Grilling season: how to stay safe when cooking with propane

In December 2012, ESPN “SportsCenter” anchor Hannah Storm noticed that the flame in her propane-fueled grill had gone out. And, so, she simply did what thousands of us automatically do each year. Storm turned off the gas and promptly reignited the grill.

It immediately exploded and left her in flames. Literally. She received first- and second-degree burns on her face, neck, chest and hands.

With warmer weather tempting us to dine — and cook — outdoors more, it’s important to think about safety as grilling season arrives in full force.

Grilling is a year-round event for some people, but June and July are considered peak months for grill fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association. With gas grills making up 58 percent of sales, propane is the No. 1 fuel choice for those purchasing a grill. But those propane-fueled grills can come at a risk and, in fact, they were involved in an annual average of 7,200 home fires from 2007 to 2011, according to the NFPA.

If you’re new to the grilling scene, or if this is the first time you’ve ever used a propane-fueled grill, then there are some specific safety tips you need to know. And these also serve as helpful reminders for folks who think they’re grilling pros.

The most crucial bit of information comes from a basic tenet of chemistry: Propane is heavier than natural gas. That means if your propane-fueled grill doesn’t light immediately, or if the flames go out, you need to walk away for at least five to 15 minutes before lighting it again because that propane is still hovering over your grill. That’s where Storm made her innocent, and all-too-common, mistake. When she immediately relit the grill, she inadvertently ignited all of that lingering and flammable propane, turning it into a fireball.

While the lesson was hard won, it’s very simple to follow. If your flame goes out, immediately turn off the gas and keep the lid open, then set a timer, make the salad, stir a pitcher of martinis or email your mother — but stay away from the grill for a minimum of five minutes. It’s that easy.

While accidents happen, the good news is that grilling with propane is safer and easier today thanks to a mandate from the NFPA stating that only propane cylinders featuring an overfill prevention device may be refilled or exchanged. The mandate prevents cylinders from being filled more than 80 percent, which can create a potential fire hazard when rising temperatures cause the propane gas to expand.

Follow these important safety tips when using propane fuel, and the only item you’ll be in danger of burning this grilling season will be your rib-eye steak.

  • Grill only in appropriate places. That means outdoors in well-ventilated spaces; never in the garage or inside the house. Place the grill away from siding, deck railings and out from under eaves and overhanging branches. About 27 percent of the home structure fires involving grills started on a courtyard, terrace or patio, and 29 percent started on an exterior balcony or open porch, with 6 percent starting in the kitchen, according to the NFPA.
  • When you're taking your grill out for the first time after winter storage, check the LP (liquid propane) cylinder for leaks and general disrepair. If you suspect a leak in your propane tank, turn off all of the grill's controls, and turn the propane tank to the full on position. Never use a flame to check for gas leaks. Use a solution of dishwashing soap and water, and spray it on all of the fittings, looking for any bubbles where gas is escaping. If you find a leak, get it serviced by a professional or exchange the tank.
  • When you're ready to cook, first turn on the tank, then the grill. When you're finished, turn the propane tank off first and then turn off the grill controls to minimize the amount of residual pressure left in the gas hose. Remember to keep the grill controls off and the propane cylinder valve closed when not in use.
  • Keep some sort of fire extinguishing material nearby. A commercial fire extinguisher, like the small and convenient Tundra spray canister from First Alert, is ideal in that it covers a wider area than conventional and cumbersome extinguishers. And if you don't have a commercial version handy, then keep a box of baking soda for grease fires, or a bucket of sand or even cat litter to extinguish errant flames. If all else fails, grab the garden hose.
  • Do you like to keep a spare propane tank around? Then store it upright in a place where temperatures won't exceed 120 degrees. Never store a spare propane tank on or near a grill.
  • Driving with a propane tank is perfectly safe, as long as you take a few precautions. Even if the tank is empty, make sure to close the valve tightly, and keep the tank in an upright position. Keep the car well-ventilated by cracking the windows open. And don't keep the tank for any length of time in a hot car.
  • If storing the gas grill indoors, the propane cylinder must be disconnected, removed and stored outdoors. Never, ever store a propane tank indoors.
  • What if you smell gas while cooking? Immediately get away from the grill and call the fire department.
  • Finally, don't smoke while handling a propane tank.