Maintaining Your Propane System
A little attention can go a long way toward keeping your crew safe and your onboard gas appliances working like they should.
When inspecting your propane system for potential problems, it’s best to start at the locker. Make sure the drain hose is open and doesn’t have any traps that will hold water. Check the locker itself for cracks or gaps in any caulking. Check the seals around the wires and hoses where they exit the locker. Also check the hatch gasket and latch to ensure they’re in good condition. Next, check the tanks for rust or corrosion, particularly around the bottoms. Inspect the valves and fittings at the top of the tanks. Check the regulator, gauge, solenoid, and fittings for corrosion or damage. Inspect the wiring to the solenoid to make sure that any connections are properly done and in good condition.
If the tanks and propane locker look good, then it’s time to start following the supply line through the boat. It’s important to inspect the whole run. Problem areas often develop in hard-to-see places, such as where the line passes through bulkheads. With copper tube, look for corrosion and that telltale greenish flaking on the surface. Copper tubing can look great for most of its run, but even one small area of corrosion can result in a leak. With rubber hose, inspect for signs of dry rot, which look like small cracks. With either type of line, make sure it’s well supported for the entire run and that there’s nothing pinching or chafing the line where it goes through any bulkheads. Also make sure no wires are tied to it. If you have a gimbaled stove, make sure the hose won’t rub on anything for the full swing of the stove. Because this section of hose is moving, you want to inspect it carefully for signs of wear. Check the tightness of all fittings by using a wrench. If you have any doubts about the condition of your gas line, or if it’s more than 10 years old, it’s best just to replace it.
Once this visual inspection is complete and any repairs are made, it’s time to do a leak test. Before you start, turn off any electrical power and open the boat up for ventilation. With your appliance valves closed and the solenoid valve off, open the cylinder valve fully. Note the location of the needle on the pressure gauge. You may want to use a piece of tape to mark the needle location. Fully close the tank valve and wait at least 5 to 10 minutes before checking the gauge for any drop in pressure. If no pressure drop is noted, repeat this test with the solenoid valve open and the appliance valves closed. Again, wait at least 5 to 10 minutes, then note any drop in pressure. If the pressure drops in either of these tests, you need to check for leaks.
To do this, use a small spray bottle with soapy water in it. With the tank valve open, the solenoid valve open, and the appliance valves closed, spray each fitting with soapy water. Start at the tank end and work your way through until you get to the appliance. Spray areas where the hose passes through bulkheads as well. Leave the soapy water on for 5 to 10 minutes with the pressure on. Look for small, foaming bubbles. If you note any leaks, turn off the valve at the tank and bleed off line pressure before starting repairs. Once you’ve repaired any leaks, run the test again. If you don’t find any leaks and you’re still losing pressure, it’s possible that your appliance is leaking. If this is the case, it may be best to have a service technician check it out.
Maintaining a propane system is relatively easy and will provide you with peace of mind. I recommend doing a complete system check every time you refill your tanks. Try to make it a habit to do a leak test before using your stove or heater and always to turn off your propane at the tank when you leave your boat unattended. Used carefully, propane is a great fuel to have on board. And along with a little routine system maintenance, it can be a safe fuel as well.
Captain Wayne Canning is a marine surveyor and lives aboard his Irwin 40, Vayu, in Wilmington, North Carolina. His website, Project Boat Zen (www.projectboatzen.com), contains helpful information for those who are interested in boat restoration.