Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Even small fuel canisters can be deadly


I'm sure many readers saw on TV news the violent explosion of a small SUV in Los Angeles last week.

An SUV parked in a Van Nuys parking lot on Thursday night suddenly exploded after the driver lit a cigarette next to some propane canisters he stored inside. 

Firefighters and police rushed to a supermarket parking lot in the 7200 block of Van Nuys Boulevard after receiving a call about an SUV that exploded around 10:30 p.m., police said. When first responders arrived, the man told them he had been trying to light a cigarette when the explosion happened. Investigators said he was living in the vehicle during the explosion. 

He suffered minor injuries and was taken to a nearby hospital, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Pieces of the parked vehicle flew in every direction, one of which lodged into a nearby tree. The explosion left the Toyota SUV mostly in mangled pieces.

There's more at the link.  Here's what it looked like.

I was interested in the report because I've had a lot of experience with explosions (some of them assisted by me, others not).  The damage to the SUV was impressive, but not as great as I'd expect if a typical 20-pound propane tank - the sort used to fuel most outdoor gas barbecue grills - blew up.  That would probably have entirely demolished the vehicle.  I reached out to a couple of contacts in the Los Angeles area, and after some sleuthing, they informed me that the culprit was almost certainly a butane or propane fuel canister for a small camping stove, the sort many of us own for picnics or emergency cooking.  Both are illustrated below.

It's possible, they tell me, that more than one of those cans was present, and went up by sympathetic detonation in the explosion.

That illustrates the very real danger of using such fuel canisters in confined spaces.  They're as bad as a hand grenade if they go off.  If the victim had been inside the vehicle, rather than standing next to it, he probably would not have survived - or, if he had, the pressure injuries to his internal organs might have proved fatal in due course.

That made me roust out my canisters of fuel and check them.  To my annoyance, some of the small butane canisters showed quite a lot of rust - something I hadn't expected, because they'd been stored in climate-controlled conditions inside a plastic tote to keep out dampness.  You can bet your boots I discarded them at once (or, rather, put them aside to be handed in to our local dump as hazardous waste), and I'm going to replace them with new canisters (and check the replacements more often for any recurrence of the problem).  A rusted canister of gas under pressure simply can't be trusted.  (That's why higher-pressure propane cylinders are legally required - in the USA at least - to be tested after 10 years, and discarded after 15.)

So, for those of us using or storing such equipment, let this be a wake-up call.  They can be very dangerous if misused or poorly stored.



Anonymous said...

I have that very stove and really like the self lighting feature but the brass fittings could be better.

Javahead said...

Perhaps add some desiccant packets to the bags before sealing?

Anonymous said...

the butane is odorless, a leaking stove would not have been detected

Ritchie said...

Such an explosion would need to have the gas mixed with air. A key phrase here is "What's that smell?" For the container to leak or burst is the prior step in this unfortunate series of events.

JNorth said...

Costco has some clear plastic totes with gaskets that I've been getting to store items sensitive to water vapor.

JustPeachy said...

Living in car... fuel canister/s...

Nonzero chance there was meth involved.

Tonerboy said...

Yeah, my guess he was huffing the butane and didn't realize it "collected" in the closed space. Had a nephew do that with propane in a metal storage shed. Couldn't hear for a week not to mention his face hair was missing.

Aesop said...

Just Peachy nailed it.

Meth head living in car leaves stove on, sparks up his meth pipe, KABLOOEY.

Only seen that trick about two dozen times in the last 5 years, in one form or another.

"My butane lighter exploded in my face" = My meth pipe blew up in my face.

"I was lighting a BBQ" = My meth pipe blew up in my face.

"I was standing too close to the campfire" = My meth pipe blew up in my face.

"I must have spilled some gasoline while filling up the lawn mower" = My meth pipe blew up in my face.

"My beard caught on fire and I tried to pat it out with my hands" = My meth pipe blew up in my face.

Clever readers may spot a trend here.

Michael said...

Meth? Maybe, maybe not, I know some working poor that visit our food bank enroute to working full time at Walmart.

They cook food in their vehicles-campsites. Cooking stoves are popular donations from charities.

Damage reminds me of the garbage bin IRA bombs.

Stan_qaz said...

Aside from the storage issues, look at the direction the over-pressure release is pointing. If it lets go while you are cooking you will be standing in a ball of fire.

That is much more of a problem if you refill the small tanks. Yes, you aren't supposed to do that but it is commonly done as it is much cheaper.

lynn said...

"SpaceX sets date for next Starship flight after Texas test ends in explosion"
"A SpaceX test of a component used in Starship resulted in a fireball and plumes of smoke at the company's facility in Central Texas."

Anonymous said...

As far as small propane tanks go, I've had multiple occasions where the Schrader valve didn't close properly when I removed the regulator.
ALWAYS look closely and listen when taking a tank off the regulator.
Even a 1 lb tank could do serious damage in an area as small as a car.

JustPeachy said...

@Michael: not guaranteed, for sure, and people out there homeless because the rent's too high or whatnot... it happens. I don't wanna disparage people unfairly.

But those little fuel bottles, much like Magic Bullet blenders and excessive numbers of Folgers canisters... just one of those fun-fact things we've learned to associate with drugs. It's like a Where's Waldo game we play with photos from "affordable" real-estate listings. I have no idea what they use all those coffee canisters for, but it's *so* consistent, that now if I see any in the kitchen photo (or if I see empty soda bottles or any kind of propane tank anywhere not attached to a grill), I just X that house off my go-look-at list, because odds are really great that even if the pics don't show all the damage, the house is trashed beyond repair. We've looked at a few now and... yeah that's depressing and while we really want a house, we're not *quite* to the point of taking on $50k in repairs and doing hazmat cleanup. Yet.

Anonymous said...

Issue with Natural gas (methane) and LPG (propane and/or butane) is it doesn't have a detectable odour. The normal solution is to add something which is such as ethyl mercaptan at ~ 1 part in 10,000.

If the odourant is not added a leak can't be smellt until well in to explosion range. Some of the smaller disposable containers like these may not have it added.

The other issue is the smell can be detected for a while until the human sensor is overloaded and doesn't detect it - but the gas is still there

Anonymous said...

3 words. Cheap. Chinese. Metal.

Aesop said...


1) Suburban L.A.
2) Living in car.
3) I'm very familiar with that particular neighborhood. And it's gotten worse in the last 20 years.

So 4 chances out of 5, meth was a factor there.

It would actually be more newsworthy if it turned out it wasn't.

Anonymous said...

Propane, butane, etc.al. are only combustible within a narrow air/fuel window. Much narrower than gasoline or ethanol.

To get an explosion you not only have to have the right air/fuel ratio, you have to contain the combustion somehow; doors closed and windows up just barely qualifies. One window down, you get a firey "whoof!" and not a "kaboom!"

The size of the cylinder isn't really an issue. The propane (or butane, etc.) in the cylinder is a liquid. Even if the valve is completely open, it won't burn inside the tank. What will happen, though, is that the escaping propane won't burn until it gets to the periphery of the fire, where it can mix with ambient air until it becomes flammable. So you get a really big fire, fed by the escaping propane. But not an explosion.

Shooting a propane tank won't make it explode either. You'll get a jet of liquid propane shooting out the side if your bullet penetrates, but that's about it.