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Portable Propane Heater Safety


On a cold day, nothing beats turning up the heat with a portable heater at the campsite, workshop or tailgate party, and a gas-fueled heater can literally be a lifesaver in emergency situations. Propane and LP heaters are safe and efficient, but as with any heat source, common sense should tell you to follow a few safety tips to protect yourself and others while you use them.

General tips

Two people enjoy the heat from their portable propane heater while sitting just outside their RV camper.
Photo courtesy of Mr. Heater.
Reprinted with permission.
Rule no. 1 when using any gas-fueled device: If you ever suspect a gas leak, turn off the gas supply at the source (only if it's safe to do so) and exit the area immediately. Don't use phones, lighters or anything else that could produce a spark until you've evacuated. Call emergency personnel after reaching a safe distance, and do not re-enter the area until they give the all-clear.

Another common-sense precaution: The surfaces of portable heaters and the air blowing out of them can be very hot; take care not to burn yourself while near the heater, don't set it up in areas of high foot traffic, use caution around the heater while wearing any loose-fitting clothes, and keep children and pets away.

If you are going to use a portable heat source in an enclosed area, such as a porch or for indoor emergency heat, be sure to choose a heater designed for that purpose. These models will have safety features such as an automatic shutoff if the unit is tipped over and low-oxygen sensors (to shut off the unit if oxygen levels in the area dip too low). Do not leave a running heater unattended or use it while sleeping.

Some portable heaters can be used outdoors, but generally they are not designed to be left out in the elements for long periods of time or used in wet conditions. Do not operate heaters that have been submerged underwater or damaged. If you suspect that your heater may have been damaged or is otherwise not operating properly, have it inspected and repaired by a qualified technician. Unusual smells during operation, unexpected shutoffs, smoking or excessive flame length extending outside of the heater may all be signs that service is needed.

Before starting the heater each time, make sure it's clean and inspect it for excessive dust, dirt or spider webs that may interfere with its function. Check your owner's manual for maintenance recommendations and/or have your heater serviced periodically by a qualified technician.

Fuel it safely

Before buying fuel for your heater, check your heater's operating manual for the recommended fuel type and cylinder size, type and capacity. Never try to use a fuel source that your heater wasn't designed for.

Propane and LP fuels have a man-made odor agent added to them that smells like rotten eggs, a skunk's spray or a dead animal (this odor agent is what gives propane its distinctive smell). Some people may have difficulty smelling the odor agent, so consider purchasing a propane gas detector for added security.

Every time you connect your heater to its fuel supply, check for any gas leaks and inspect connection points and hoses for damage or wear. If you suspect that you smell gas, apply soapy water to connections between hoses and the unit and cylinder and look for bubbling, listen for the hiss of escaping gas and/or touch the cylinder to feel it for extreme cold. If the connections or cylinder is leaking, do not light the heater!

Propane or LP heaters typically burn very efficiently but do use some oxygen from surrounding air. Make sure you operate the heater in an area with adequate ventilation. The amount of ventilation needed depends on the type and size of heater you have, so check your heater's operating manual for specific recommendations.

When used without adequate combustion or ventilation, portable heaters may give off excessive carbon monoxide, an odorless, poisonous gas. Early signs of carbon monoxide poisoning are similar to flu-like symptoms, including headache, dizziness and nausea. If you feel any of these symptoms, the heater may not be working properly. Get to fresh air at once!

When turning off the heater, always shut the gas supply off on the cylinder. The manufacturers of some models recommend that you close the gas supply and allow the heater to use up the fuel in the supply line until the heater shuts off.

When the fuel source is connected to the heater, they both must be stored outside in a well-ventilated area. For longer-term storage, completely disconnect the fuel source from the heater. A disconnected heater should be stored indoors or another weather-protected location, but fuel cylinders should always be stored outside.

Fire prevention tips

As with any heat source, portable propane or LP heaters may present a fire hazard if not used properly. Keep the heater away from any flammable materials, and don't store extra LP or propane cylinders anywhere near the heater while it's in operation. The amount of clearance that a heater needs depends on its type and size, so check your owner's manual for specific recommendations; it's always better to be safe and allow for plenty of space around the top and sides of the heater. Always place it on a non-flammable surface, such as a concrete floor, during operation.

More questions? You can read more about general propane safety.

Do you have any cautions or tips of your own on portable heater safety? Share them below in our comments section!


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