Safe Liquid Propane Gas (LPG) Installations

In this post we are going to take a look at what constitutes a proper and safe Marine LPG (Liquefied Propane Gas) installation. As a surveyor I encounter many improper and unsafe LPG installations and to be truthful very few proper ones. When you consider the fact that this stuff has the ability to cause fatal injuries or completely destroy your vessel serious attention needs to be paid to these installations. LPG on sailboats is used mainly for cooking and cabin heat but occasionally it is also utilized in refrigeration and hot water heating systems. It is manufactured as a by-product of natural gas production and gasoline refinement. At atmospheric pressure it is in a gaseous state but under moderate pressure it becomes a liquid making it easy to store and transport. It also naturally odorless but the strong pungent smell related to propane is the result of a chemical added to facilitate leak detection.
LPG Marine Tank
The downside to propane gas is that it is highly flammable and being heavier than air it collects easily in the bottom of any enclosed area such has boat cabins and bilges. It is for these reasons that it needs to be handled and treated carefully. The ABYC (American Boat and Yacht Council) has a long list of standards pertaining to marine LPG installations and we’ll take a look at those next. Here’s the condensed version.
1. All LPG storage tanks, shut off valves, pressure gauges and regulating equipment should be ignition protected, secured for sea conditions and enclosed in a dedicated, sealed locker with a gasketed lid equipped with a mechanical latch. Nothing else should be stored in this locker. It should be situated above the hull waterline and vented out the bottom to flow overboard.
2. The gas supply line should be of approved hose and have a pressure gauge installed between the tank and pressure regulator / line shut off valve to facilitate leak testing of the system. To do this you simply open the tank valve (with the line valve in the “on” position), then close the valve and watch the gauge. If a leak does exist the gauge pressure will drop. The system should hold pressure for at least three minutes. The line shutoff valve mentioned above can be manual but is usually an electric solenoid installed at the pressure regulator with the on / off switch being located within easy reach of the appliance without reaching over the appliance. The only time that this devise is not required is if the tank valve itself is within easy reach of the appliance.
3. All feed line splits (to facilitate multiple appliances) should be located inside the storage locker itself and a separate line be run to each appliance.
4. Where the feed line(s) exit the tank storage locker there should be an air tight seal between each line and the locker wall.
5. An LPG leak detection system should be installed in the vessel’s living quarters.
Just in case you think that these standards are overkill let me share with you a story told to me about a year ago by an ABYC training instructor at a course I attended. There was a reported case of a late model 36 foot sailboat anchored on an inland lake in the US. It was a cool evening and the vessel’s full cockpit enclosure was in place. The boat had an LPG installation that met all of the standards listed above with one exception. The tank storage locker did not have a sealed lid, meaning that no gasket was installed and there was no latch. A leak developed at the pressure gauge and a considerable amount of LPG gas made its way from the locker, through the cockpit and into the main saloon. The operator noticing the smell immediately switched on the cabin lights one of which had a loose wiring connection causing a spark and igniting the gas. Amazingly enough he wasn’t hurt but did hear a loud “Whump”. He then went up on deck only to find that the entire hull to deck joint had separated and the deck was literally “ballooned” upward. So you can see this stuff really needs o be treated with respect.
I also want to comment on another issue I frequently encounter with regards to LPG installations. This is all of the small tanks I see strapped to stern rails and flexible hoses connected to portable barbecues. These installations literally don’t meet any of the standards I’ve listed above. The tanks generally are not secure and there is no way to leak test the systems. While the chances of gas migration into the vessel’s living areas may be reduced there’s nothing preventing a leak from setting body parts or your skivvies on fire when you light the appliance. Be careful!
So you can see that while LPG, as a cooking or heating fuel can make our cruising lives much easier it can also be very dangerous if not handled properly. Refer to the above list and ensure that your installation meets all of the criteria I’ve noted. If you’re unsure of any of this I suggest that you contact a knowledgeable professional and have your system inspected. Any ABYC Standards certified marine surveyor or technician should be glad to assist you.