Propane

If you plan on doing any type of cooking, cleaning, or washing inside your van, you first need to determine what your needs are and go from there. Some people have very modest needs, and will be able to get by with just a simple one burner camp stove and a single pan to make all their meal. Others will want a slightly more complex setup similar to a typical RV with a drop in stove an oven, or even a water heater.

While there is plenty of information regarding propane systems for RVs, I'll go over what I've learned about them when it comes to setting them up in a van, with my own van as an example.

Propane
Propane is a wondrous gas to use. With it, you can heat water, cook food, keep it cold, power a heater, and do it relatively cheaply and without drawing any power from your batteries or stress on your electrical system. Smaller green 1 lb disposable bottles are sold in every camping section of a store and even in some supermarkets, and larger tanks that you see used for barbecues can be filled at some gas stations all around the country. 

In a normal RV or travel trailer, propane is used for several things:
  1. A cooktop or range: Almost every RV or travel trailer will have a cooktop and most will also have a small oven as a part of it.
  2. A furnace: RVs will have either a furnace or a smaller heater that runs off of propane. This can be quite dangerous if it's not installed to the manufacturers exacting specifications, as the burning propane leaks both hot air and carbon monoxide. If not installed and vented properly, fatal amounts of this gas could flow into the living area of your vehicle and kill you while you sleep.
  3. A hot water heater: Some larger RVs and trailers will either have a hot water heater that handles several gallons (enough for a shower) or an on-demand tankless system that will give you as much hot water as you need until either your water supply or propane run out.
  4. A refrigerator: Some RV style refrigerators will run on propane in addition to electricity through a heat exchanger. These can be temperamental if not installed properly. If they aren't vented correctly, you may also run the same suffocation risks as you would with a furnace.
  5. An outdoor grill: Some giant land yacht and larger Class C motorhomes will have an external barbeque that latches to the side of their rig that connects to the main propane supply. 
Safely Storing Propane
Propane is a very volatile gas and can leave your van (and you) a smoking shell if not treated with respect. The scope of your conversion will determine not only what type of tank or tanks you use for your propane, but also how much you keep with you.

In commercial RVs, propane tanks are kept in a separate compartment vented to the outside of the vehicle, or mounted underneath the vehicle to one of the frame rails depending on local regulations. On a travel trailer or 5th wheel, the propane tank is stored outside usually on the front of the rig or on the trailer tongue for maximum safety. For vandwelling, neither of these setups is terribly ideal since they can require either sacrificing stealth or doing alot of custom fabrication inside a van for more trouble than it's worth. Horizontal propane tanks for RV frame rails can cost several times an equivalent standup tank.

If you decide you're going to go the full 9 yards and try to cram everything that would be in a tent trailer or travel trailer into your van, it may be worth getting one of these tanks or fabricating a sealed area inside your van to store a more traditional tank. I've heard from several people that forklift propane tanks work for larger conversions, but usually for buses. For most vandwellers, this isn't necessary.

Propane comes in several ready available tanks. A 20 lb tank is the type used for most propane barbecues and the type that you'll see in cages outside of the gas station or supermarket. Smaller 10lb and 5lb tanks exist but due to their scarcity and lack of nationwide exchange programs are usually more expensive than a standard 20 lb tank.

The most common tanks for vandwelling will be the little 1lb green cylinders, sold in every store with a camping section and at some supermarkets. The majority of propane appliances that vandwellers use come from the camping community, and anything else from the RV community can be adapted to run off of small 1lb cylinders, whether practical or not (more on this later). When these tanks are empty, you can throw them away. They can be refilled off of a larger tank, but in my opinion it's not worth the hassle or expense because they weren't designed to be refilled and no propane filling station will touch them.

Most camping appliances such as stoves and lanterns are able to hook up one of these bottles directly. If you have a larger refillable tank with you, you can attach an adapter for the larger tank to the camping appliance.

Regulators
Since the propane in any tank is under very high pressure all propane appliances need a regulator between between the tank and the appliance. A regulator will lower the pressure to a safe, usable level for the appliance. 

Since regulators take up space, a camping appliance like a camp stove or lantern will have the regulator built into the unit so all you need to do is hook up the bottle and go. An RV propane system will have the regulator connected either directly to or very close to the propane tank before different lines branch off to the various appliances inside the rig.

The standard regulators on RVs and ones you can purchase lower the propane pressure to around 11" W.C. (Water Column Inches) In the same way that all the electronics in an RV are designed to run on 12 volts DC or 110 volts AC, propane appliances for RVs are designed to operate with this level of pressure.

Camp Stoves
If you're doing any cooking in your van, you'll need a stove. A stove also heats water for coffee, tea, doing dishes, etc. The simple way to solve this need is to purchase a camp stove. A propane camp stove will be able to hook directly into one of these little green propane cylinders with its built in regulator.


If you cook in your van, make sure your doors are open! The carbon monoxide buildup inside the van can be a huge problem, not to mention the heat. You can also take the stove outside and set it on a park bench, table, or anywhere else you decide to cook. When you're done using it, disconnect the propane from the stove and put it away in a secure location where it won't move around. Camp stoves are rugged, but if they're banging around in a van, some components could become damaged or loose. This could start a fire the next time you go to use it.


There are several different camp stoves that I recommend and have handpicked to put in the store. Be sure to check them out. Each one of them is different, depending on what your needs and budget may be. Each one of them is highly rated and will last for a very long time.


Drop/Slide-in Cooktops
RVs and Trailers with a built in cooktop will either have a drop-in system or a slide-in system. A drop-in cooktop is just like a sink - to install it, you cut out a hole in the countertop to the specifications the manufacturer gives you, and drop the stove in. The majority of the stove will sit underneath the countertop with just the burners and top plate visible, so you need to make sure you have clearance underneath the countertop. This was a problem with my van, so I had to lower the microwave by an inch and a half.


A slide in stove is a bit more complicated as the cutout for the stove extends to the edge. The cabinetry around the stove must be modified to accept the appliance.

In my van, the only propane appliance I use as of now is my new drop in cooktop that I bought to replace my camp stove. I used said camp stove for over a year, and decided to do a drop in Suburban 2 burner cooktop. This cooktop is actually in the store. There's no picture provided by Amazon, so here's two pictures of it from the manufacturer's website and in the van:


Connecting a 1lb Cylinder to a Cooktop

DISCLAIMER: THIS IS FOR INFORMATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. THIS IS NOT THE WAY THAT A DROP IN COOKTOP IS SUPPOSED TO BE HOOKED UP, NOR IS IT THE WAY THAT A DISPOSABLE PROPANE CYLINDER IS DESIGNED TO BE USED. WHILE I HAVE INCLUDED ALL THE INFORMATION TO MAKE THIS AS SAFE AS POSSIBLE, I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING THAT HAPPENS IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG WITH YOUR PROPANE SYSTEM.
 
There are several steps and adapters needed in order to hook up a 1 lb bottle to a drop in cooktop. The first is a 1 lb bottle to 1/4" NPT fitting. This adapter is available in the store, and can be a very tricky part to find since your local hardware store or even plumbing supplier will not have this piece. Trust me, I looked everywhere for it.



The second piece is the regulator. Since you won't be hooking other items like a furnace or a refrigerator to the same line, a low volume regulator will do the trick. I've handpicked ones for the store that has an attached hose in either a 5 foot length or a 10 foot length.



One thing to notice is that both regulators have a brass fitting on the non-hose end. If you unscrew this fitting, you'll find that the threads in the regulator are 1/4" MPT. You can either screw the propane adapter for your 1lb tank into this directly, or you can do what I did and install a 90 degree street elbow between them made out of galvanized steel (shown), black iron, or brass, allowing the tank to sit upright. Little 1lb cylinders are not designed to be used on their sides.


As you assemble your propane system, always use a pipe sealer on all joints - they'll have it at the hardware store. Ask for the sealant for gas lines - normal Teflon sealing tape comes in several different ratings, and the one used for gas is different than those used for air and water. 

The local Home Depot or Lowes will also carry a liquid version in a small tube you just apply to joints before tightening together. Use this if you can find it, but if you can't, use the Teflon tape rated for natural gas and propane.

Now you need to figure out the best way to set up your stove to receive the propane, and this may be a bit tricky depending on the stove and how/where you wish to store your propane tank.


The following pictures aren't of my specific stove, rather one inside the store that is similar to mine and worked better for illustrating this point. The stove consists of two parts. The stove cabinet will be the lower box that drops in and contains all the valves, the hookup, and the burners and is pictured below. The top plate is the top cover that fits over the cabinet and holds the cooking grates and the control knobs. 

Inside the stove cabinet you'll see the two or three burners, along with the propane hookup. There will also be a few knockout holes in the sides of the stove cabinet, to run the propane line into the cabinet where most convenient.




The propane inlet on the stove (in the direct center of the appliance on this model) will have a 3/8" flare fitting, common to the majority of RV cooktops and appliances.


What you do next will depend on the type of stove you have. 

If you unscrew this brass port, you're left with an inlet not unlike the one on the regulator you worked with earlier. The one on this stove is 3/8" NPT. If this inlet on your cooktop is 3/8" NPT, the store sells an adapter that steps it down to the 1/4" NPT size used in the hose coming off of the regulator. 

The Suburban cooktops that I've seen including mine already have a 1/4" NPT inlet, so this adapter is not needed. If you purchase a stove from the store that's NOT a Suburban, let me know if you need this adapter so I can make a note of the stove model here on the website.

Now you need to decide the best way to run your propane out of the cabinet and which knockout hole you plan on using. For all piping inside the cabinet, you want rigid piping made from either galvanized steel, black iron, or brass. A rubber or flexible hose will not be able to endure the heat inside the cabinet, and if they melt, you'll have a jet of fire inside your van to deal with.


The easiest way to do this is with short lengths of pipe with threads on either end. These are sold at the hardware store in various lengths and are called nipples or risers.


These are sold in different lengths. You may not find one that runs the length you need, so in that case, use two different lengths with a coupling between them like I did with my stove. You can use a 90 degree elbow if you want to run the propane line out the side of the cabinet instead of straight out the back in one shot from the hookup. Just make sure that every line of pipe inside the cabinet is metal and has the aforementioned pipe sealant on all the joints.


Once you run your rigid line out of the stove cabinet, you can connect it to your rubber hose directly or using another 90 degree street elbow. Make sure all the joints are sealed and tight, the stove knobs are set to off, and twist your small propane cylinder into the end of the line. You will hear the line pressurize with a small hissing sound.


Spray some soapy water over all the joints to test for leaks!


If you're feeling confident at this point and there are no leaks present, then turn the stove knob to the LIGHT position and use a match to light 'er up! Run through the full range on both burners from wide open to low to off. You'll feel very confident when it works!

Attach the top plate to the cabinet with the supplied screws, and you're now the proud new owner of a working cooktop that will make your conversion van more functional.


Safety with this setup
Once again, I accept no responsibility if you blow a hole in the side of your van or head by not following this properly. This is not the way these little cooktops were designed to be installed and will void nearly any warranty you have on one.


First off, make sure your little 1lb tanks are secure when you hook them up. My little system uses a large cupholder purchased at the automotive store that holds two of these little cylinders perfectly.


NEVER LEAVE THE PROPANE HOOKED UP WHILE DRIVING OR PARKED OVERNIGHT! ONLY LEAVE IT HOOKED UP WHEN YOU ARE COOKING! This setup isn't designed to take away the hassle of connecting a propane bottle to a camp stove everytime you want to cook, but to take advantage of a built in appliance. For safety reasons, you should still hook the propane up only when you plan on using the stove.

WHEN DISCONNECTING THE PROPANE, MAKE SURE THE STOVE CABINET IS COOLED AND THERE ARE NO OPEN FLAMES OR SOURCES OF IGNITION NEARBY! When you disconnect the propane from the regulator hose assembly, the small amount of propane that was pressurized inside the line to the stove will blow back out through the fitting you just connected with a hissing sound and you'll smell the gas. It won't be alot of propane, but you don't want to take a risk with a flareup!

23 comments:

  1. Hey man, great work! and great blog!. I'm planning to get a van similar to yours to do a winter trip. Thing is I need to know if the small 1lb propane canister is enough to "feed" the kitchen and a small furnace. How long did each canister lasted (aprox)?
    Do you think this are suitable or should I go for a 20lb one?

    Thanks a LOT in advance for any advice!

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