It can make your campsite as comfortable as home, but incidents of gas-related deaths have unfortunately popped up on the news radar again in recent months. We talk to an industry expert about the dos and don’ts of gas safety.
Although most of us prefer the bliss of a roaring fire when we take our much-needed camping holidays, few of us leave home without packing our trusty gas bottles. Whether we use it to warm us up on cold winter nights or to cook our bacon and eggs on the skottel braai, gas is an integral part of camping. But, as with most things, it can be extremely dangerous if you’re not careful and responsible. In July this year, two high school buddies from Krugersdorp died tragically after they fell asleep with their gas heater still burning in their dome tent. It’s instances like these that make you sit up and take notice. We thought it would be a good idea to touch base with Kevin Robertson, CEO of the Liquefied Petroleum Gas Safety Association of South Africa, to assist us in helping you ensure that your outdoor experience doesn’t turn into a disaster.
Quick and deadly
Carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning is a silent killer. In instances where carbon fuels burn efficiently, or where there is plenty of air, each carbon (C) atom bonds with two oxygen (O) atoms and forms carbon dioxide (CO²). This poses no danger to you; however when there isn’t enough oxygen available for the fuel to burn completely, a single carbon atom bonds with just one oxygen atom to form carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide can quickly kill a person. This is particularly evident during fires, when victims succumb to smoke inhalation. While there are other harmful chemicals that are produced during combustion, it’s more often than not carbon monoxide that is the cause of death. “Anything that combusts will release carbon monoxide,” says Kevin. “Liquefied Petroleum Gas, or LPgas, is incredibly cleanburning, so the amounts of CO released is negligible. The problem comes when people use these CO-releasing fuels in enclosed spaces. “Because the flame requires oxygen, it robs the atmosphere of that gas which a person also needs to breathe. With LPgas, however, there’s a stenching agent that lets people know that gas is in the air. So it’s critical that there’s an open window or door for the stale air to escape and clean air to enter. The real problem is not the use of the gas, but the subsequent lack of oxygen.”
It’s imperative that you buy your gas equipment from a reputable dealer. Check that the seal on the cylinder matches the branding on the cylinder. Avoid a cylinder where the shrink wrap on the cylinder valve doesn’t match the branding – such as a generic wrap. These are red flags. Also check the connection from the heater or device to the cylinder. The regulator contains a rubber seal that ensures an airtight seal. They can crack and perish, so always make sure they’re in good condition. Remember to check for leaks. Open the cylinder one and a half turns and pay close attention to where there’s a joint in the system. These joints open the potential for leaks. Apply a soapy water solution to the regulator and the piping around it. If it’s leaking, you’ll notice further bubbling from the soapy solution. “We notice this problem more with the exchange of commercially branded cylinders, with a manufacturer like Afrox, for example, not the type you purchase from a national retailer, hardware store or an LPgas dealer,” says Kevin. “What’s happening is that the cylinders are not returned to the brand owner and are instead being illegally filled by other parties. They’re not being checked and scrutinised properly to ensure that they are fit for purpose. “Something we notice quite frequently is that LPgas cylinders are incorrectly underfilled. An underfilled cylinder means that you, the consumer, are being defrauded. Furthermore, by law, a cylinder must only be filled to 80% of its maximum capacity with the understanding that if the cylinder is exposed to extreme heat, there’s room inside the cylinder for the contents to expand. “Generally, if the cylinder is overfilled and the contents expand past the barrier, it can lead to the cylinder being ruptured and possibly lead to a hazardous situation.”
Rather safe than sorry
An odourant has been added to LPgas, and if you get a persistent whiff of that familiar spell and not just a sniff, you have a leak on your hands. When this happens, close the cylinder valve in whichever direction the nozzle shuts – usually anti-clockwise. Move the device, be it a stove or heater, together with gas cylinder outside. Open doors and windows where possible to get fresh clean air in and eliminate any remaining fumes. >
The best practice is to not use LPgas in an enclosed environment, says Kevin. But with small stoves, like on the inside of a caravan for example, you want to be extra careful. “Campers will use gas for cooking, heating and lighting. Sometimes people will have a gas lamp inside the tent or caravan. That doesn’t mean that you have to have your doors and windows wide open. Just an outlet for ‘dirty’ air to escape and be replaced by ‘clean’ fresh air.”
Know the symptoms
At low levels, CO poisoning can mimic flu-like symptoms such as headaches, nausea, fatigue, and shortness of breath. If you are able to go outside and your condition improves, then CO poisoning is a likely suspect. Higher exposure can lead to more intense headaches, vomiting, impaired vision and hearing, and even fainting. At the highest levels, CO poisoning can lead to loss of consciousness, coma and, eventually, death. Bear in mind that the symptoms can rapidly develop within minutes of exposure. Just 30 minutes could be fatal.
TAKE PRECAUTION. Ideally you want to operate your gas appliance in the outdoors, where there’s an ample supply of oxygen. According to the law, in a mobile unit designed for the use of occupants, such as an off-road trailer or caravan, an LPgas cylinder is to be stored in a compartment that’s airtight to the inside and vented to the outside.