Thursday, September 15, 2011

Converting Your Boat's Propane Cooking Gas to Butane Simply and Cheaply

rocking gently on the current in Ferragudo, Portugal

2011 09 15

Early Evening In Ferragudo

Today while the Budget Committee took care of the laundry I determined to solve our cooking fuel shortage.  Our twenty pound propane tank ran dry.  Our twelve pound reserve tank would only last six or eight weeks longer.

Among the changes when you take your propane stove into Europe:


  • you have to start using butane
  • none of your North America  fittings or connectors work
  • it seems there are no standards for anything on the entire continent 


When your Canadian propane tank empties in  Bahamas you just take it to the propane depot, or line up with the rest of the cruisers on Wednesday in the parking lot and wait for the propane truck to come.  Either way: Voila.  A full propane tank.  Everywhere in North America and much of the Caribbean use the same standard bottles and connectors for using propane.  No matter who is selling the gas the bottles and connectors are the same.

Not so in Europe.  Much of Europe uses Butane for a cooking fuel instead of propane.  There is a patchwork solution to size and shape of gas bottles, connectors and regulators.  You may encounter several as you cruise from country to country.

What to do?

Some people buy expensive fittings that will adapt their propane tanks so they can be filled with propane.

Problems:
  • the adapter fitting is very expensive
  • as in North America it is increasingly difficult to find a station to refill a gas bottle.  Mostly Europe uses bottle exchange where you take your empty bottle to the supplier from whom you bought it and exchange it for a full one.  
  • if you find a refill station it will be a long way out of town and you will have to take a taxi.  No one would take a propane tank on a bus.  Would you?  If caught the best you can hope for is to be thrown  off the bus.  
Another solution some people recommend is to buy a different adapter that lets you fill your propane tank from a local butane tank.  You connect the bottles and then hold the butane tank upside down while the butane runs slowly down the connecting fitting into the propane tank. What is wrong with this picture  (do you really need a list?):
  • the adapter is expensive
  • you have to buy a butane bottle to use this system.  Why not use that bottle and skip the refill procedure?
  • Can you see yourself standing in the cockpit draining one gas bottle into another gas bottle?  
These were maybe good solutions in the old days.  Things have improved.

Here is Meredith's quick, easy and inexpensive way to convert from propane to local butane.  It cost €31.50 for all the materials and took two hours including going to town to buy the hose and get the new tank (done by dinghy, the Repsol gas station in Portimao has a small dock)

Materials

1. A European Gas Bottle

This Good Looking Plastic Coated Gas Bottle
Came from the Local Repsol Gas Station
You can choose from several different gas bottle types and gas providers.  The exact one really does not matter.  We went with a Repsol 6 kg bottle that can be exchanged at Repsol gas stations all through Portugal and Spain.  It fits nicely in a propane locker designed for ten pound propane tanks.

Repsol gas stations are everywhere in Portugal and Spain so exchanging empty bottles for full ones is simple and easy.  The fittings on the tank are the same as on the BP gas bottles.

Cost of the tank: €30.  Cost of the fuel in the tank: €14.50

Many sites recommend you use Camping Gaz but for reasons elucidated later we chucked that recommendation in the wastebasket.

2. A Regulator for your Butane Tank

Standard Butane Regulator purchased from BP
can be used with Repsol and Other Brand Tanks
Repsol GIve a Regulator Free when you Buy a Tank
You cannot use your propane regulator with butane.  Butane is supplied at a lower pressure than propane and you can do harm if you fail to change the regulator.  On the plus side when you buy a gas bottle the supplier gives you a regulator.  Cool. More so because the regulator is easy to plumb.

If you want an extra you can buy one, as I did, at BP for €7.50.

The regulator has a barb on it designed to fit 8 mm butane rated hose.  This makes the whole job very easy.

3. A length of Butane rated hose.  

This is just hose so there is no photo.   You must buy butane rated hose because Butane, like Propane, corrodes ordinary rubber compounds.  You can get the hose at most heating dealers in any town.  I got mine at the BP depot and it cost €1.50 for a metre.

The standard home use butane hose is 8 mm which is sort of useful.  A North American 5/16 barb fits an 8 mm hose very snugly.  In gas connections snug is good. 

3. A 5/16 brass barb from North America.

5/16 inch barb and a Fitting to Connect to the Gas Shutoff
In addition to the barb you will also need a fitting to connect the barb to your gas shutoff valve.  You should source these in North America because your gas shutoff will take imperial threaded fittings: American Standard Tapered Pipe  or American Standard Straight Pipe.

You have to start with a 5/16 barb and end up with a pipe to fit into your gas shutoff valve.  My gas shutoff takes 1/4 inch pipe with American Tapered so the actual pipe is .540 inch in diameter The guy at the Rona store or Home Depot or Lowes will help you.  Check the gas shutoff before you go to the hardware.

If you do not bring a barb and fitting with you relax.  What you do in that case is buy a new gas shutoff valve in Europe.  It will take metric fittings and you install the metric shutoff in place of the imperial shutoff and use metric fittings.  Not a problem.  The gas shutoff will be expensive just like home but honestly, your gas shutoff is probably twenty plus years old and needs replacing anyway.

4. Two Hose Clamps


Usually already in stores but you can buy two for under €1.

5. Soapy Water

Procedure


This hardly needs to be written:

Hose Connected to Regulator
1.  Connect one end of the hose to the regulator barb.  Use a hose clamp to snug the connection up.

2. Connect the other end of the hose to the 5/16 inch barb. Use the other hose clamp to snug the hose to the barb.

Barb Connected to Gas Shutoff

3.  Connect the fitting that will accept the 5/16" barb onto your gas shutoff valve.  Use some teflon tape on the threads

4.  Connect the end of the hose with the 5/16 barb to the fitting on the gas shutoff valve. Use more teflon tape.

5. Connect the regulator to the gas bottle.

6. Turn the regulator on which pressurizes the system and use the soapy water to look for leaks at your connection points.  Do not squirt and run.  Put some soapy water on the connecting point and sit and watch it for a few minutes.  If bubbles show up you must snug things up a bit more.

You can now cook dinner.

That is all there is to it.

Connie likes butane as a fuel better than propane.  It has more heat energy volume for volume, catches flame quicker and allows for some fine tuning on the heat levels on the stove, a difficult task on a propane stove.

The connection system used by BP and Repsol is simple and fast.  Just click and remove or click and insert the regulator on the tank.  Because propane is stored at higher pressures it is likely this simple connection system cannot be used back home.  Too bad.

Butane cannot be used in Canada because it will not flow very well as temperatures descend to zero degrees Celsius.  It just won't work much below that.

What Happens When I get to a Country that Won't Exchange My Repsol Bottle?

I will buy the local exchange bottle and a regulator and change the hose over.

Likely the next country will use the same regulator and if not likely the regulator will be free with your new bottle purchase.  Just remove the hose from the old regulator and put it on the new one.

Many southern European countries have adopted the Italian butane gas connection system while the UK and Netherlands use the "Dutch Standard".  If we get to Netherlands as we hope to then we will be faced with buying a new regulator as well as a gas bottle.

A Trident adapter to allow me to fill my propane tank with butane costs on the order of $135 at discount.  Paying only €30 for a new refillable butane bottle I can buy four new exchange bottles for the price of one Trident adapter fitting designed to let me use my old propane tank.  And the exchange bottles are just so easy to replace when fuel runs low.

Why Not Camping Gaz?


Camping Gaz is a French company that provided one of the first standard butane distributions in a fractured European system.  Most often used by motor homes (or caravans in the UK) camping gaz is available all over Europe.  It has the advantage of being available in a single format across most of Europe.  However:

1. The containers are dear.  A 2.7 kg gas bottle cost €47 in Portimao.

2. The regulators are sold separately but the local MaxMat building supply store, the only Camping Gaz distributor on a bus route, did not have any in stock and in typical Portuguese tradition could have cared less.  Not even an offer to order one was proferred just a perfunctory "we have none right now".

3. Being for motorized caravans the larger gas containers are available on motor routes usually miles out of town.

4.  As expensive as they were the Camping Gaz containers were cheap painted steel, easily damaged and open to corrosion in a sailing environment.  If your container is damaged or rusty it will not be accepted for exchange and you must buy another.

Why Not Autogas?


Autogas is an intriguing possibility for the future.  Increasingly in Europe gas stations are installing self serve LPG filling stations for gas powered vehicles.  One or more companies in the UK are selling refillable portable containers that can be filled at autogas stations.

However:

I have only found autogas containers in the UK which means shipping which means delay.  It also means you have to order all the stuff you need at one go, like regulators and filling fittings and so on.

The local Repsol station told me you have to go out of town to find a Repsol station with an autogas filling station.

So:

In a few years Autogas looks like a winner.  Just not yet at least for boaters.

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