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Go Back   SailNet Community > General Interest > General Discussion (sailing related) > Propane or Alcohol Stove?
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Thread: Propane or Alcohol Stove? Reply to Thread
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Topic Review (Newest First)
03-08-2010 10:42 PM
L124C
Huh?

Quote:
Originally Posted by TrueBlue View Post
A close friend and I were anchored in our separate boats off Fort Adams 2 seasons ago, to watch the Newport Folk Festival. My wife and our two 20-something kids were on True Blue, close by his 25 y/o Pearson 33, while he and his party guests got pretty wasted during the course of the afternoon.

Close to 5:00 pm, he decided to cook some food, pumped up his pressurized tank, but was distracted by the encore performance and went up into the cockpit. Apparently, his valve was open before he pressurized the tank - overflowing the burner cup and sending alcohol fuel down into his bilge.

No one knows for sure how much time passed before he attempted to pre-heat the burner. But when he did, the flame ignited the burner and quickly spread down into his bilge. Flames began to melt the fiberglass interior hull and ignited the wood sole, cushion fabric, cabinets and bulkheads. As the hundreds of anchored boat people watched, black smoke & flames were blazing from the ports & companionway, while most of the guests jumped off the boat. The captain and a friend however, stayed onboard and eventually put the flames out with water & flour - only after pulling up every floor board.

The boat was nearly totaled, took 2 years to restore, and is still unfinished. The owner since then, installed a propane system to current ABYC safety standards. Modern alcohol stoves may be safer today, but onboard alcohol as a cooking fuel is still terrifying to me. I have yet to hear about a propane fire in this area, but plenty of alcohol fires occur each year - including one we had on a former boat.
A few questions: If the burner was open, how did he achieve the required pressure when filling the system? Wouldn't happen on my pressurised alcohol stove. I would see I wasn't getting to 20lbs, and know something was wrong. Why didn't he smell the fumes when he entered the Galley to light the stove? This much alcohol in the Salon of a boat is going to have a significant odor. If it doesn't, the alcohol has evaporated already (which it does fairly rapidly). On my stove, you would have to pour at least two gallons of fuel onto the burners to allow it to flow down, fill up the bottom of the oven, overflow the containment pan below the stove, and flow into the bilge. No offense to your friend, but I believe your example is not an indictment of pressurised alcohol stoves as much as it is skippers who don't use common sense. He could have made similar mistakes with Propane, and everyone could have been BLOWEN off the boat! Quite simply, you have to pay attention when working with ANY fuels on a boat. Given the nature of the event and mistakes made, I wonder if the problematic alcohol wasn't in the stove at all, but in the Skipper!
08-20-2008 11:05 AM
sailingdog Don't store the propane canisters below. They're prone to leaking, especially after being used once...

The best storage system for them is to make a "propane locker" for them out of Schedule 80 PVC pipe. The locker is basically a section of tube with end cap welded on the bottom, that has had a large 1/2" hole drilled in it. The tube is then fastened to a stanchion or the lifelines and the propane tanks are dropped into it. Another end cap is put over the top and fastened either by a hole drilled with a 1/4" fast pin or a piece of bungee cord.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Joesaila View Post
Just finished a second 150 mile sail around the outer cape to Nantucket, M.V. and the canal. Each trip lasted a week and there were 4 adults on board. The non pressurised [2 burner Origo] lasted on a single fill up at the start and there were no problems. [I would never try to fill it while sailing] Its not difficult at all to see the blue flame and the heat was very sufficient. I am looking for a way to make bread. [we don't have an oven, but I'm certain it can be done] We do have a propane grill for the rail and I would like to find out about safely stowing those small tanks below. Is there a locking box or system anyone is aware of?
08-20-2008 09:25 AM
Joesaila Just finished a second 150 mile sail around the outer cape to Nantucket, M.V. and the canal. Each trip lasted a week and there were 4 adults on board. The non pressurised [2 burner Origo] lasted on a single fill up at the start and there were no problems. [I would never try to fill it while sailing] Its not difficult at all to see the blue flame and the heat was very sufficient. I am looking for a way to make bread. [we don't have an oven, but I'm certain it can be done] We do have a propane grill for the rail and I would like to find out about safely stowing those small tanks below. Is there a locking box or system anyone is aware of?
08-20-2008 08:29 AM
SkywalkerII It seems clear to me that most people have made the mental switch to propane and find the risk acceptable. I was not sailing at the time, but I bet a similar change in perception occured in the 70s as gas engines were being replaced by diesel - after decades of use, gas became too dangerous. We learn to accept certain "truths".

I chose kerosene as a cooking and heating fuel on my C&C. I have young chidlren and feared a carless mistake was too high a risk for the convenience of propane.

You may find it ironic, though, that when I needed to repower, I replaced the old Atomic 4 gas engine with a rebuilt Atomic 4 gas engine. I hate the smell of deisel and could not find a documented case of a sailboat suffering an explosion for gasolene. Propane makes boats look like popcorn when all goes wrong.

BTW, I have a complete propane oven/stove, storage locker, aluminum tank, soelenoid system available for sale.

Skywalker
08-20-2008 07:12 AM
sailingdog If you're really worried about the propane system, install an ignitioin proof blower fan, like what is found on in-board gasoline powered boats. It would be able to vent the boat rather quickly, removing the risk of the boat exploding.

IIRC, if you look at BoatUS's book, Seaworthy, which is based on their claim experience of 20+ years, you'll see that alcohol stoves, particularly pressurized ones, were a much greater danger. The problem with alcohol is that it burns with a near invisible flame and it is often hard to tell if an alcohol fire has been started, or if you've spilled the fuel.

Also when you try to extinguish an alcohol-fire, don't use water, since an inadequate amount of water will only spread the alcohol and flames, and it can often end up with the flames pouring down into the bilge and making the fire worse.

Yes, you can extinguish an alcohol fire with water, but it takes a lot more water than most people think. If you think about the fact that most hard liquor, 80 proof and stronger, is highly flammable.... that means that you only need 40% alcohol by volume for the flames to continue burning...

Yes, gasoline and propane can be an explosion hazard. Yes, they're both heavier than air. However, a proper fume detector and bilge blower setup can reduce the risks greatly. BoatUS's book also points out that very few gasoline or propane explosions happen on boats that are properly equipped with a bilge blower system.

User error is the biggest cause of galley fires—regardless of the type of stove used. The more difficult or complicated a stove is to use, the more likely the chance the user will screw it up. A propane stove, especially one with a piezo or electric igniter will generally be far easier to use than an alcohol or diesel/kerosene stove. YMMV.

One other point... where do you store the fuel for an alcohol stove. Most denatured alcohol I've bought comes in metal cans... and they tend to rust out fairly quickly. A properly installed propane locker will have an overboard drain for the gas, in case the tank itself or the regulator components start to leak. I have a composite fiberglass tank for the propane system on my boat, and it solves the problem of the tank rusting for the most part. Storing alcohol inside the cabin of the boat can be just as problematic as storing gasoline, and if it spills, it can also become an explosion hazard.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hartley18 View Post
A gas-air ratio of between 2% and 11% to be exact - and that's not hard to achieve on a boat already full of air.

It might not be a frequent occurence - but it does happen somewhere in the world on at least a yearly basis ...and if it happens, I'm quite sure you don't want to be on board at the time.

That would be an experience you would not live to regret.
08-20-2008 04:19 AM
Classic30
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sailormann View Post
In order for the propane to explode the gas to oxygen ratio has to be just right. It does happen of course, but it's not a frequent occurrence.
A gas-air ratio of between 2% and 11% to be exact - and that's not hard to achieve on a boat already full of air.

It might not be a frequent occurence - but it does happen somewhere in the world on at least a yearly basis ...and if it happens, I'm quite sure you don't want to be on board at the time.

That would be an experience you would not live to regret.
08-20-2008 02:30 AM
Sailormann
Quote:
One point not noted here: if your propane stove does leak and the sniffer alarm goes off then what do you do?
My propane alarm is set off by numerous vapours and fumes in addition to the propane. When it does go off, I turn it off, open the hatches and air the boat out a bit more. When I turn it on again the alarm is quiet.

In order for the propane to explode the gas to oxygen ratio has to be just right. It does happen of course, but it's not a frequent occurrence.
08-20-2008 01:20 AM
Classic30
Quote:
Originally Posted by Plumper View Post
...
One point not noted here: if your propane stove does leak and the sniffer alarm goes off then what do you do? Getting a heavier than air gas off a boat at sea is very difficult. Spilled alcohol can be mopped up or will just evaporate. Spilled diesel, you all know that drill.....
Good point. If you can't get off the boat, just about all you can do is:
  1. Don't light a match (presumably what you were just about to do in the first place). Do not touch anything electrical or try to start the engine. If it's running and you can stop it without going aground, do so.
  2. Open hatches fore and aft to try to get some air flow into and through the boat. Lift the floorboards if you can.
  3. Wait.. twiddle thumbs.. for at least 10 minutes, hoping that the alarm will go off by itself.
  4. Buy an alcohol stove the moment you get in...

Cameron
08-20-2008 12:29 AM
Plumper I have a Dickenson Pacific that I use in cold weather and an alcohol stove that sits on top that I use in warm weather. My previous boat also had an alcohol stove (gimballed with and oven). The alcohol stoves (and the Dickenson) are slower than propane but both are easy to live with.

One point not noted here: if your propane stove does leak and the sniffer alarm goes off then what do you do? Getting a heavier than air gas off a boat at sea is very difficult. Spilled alcohol can be mopped up or will just evaporate. Spilled diesel, you all know that drill.....

A charter boat that had just disembarked a load of school kids blew up in Nanaimo Harbour last summer because of a propane leak. Even the most cautious and safe installations can have failures and the result is catastrophic, not just a fire that you can put out with water.

Sailboat explodes, sinks off Nanaimo
08-17-2008 10:05 PM
Classic30
Quote:
Originally Posted by sailingdog View Post
Yes, both are dangerous, but a properly installed LPG system is far safer than a pressurized alcohol stove ever will be. It sounds like you've got a pressurized alcohol system. Get rid of it...and get either an Origo unpressurized alcohol stove or install a full propane system.
SD, from what he's desribed, it's not a pressurized stove - we've got exactly the same set-up.

The metho dribbles into the pan under gravity, and, yes, if you're not careful you can get a decent fire going before the burners are pre-heated enough to start working. You have to be bloody unlucky to lose it out of the stove itself though!

Once the pool of meths is alight, we put a pan over the top to stop the flame reaching the deckhead (yes, it can get that high!!), but that's no different to leaving the gas on for a few seconds too long when lighting a propane stove (it's actually probably safer, 'cause at least you can see the alcohol!)

gmalan: It's a problem with no easy answer, but we're glad to hear you're okay. Now that you've got the fire out, you've got the fun task of cleaning up the mess. Fire exinguishers contain corrosive chemicals, so make sure you clean it all up and wash down with water where you can.

Cameron
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