RV Propane 101, What You Need To Know About Your RV Propane Tanks

RV propane stove

Your RV propane system is one of the most important, and often overlooked, part of your rig. We use propane to cook delicious meals for our families, heat our water, provide warmth on those bone-chilling cold nights, and keep our food from spoiling in our refrigerators. In this post we are going to dive into our RV propane system and answer the most asked questions. If you want to know “How long will my propane last?”, or “Is it cheaper to refill or exchange my propane tanks?”, you’re in the right place. With that said, let’s get started, shall we?

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What Is Propane?

Propane is also referred to as liquified petroleum gas, LPG or LP for short. According to Wikipedia, “propane is a gas at standard temperature and pressure, but compressible to a transportable liquid. It is a by-product of natural gas processing and petroleum refining.” In its natural state, propane is colorless and odorless. The odor we smell, which is distinct, is added in the manufacturing process so it can be easily detected. Another great characteristic of propane is it never goes bad. In fact, your RV propane tanks will expire long before your propane does.

In the U.S., propane tanks are certified for 12 years from the date they were manufactured. After that, they will need to be replaced or re-certified.

What Does Propane Run On My RV?

We use propane to operate several things in our RVs. The first and foremost are kitchen appliances. We use propane to run our RV stoves, ovens, and refrigerators. But wait, it doesn’t stop there. Your RV furnace and water heater also operate on propane, and in some instances, even your RV air conditioner may run on propane. We also use propane to power our outdoor kitchens, portable firepits, and if your RV is equipped with a fireplace, propane keeps those flames going to keep us warm as well.

RV propane stove
We use propane to cook our meals, heat our water, and warm our RV

As I stated above, your RV propane system is a very important part of keeping your RV warm, your water hot, and your food cold.

Related: 5 Great Portable Grills That Are Easy To Set Up

Common RV Propane Tank Sizes

Before we can get into the common sizes of RV propane tanks, we need to briefly talk about the different types of tanks. Propane tanks are either ASME tanks or DOT tanks. What’s the difference? I thought you might ask that.

ASME tanks are commonly used on motorhomes and are mounted to the frame. As a result, refilling these RV propane tanks requires a trip to the nearest propane station. These tanks will vary widely from coach to coach. A small motorhome might have a 20-pound tank while a class A might have a larger tank.

DOT tanks are what you use for bar-b-que grills, campers, small motorhomes, and travel trailers. They are removable and portable so refilling or exchanging them is a no-hassle type event.

RV propane tank
20-pound RV Propane Tank

The most common sizes of RV propane tanks are 20-pound (5 gallon), 30-pound (8 gallon), 100-pound (25 gallon), and finally 420-pound (100 gallon). Of these, the most common is going to be the 20-pound. As a matter of fact, you probably have one or two of them mounted to the front of your RV or camper.

How Long Will My RV Propane Last?

Many factors will determine how long your RV propane will last. The first factor you need to consider is how much propane do you have available? What I mean is, what are the sizes and how many propane tanks are on your RV? The next factor in determining how long your propane will last is the BTUs of your appliances and how often you will be using them. You can find the BTU rating of your appliances by the nameplate tag or by looking in your owner’s manual.

One pound of propane has 21,548 BTUs. Let’s use our Kodiak travel trailer for this example. I have two 20-pound propane tanks on the front of the rig. Assuming they are both full, (4.6 gallons each) I would have 841,818 BTUs available. (Propane tanks are only filled to 80% capacity to allow for expansion as the temperature increases)

Now let’s say that I will using the refrigerator, (1,500 BTUs), the cooktop, (7,000 BTUs), and the furnace, (30,000 BTUs). The BTU rating on these appliances is usage per hour. Now, let’s say that I will be using these appliances continuously, non-stop. I will be using 38,500 BTUs per hour. If I divide my usage by the total BTUs available, my RV propane will last for roughly 21 to 22 hours.

1,500 + 7,000 + 30,000 = 38,500 BTUs

841,818 available BTUs divided by 38,500 usage BTUs = 21.86 hours

rv propane usage example

That is just an example and not realistic. We would never run our appliances non-stop, but it gives you a good idea of where to start trying to figure out how long your RV propane will last, based on your individual usage.

Is It Cheaper To Refill Or Exchange My Propane Tank?

The costs associated with refilling or exchanging your RV propane tanks will vary for a few reasons, and there are pros and cons to each. On average, the cost to exchange your RV propane tank is $5 to $6 per gallon. At most convenient store or grocery store propane exchange stations, it typically costs us around $25 to exchange our 20-pound tanks.

The average cost to have those same tanks refilled is around $3 to $4 per gallon, or around $15.

RV propane tank exchange
Typical RV propane tank exchange center

You can exchange your RV propane tanks at almost any convenience store, grocery store, Home Depot, or Tractor Supply near you. If you are looking to exchange your propane tanks on your next stop at a Buc-ee’s Travel Center, you will be disappointed. Although they do have clean restrooms and Beaver Nuggets, Buc-ee’s does not offer propane exchange.

Although exchanging tanks is faster, easier, and more convenient, you don’t get credit for any unused propane left in your old tank. So, if you exchange your tanks before a long trip, and you still have a gallon or so in each tank, you’re losing money on the deal.

On the other hand, refilling has its drawback too. If you are needing a refill after normal business hours, you might be out of luck.

RV propane refill
Many RV parks and resorts offer RV propane refills

You can search for RV propane refill near me or check with your local RV park or RV resort. Many parks and resorts offer propane refill for RVers.

Can I Drive With My Propane On?

This is a debate that can stand the test of time. You can ask 10 different RVers and you will get 10 different answers. Personally, I don’t. Why? I never liked the idea of driving with something that volatile that has the potential to catch fire. I covered this subject a little further in a recent post, RV Fire Safety.

If you are driving along with a small propane leak, a spark from your electric brakes or a bare wire shorting out on the frame of your RV, can cause catastrophic damage not only to your RV, but to you as well. Besides that, it’s often highly suggested, if not required, to have your RV propane tanks off when you are at a gas station.

Related: Common RV Mistakes

Propane Accessories

Now that we have covered the ins and outs of your RV propane, let’s get into a few great propane accessories that I recommend.

Propane Level Gauge – I use one of these on our propane tanks. I’m not very well versed in knowing how much propane I have left in a tank by hoisting it up. I rely on a gauge to let me know when it’s time to refill, or exchange.

Tank Check LP with Monitor Kit – If the old-fashioned gauge doesn’t suit your taste, go more high tech with this level indicator. You can even check your tank levels on your smartphone via Bluetooth.

Heavy Duty Dual Propane Tank Cover – Not only are these tank covers stylish, but they also keep your tanks protected form the elements and damage they may occur from debris from your tow vehicle.

Safe-T-Alert Dual LP/CO Alarm – This propane alarm not only detects propane, but it also detects carbon monoxide. You get the best of both worlds and the additional safety that goes with it.

Conclusion On RV Propane

Hopefully I have answered some of your questions regarding your RV propane system. Do you have anything to add to the discussion? Have I left anything out? If so, please let me know in the comments below.

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