Living in the Northeast I’ve grown accustomed to grilling all-year-around. So, my propane grill is exposed to a huge range of temperatures — warm and cold. We had a huge dip back in 2016 when temperatures fell to -10°F. Last year, as I started to write this article, we were approaching Thanksgiving and my brother-in-law wanted to grill a turkey. Normally not a problem, but the forecast for Thanksgiving was 12°F, and with the wind chill, -2°F, which isn’t normal. I normally wouldn’t raise my hand to grill outside in a deep freeze, but it made me think — what if the power was out and that was the only way to cook? It made me wonder…
Can propane freeze? The short answer is, yes, but at -306°F, which means it’s unlikely to impact you in your day-to-day. The tank will “freeze up” at -44°F because at that temperature the propane is unable to vaporize the liquid propane.
In some articles, people say a tank will freeze at -44°F, which isn’t accurate. I’m sure their intention was to say the tank “freezes up”. But, hey — that’s why I’m here and that’s why you’re here! This article will take a look at propane tanks, their components, and what parts freeze and what parts don’t. This way you can prepare when the temperature is down, but the burgers must go on! It’s important, right?
Grilling will likely be your main source of cooking during an outage so keep reading.
How does propane flow?
It probably makes sense to take a second to talk about what’s supposed to happen when you use your propane tank. Remember when I mentioned that propane freezes at -44°F? Well, propane has a very low boiling point. -43.6°F degrees below 0°F to be exact. When you’re using the propane in the tank — the propane vaporizes when it’s released from the tank at any temperature higher than that.
So, what goes wrong you ask?
What Causes a Propane Tank to Freeze Up?
Well, it’s likely not the tank that is freezing up. It’s likely the propane regulator. There are a couple things that could cause this:
- The propane tank is filled too much. This is dangerous and hopefully not the case. Ensure you’re using a reputable company to fill your tanks and not your crazy neighbor who says he’s watched a few YouTube videos and can do it himself. Hold my beer — watch this!
- Similarly, if the propane tank is on its side there is a chance the propane could enter the regulator before vaporizing and cause a problem.
- More likely — water moisture in the tank passes through the regulator and freezes as it touches the cold regulator metal and/or surrounding air temperatures and freezes.
How Do You Keep a Propane Regulator from Freezing?
A good ventilated place free from weather and gathering snow is a good start. Also, consider a tank cover that provides an insulating layer as well as weatherproofing from other elements. Personally, I haven’t needed one but I also know there are colder places than New England.
Here are some other things to consider:
- Don’t let the tank get too low on propane as the lower pressure combined with low outside temperatures could be enough to keep the grill from working well.
- Keep the propane tank off the ground to avoid additional contact with a frozen surface and to give the tank a chance to have good airflow around the tank.
So, Why Is My Propane Tank Cold to Touch?
I’ll try explain with these few steps to illustrate what’s happening:
- When you get a propane tank filled. It’s filled to roughly 80% leaving some room for pressurization.
- Propane gas is liquefied under pressure and remains that way until it is uncompressed.
- Pressurizing the tank causes the propane to drop in temperatures and that’s why the tank feels cold to the touch.
- When you use your tank, you open the valve and the gas vapor begins to flow to the grill burner. The pressure in the tank drops because of this and impacts the balance inside the tank. So, the propane begins to boil off vapor to replace what you’ve used. This vapor then travels to your burner.
Why Do I See Ice Forming On My Propane Tank?
A couple of things are happening here. First, the contents of the tank are much colder than the ambient temperature where you’re using the tank. Second, the process of the propane boiling as it turns the liquid propane into vapor involves drawing heat from the walls of the tank. So, you take the cold temperatures, along with any condensation buildup on the walls, combined with the tank removing the heat from the walls and you get ice.
The good news? You’ll be able to see the level of the propane left in the tank.
Is It Okay to Leave My Propane Tank Outside in the Winter?
Yes, keep the tank elevated. Turn the valve off after use and you may even want to use a good grill cover. I’ve read mixed reviews on heated blankets for the tank, so I’m holding off on one of those. Something doesn’t seem right with a heated blanket on a propane tank. Just sayin’.
In some cases, you may have a larger propane tank (above ground) that is your primary heating source, used for a fireplace, used for a generator or all of the above. Again, keeping snow off or away from the tank is ideal.
What About Extreme Heat? Can Propane Tanks Explode?
No, your propane tank won’t explode being outside in the heat. Also, do not expose the tank to flames in an attempt to thaw out a regulator or remove frost from thank.
What are the dangers of propane?
- Do not use your propane grill to cook inside. Aside from the obvious fire risks, carbon monoxide from the grill can be trapped in your home and become deadly.
- Do not use your propane grill as a source of heat for the same reason.
- Do not use your propane tank with any other accessory inside your home.
- Don’t store propane tanks inside.
- Don’t store tanks in a car – transport only.
The next time your brother-in-law wants to grill a Turkey, make sure you check the forecast. One thing you can count on — your propane won’t freeze, but the tank may freeze up or the regulator may freeze up as well. FYI, the grilled turkey came out fantastic.
The good news is that propane tanks have been around for some time. They’re sturdy, safe, and reliable in normal operating environments. Keep an eye on gathering snow to prevent your tank from having issues. In addition, during an outage a propane grill can be an amazing life-saver for cooking and heating water — just remember to do these activities outside to prevent issues from fire, leaking propane, or worse — carbon monoxide. Also, consider an extra tank to have more fuel on hand in case an outage strikes!
Good luck. Be Safe.