Propane is a popular fuel that is used in a variety of applications. It’s noteworthy for the fact that it burns very cleanly and produces very few toxic by-products, as long as it is burned correctly. However, if it isn’t burned correctly, then it’s a different story.
Propane heaters can produce carbon monoxide, but only if it undergoes incomplete combustion. Put simply, incomplete combustion happens when the air/propane ratio gets messed up when burning propane as fuel. When propane is combusted correctly, it should produce carbon dioxide, which results in a blue flame.
In this article, we’ll go into more detail about incomplete combustion, and share with you some tips to help you use your propane heater as safely as possible.
What Is Incomplete Combustion?
Incomplete combustion happens when propane burns outside of its optimal conditions. The air/propane ratio is really important when trying to burn propane; at best, having the incorrect air/propane ratio will prevent your propane from burning at all, and at worst, it can present a serious health hazard to yourself and anyone else nearby.
The chemical formula of propane is C3H8, meaning it consists of three carbon molecules and eight hydrogen molecules. When propane is combusted correctly, it creates carbon dioxide and water as by-products. However, when it’s not combusted properly, not all of the carbon is oxidized, so you wind up with carbon monoxide as an additional by-product.
So what are the optimal conditions for propane combustion? As we’ve mentioned, it’s all about the air/propane ratio. The ideal ratio is a 24:1 air/propane ratio, meaning that for every 24 parts of air there is 1 part propane.
Incomplete combustion can happen when the ratio of air to propane is higher or lower than it should be. This can be referred to as burning “lean” or burning “rich”; burning lean means that there’s too much air in the ratio, while burning rich means there’s too much propane.
In terms of personal safety, a rich burn is what you should be really worried about, as this is what can cause carbon monoxide to accumulate. You can tell if your propane heater is burning rich by observing the flame; if the flames seem a lot bigger than normal and appear particularly yellow in color, it means you’re probably burning rich.
What Are the Warning Signs of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?
You should be aware of the warning signs of carbon monoxide poisoning even if you aren’t planning on using a propane heater any time soon. Carbon monoxide is a really insidious toxic gas, as it is completely colorless and odorless. Nonetheless, it can be quite dangerous if it builds up inside an enclosed area.
As for what exactly carbon monoxide does that makes it so dangerous, it all has to do with your blood oxygen content. When you breathe in carbon monoxide, it goes into your bloodstream and mixes with your hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein that carries oxygen throughout your bloodstream.
When carbon monoxide mixes with hemoglobin, it forms carboxyhemoglobin. Carboxyhemoglobin is incapable of carrying oxygen, so even though you’re still breathing in some oxygen, your body isn’t actually able to make use of it. Essentially, carbon monoxide poisoning causes you to eventually suffocate.
Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning can vary, depending on how high the concentration of carbon monoxide is and how long you’ve been exposed to it. The most common symptom of carbon monoxide poisoning is a tension headache (a headache that feels like there’s a very tight band wrapped around your head).
Other symptoms of mild carbon monoxide poisoning include:
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
- Stomach pains
- Tiredness and confusion
It’s easy to mistake carbon monoxide poisoning for something like the flu or food poisoning because the symptoms are so similar. However, the big difference is that the flu/food poisoning often causes a fever as well, while carbon monoxide poisoning never does.
At low levels, carbon monoxide poisoning is not immediately fatal, and it’s certainly possible to recover from carbon monoxide poisoning if you manage to figure out that it’s happening before things get too bad. On the other hand, high levels of carbon dioxide can cause you to lose consciousness entirely in an hour or two and die not long after that.
Effects of Long Term Exposure
The symptoms of long-term exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide include trouble concentrating and unusual emotional changes; for example, a person with carbon monoxide poisoning might be more prone to irrational decisions than normal or be prone to sudden mood swings.
If you’ve got a particularly serious case of carbon monoxide poisoning, however, you’ll likely notice the following symptoms:
- Feelings of intoxication
- Chest pain
- Loss of physical coordination
- An abnormally fast heart rate
- Loss of consciousness
A mild case of carbon monoxide poisoning isn’t going to do much to hurt you in the long term, but you should still check in with your doctor if you think you might have a case of it.
On the other hand, moderate to severe carbon monoxide poisoning can have lasting effects even if you manage to recover, because the lack of oxygen in your blood can potentially cause irreversible damage to your organs. This is usually only the case with prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide, however.
How Can I Use My Propane Heater Safely?
It is totally possible to use a propane heater in an indoor space, as long as you take the necessary steps to make it safe. A properly working propane heater shouldn’t be producing any carbon monoxide as it is, but you always want to err on the side of caution when burning fuel in an enclosed space.
If you want to be as safe as possible when using a propane heater indoors, you should keep the following tips in mind:
- Make sure the room you’re in is properly ventilated. This will help reduce the likelihood of carbon monoxide poisoning in two ways. It allows any carbon monoxide to escape, and provides the propane heater with a source of fresh air. This will prevent it from burning rich.
- Choose a propane heater that’s the right size for the room you want to keep it in. A propane heater that is too large will consume the oxygen in the room more quickly and start burning rich as a result.
- Use a heater that comes with safety features. Examples include a low oxygen sensor and an automatic shutoff feature if you knock the heater over.
- Make sure you place the heater on a non-flammable surface, and never put anything on top of your heater.
- Never leave a lit propane heater unattended.
- Install at least one carbon monoxide detector in the room where you plan on using your heater.
Frequently Asked Questions
So far we’ve talked at length about carbon monoxide poisoning and how to use a propane heater safely indoors. Now let’s address some of the common questions you might have about using a propane heater in general.
What Are Some Common Problems With Propane Heaters?
In order to use your propane heater safely, you have to be able to use it to begin with. It can be pretty frustrating if you’re trying to light your propane heater but nothing is happening. There are a few different components of your heater you should check out if this is the case.
The pilot light is one of the most common sources of propane heater problems. Depending on the heater you have, you might not be able to see the pilot light. Ideally it should be a blue, steady flame. If you see the pilot light and it doesn’t look like this, you probably need to clean the pilot tube.
The thermocouple could also be the source of the problem. The thermocouple tells the valve to close when the temperature is not high enough, to prevent unburned gas from escaping. If the thermocouple isn’t working or is too far from the pilot light, the valve may not open.
There might also be an issue with the heater’s sensor. Propane heaters have a sensor that detects when there’s a problem with the flame and shuts the heater off automatically. However, if the sensor is defective, it might shut the heater off when nothing is wrong.
If you think the sensor might be the problem, try wiping it off with a bit of sandpaper. This should clear the dust and allow for a clearer read.
Where Should I Install Carbon Monoxide Detectors?
If you want to be safe when using a propane heater, always have a carbon monoxide detector nearby. For general safety purposes, you should have at least one carbon monoxide detector installed on every floor of your home.
You can place carbon monoxide detectors on your wall or ceiling. If you’re installing one on your wall, make sure it’s at least five feet above the floor. Don’t place your detector directly over a fireplace or anything else that produces a flame.
Can Carbon Monoxide Go Through Walls?
Carbon monoxide can’t pass through every kind of surface, but it can definitely pass through walls in your home. Especially ones made of drywall. Drywall is very porous, which allows carbon monoxide molecules to pass through it at a pretty high rate.
What Color Should a Propane Flame Be?
As we’ve mentioned, incomplete combustion results in a flame that can be yellow or orange in color. This is normally a bad sign. If your propane heater is combusting correctly, the flame it produces should always be blue in color.