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Myth Busting: Propane & Winter Tailgating

Posted by Dave On November - 24 - 2010

Winter Coleman grillA lot of tailgaters love grilling with propane. After all, it lights fast, you can control the heat in an instant, it leaves no mess behind and is readily available almost anywhere and in all types of quantities. This versatility of propane makes it a no brainer for many. But there are those die hards that still love to break out the old charcoal grill whether it be they prefer the taste of meats grilled over charcoal or they are planning on doing some old fashioned smoking. A lot of cold weather tailgaters prefer charcoal in the winter months because they believe propane does not flow as quickly and does not get their grill hot enough as charcoal when the mercury dips.

In order to confirm or dispel the belief that propane is not effective when it gets cold, we had a chance to talk to Carl Weeks of Ragasco USA. If you were a reader of TailgatingIdeas.com in September you’ll probably recognize Ragasco as the company that is the United States distributor of Clear View Propane Tanks. Carl Weeks is the national sales manager and has been working within the propane industry for over 25 years. To say he is an expert on propane is an understatement. We got Carl on the phone and asked him a few questions about using propane when it is cold outside.

Tailgating Ideas: Some tailgaters prefer to use charcoal over propane for a number of reasons. One reason tailgaters cite for not using propane is that when the temperature gets cold, it is harder to BBQ outside and their grill doesn’t get hot enough. Is this true or is it a misnomer and a wives tale that propane does not perform well in cold conditions? Is there a certain temperature where propane no longer is at its boiling point and will not vaporize?

Carl Weeks: You really hit the nail on the head right there. It’s the boiling point of the liquid where it would no longer turn from a liquid into a gas or a vapor. All different liquids have all different boiling points. In fact, you can go online and you can Google “boiling points”. When talking about propane, propane’s boiling point is -44 degrees Fahrenheit. There are other liquids (Helium and Hydrogen) that vaporize at -400 degrees. Since propane vaporizes at -44 degrees, you would literally need to be in an environment where it was that cold. It has happened where it has gotten that cold in Siberia and even in International Falls, Minnesota .

…I’ve never been in a situation where it got that cold where propane wouldn’t vaporize…

In those places where the ambient temperature is so cold that the liquid inside the tank will no longer vaporize, people have had to pour hot water over the tank just to heat up the steel to warm up the propane inside. Now that is a very extreme case and I would not recommend people do that. I’m from Wisconsin originally and worked a number of years in Chicago and I’ve never been in a situation where it got that cold where propane wouldn’t vaporize. When it gets to something like 20 below zero which is not all that uncommon in places like Green Bay and Buffalo, you’re still going to have enough vapor pressure inside that tank even though it might be down to 15 pounds PSI. That’s still enough generally enough to run any kind of tailgating grill. I’ve never heard of a situation where somebody has not been able to use a propane appliance in the extreme cold where it would not vaporize.

Tailgating Ideas: Are there percentages of vapor pressure people can expect when the outside temperature fluctuates? For example, at 70 degrees outside you can expect to get the highest vapor pressure but at 20 degrees outside you can only expect to get 50 percent?

Carl Weeks: The pressure inside the vessel is going to fluctuate based on the outside temperature. One of the problems people have is when they go get a propane tank filled and then they store it in their trunk. The trunk of a car can get upwards of 160 degrees. I try to tell people that if you just filled your tank, don’t put it in your hot car and certainly don’t leave it in your trunk. If a trunk of a car gets over 162 degrees, the vapor pressure inside the top of that tank can get over 390 PSI. That’s 390 pounds of pressure. The release valve on a regular DOT small grill cylinder, the release valve is designed to start relieving the pressure at 375 PSI. That’s what the relief valve is rated for. Every propane tank has a relief valve. One of the things we warn about more than cold weather, we warn more about taking a cylinder that’s been filled to even 80 percent and taking it into a really hot environment.

Winter grillGetting back to your original question, yes, if it is 70 degrees outside of a propane tank, it might be, now I am guessing here, but it might be around 160 PSI. If you took that same reading the next day and it is a 40 degree morning, the pressure inside that same tank may only be 60 PSI. Don’t hold me to those numbers. I am just using them as a broad example of how the pressure can fluctuate based on the outside temperatures. When it gets to about four degrees outside, there might only be about 30 pounds of pressure inside that tank. Now remember, on a regular barbeque system, you have to have a regulator. You can’t just use tank pressure. That’s why every gas appliance, whether it be a water heater or a tailgating grill or a patio heater, whatever, you have to have a regulator. On most outdoor grills you’ll find at a stadium, that regulator will regulate tank pressure from 10 pounds down to about a pound. So as long as you have a couple pounds of vapor inside that tank and you are not trying to run this mammoth heater or a huge grill, it should vaporize plenty enough to run your grill.

Even on the coldest morning, maybe 10 below zero, there should be enough vapor pressure to run a gas grill.

Tailgating Ideas: Now with those colder temperature days and the lower pressures inside those propane tanks, you’d probably have to run your grill’s regulator wide open to be get it hot enough to safely cook on it, correct?

Carl Weeks: Yes. Now there are some situations where you have appliances that have very high rated BTU ratings. Most tailgating grills you are likely to encounter outside of a stadium will range from a single burner 10,000 BTUs all the way up to the really deluxe stainless steel monster grill that might have say 120,000 BTUs with three or four burners all running wide open. I would say the average grill probably runs about 35,000 BTUs running wide open on a dual burner grill.

…as long as you have a couple pounds of vapor inside that tank… it should vaporize plenty enough to run your grill…

So you might have a really big, deluxe grill out there that is pulling 100,000 BTUs an hour. And just so you know, there are 92,000 BTUs per gallon of propane. Have you encountered people that had not been able to operate a propane grill while tailgating because of the weather?

Tailgating Ideas: Actually I have. I had a conversation with a tailgater that had purchased a grill that had a lower BTU rating and they complained that when it gets colder, their grill just won’t get hotter than 250 or 300 degrees. He said in the early season in August and September, his grill will get to 500 in no time but as the weather changes it takes a lot longer to get hot and usually can’t get to 500 degrees.

Carl Weeks: Did you happen to see what size tank he was using or ask how full his cylinder was?

Tailgating Ideas: He was actually using those smaller 16.4 ounce bottles that you see in stores for camping. I would imagine those smaller bottles do not have as much pressure as a larger cylinder?

Carl Weeks: That might have been the problem. It surely shouldn’t have anything to do with the BTUs in his grill unless he is running on his last drop of propane. There should be plenty of pressure inside that tank even if it was 20 below. At 20 or 30 degrees you’re probably still running at 60 PSI. Again, you are only using about one pound of pressure inside that burner. The only thing is that since it is cold out, every time you open up that grill hood, well there goes all your heat.

I’ve grilled out here in Florida when it has gotten down to 30 degrees and I’ve never had a situation where I couldn’t get the grill hot enough to cook whatever I was having that night. It might have taken a little longer to get it hot enough because the grill is starting out colder but not because I couldn’t vaporize enough gas out of the tank.

Winter CornholeTailgating Ideas: Do you have any advice for those tailgaters in cold weather cities like Patriots fans or Detroit Lions fans tailgating outside of Ford Field that want to use propane to grill but want to have higher pressure? Are there any tricks tailgaters can do to maximize the amount of pressure they can get from their propane tank when the temperature drops?

Carl Weeks: They should make sure their tank has enough gas in it to create ample pressure. You don’t want to run it real low because that affects how much pressure the tank can put out. The liquid inside is going to vaporize whatever the ambient temperature is outside whether you have a drop inside or you have 14 gallons. I wouldn’t want anyone to do anything to try to heat up their tank. I certainly wouldn’t want tailgaters to put it closer to the grill. I wouldn’t want them to put any type of heater on it. It shouldn’t make that much of a difference in that cold of weather. Again, the boiling point of propane is -44 degrees. When it gets that cold, it won’t vaporize anymore and it will just stay in its liquid state. But that is not going to happen outside Soldier Field.

I wouldn’t want any tailgaters to put any type of sweater on their tank. That’s really not going to do anything for them. I would just suggest, make sure there is plenty of gas in the tank and to put the tank out where it can get some sun. You do that and it should vaporize plenty.

Tailgating Ideas: Do you have any advice for cold weather grillers no matter if they are using propane or charcoal?

Carl Weeks: I would say, resist the temptation to peek under the hood of your grill unless it is time to turn your steaks or burgers or whatever you are cooking. Every time you open up that grill, especially in cold weather, you are going to lose a lot of heat. Also, just keep themselves warm and resist the temptation to peek inside. Make sure you have plenty of gas. Cold weather grillers will probably need to cook on high more than they might normally need to had they been out grilling in the middle of June just because the temperatures are so bloody cold. But that’s the beauty of using propane. If you do lose a lot of heat by opening up the lid, it will recover pretty quickly.

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