be reachable without reaching over a burner. A propane fume detector is required. Other appliances - A CO alarm and oxygen depletion sensor are required if a heater is fitted. Each appliance shall be supplied by a separate regulated supply line that is continuous and originates inside the propane locker. Pilot lights are permitted only in appliances with "room sealed combustion systems"
Transport Canada says .... eh ?

Like many things on boats (battery chargers are a big one) just because it's in the boat and just because it's called "Marine Type" or it has a name that sounds nautical like Nautilus or Ship Mate.... does not mean it is actually marine grade equipment. The installation of even true marine grade equipment must still be done correctly.
At right - The electrical connection at the back of this propane furnace uses unsecured, non-enclosed wire twist connectors ... outrageously stupid !

Far right - My finger is pointing to a nipple right next to the burner on my propane stove. That little nipple is called a thermocouple and it shuts off the propane if the flame goes out, very clever and an absolute necessity. Unfortunately a large number of older so called marine and camping type stoves are not so equipped.

Illegal wiring of catalytic heater

Thermocouple - Flame failure automatic shut-off
Right - This "instant" water heater does not meet ABYC® Standards and the manufacturers installation instructions say "DO NOT INSTALL IN A BOAT".
That did not seem to stop dozens of builders installing them in thousands of boats. There are a couple of these types that claim to be suitable for boats however after reading the installation manuals I think its highly unlikely they could be installed as required.

Far right - As an "un-attended appliance" without a sealed combustion chamber this heater does not meet ABYC® Standards and although I've never measured it, I've been told it gets far hotter than the standard permits. Be aware that these systems use tremendous amounts of oxygen and should not be used without CO and oxygen depletion alarms.

ANY propane appliance in a boat must have a sealed combustion chamber that does NOT draw air from inside the vessel. Neither of the two appliances at right meet this requirement.

See what BoatUS has to say about these units

Paloma Instant water heater

The Cat Platinum catalytic heater
Photo at Right - If you look above the stove you will see a fire extinguisher, a propane detector control and a switch to activate the solenoid shut-off at the tank.

Far right - Now imagine a grease fire on the stove. How do you reach the solenoid switch to turn off the propane fuel supply ? How do you reach the fire extinguisher through the flames ? Does the steam from your kettle destroy the LED panel on the control ?

How about you're boiling a pot of water and you think you smell propane. Will you lean over the burner and reach through the steam to test your propane detector ?

Note that the owner has installed a fire extinguisher right next to the original factory locations of the solenoid shut-off switch and the fume detector.

Now imagine trying to get to your extinguisher or shut off the propane through a stove fire.
ok, so I'm not too good with photoshop !
Too often I see thes 16oz propane cannisters stored in cupbpoards and engine rooms. I have a package of three that I take to my Marine Survey 101 dog'n'pony show ..... they are empty !

These things leak and they leak even faster if they are re-used. There are also a number of prople buying junk fittings from Harbour Freight and re-filling these from their 20lb. tanks. Unbelievable ignorance !

These small canisters were never designed to be re-filled and it is illegal to do so under both Canadian and US Departments of Transportation rules,

US Department of Transportation Youtube Video
prohibiting refilling these containers.

Think about it. They are called "disposable" for a reason.

propane and gasoline stored in a locker exposed to the diesel engine compartment !

These canisters were never designed to be refilled.
They will leak !
This fella could not understand why it was unsafe to use his bilge as a propane locker because .........
"I only connect it when I use it".
Just when you think you've seen it all .....

One of my all time favourite photos. This Darwin Award winner got hold of a natural gas furnace from a demolition yard sale and hooked it up to several propane tanks with no solenoid shut-off or pressure gauges.
Do I need to say anything more ?

There are three entities who can correct this nonsense ..... Transport Canada (not much chance of that), The insurance companies (i'm convinced most of them don't even read the surveys) and you, the consumer. As long as you are willing to write a cheque this will continue.

I know I have been a bit hard on Transport Canada and I want to make it clear that my frustration is aimed at the ruptured bureaucratic quagmire that reportedly lives in a basement in Ottawa. I've had many interactions with the front liners at TC and found each and every one of them to be helpful, knowledgeable, generous with their time and show great patience with my bitching.

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