Understanding the Dangers Posed by Barbeque Grill Propane Tanks

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A backyard barbeque is a safe and enjoyable way for families, friends, co-workers and others to spend time together while enjoying great summer food and weather. In the past, however, party hosts would have to deal not only with the difficulties that charcoal can resent in starting a fire, but also the clean-up of burned ash. The propane tank allows for both the experience of outdoor summer cooking while avoiding the difficulties of starting a fire and cleaning up spent coals. Our Philadelphia product liability lawyers explain more below.

However, while grills and cooking will always present a burn risk, propane tanks may add another safety concern for Pennsylvanians to be aware of. That is, propane cylinders store a compressed gas in an enclosed space. If the tank is ruptured, impacted, or otherwise disturbed a violent explosion can result. Propane tanks aren’t just limited to use for outdoor cooking. Some people rely on propane and propane tanks for fuel for their furnace to heat their home or patio, for a clothes dryer, or for a hot water heater. If a tank of stored compressed gas explodes while being used for any of these purposes, catastrophic injuries and even death can result.

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How Many Propane Tank Fires Occur Each Year?

According to Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates, roughly 600 propane tank explosions occur each year. Every accident is different and is the product of the attendant circumstances, so one cannot accurately predict without examining the circumstances present at the accident. However, certain injuries are more likely to occur than others. These injuries include:

  • Severe burns – Burn injuries are always extremely painful. While a first-degree burn or superficial burn only effects the top layer of skin, second and third-degree burns signify that more extensive damage has occurred. Burn injuries can years to fully heal from and cause significant limitations and impairments.
  • Loss of limb – Like a firework or another explosive device, if the propane tank explodes when a person is adjusting the tank or otherwise in close vicinity the loss of fingers, a hand, an arm, or other limbs is possible.
  • Shrapnel injuries – The force of a exploding propane tank can launch debris from the tank itself and surrounding objects into the air. These pieces of metal and other projectiles can cause severe cuts, become lodged in a victim’s eye, or otherwise cause severe injuries.

The foregoing represents only a selection of the injuries that can result due to a propane tank explosion. Many other serious injuries can occur including those injuries that are so severe that death is the result.

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How Do Temperature-Related Propane Tank Explosions Occur?

As a compressed gas, we have long understood the effects temperature, pressure, and agitation can have on the volume of gas. In fact, since at least the late 1700s when Charles’ Law, a scientific law, was discovered we have known that gas volume is directly proportional to its temperature. That is, as temperature increases, the volume of gas increases. Furthermore, we can calculate the effect an increase in temperature can have by applying the ideal gas law. While the ideal gas laws concern a theoretical gas, it can be applied to compressed gases that are stored under pressure like propane to model the effects an increase in temperature would have on the stored gas. The ideal gas law equation to model this relationship can be expressed as PV=nRT where P is the pressure of the gas in atmospheres, V equals the volume, n represents the amount of gas, R is the ideal gas constant, and T represents the temperature. Both an increase in ambient temperature, radiant heat, or the friction created by agitating the tank can increase temperatures resulting in a proportional decrease in density and increase in gas volume. Since the gas is pressurized into an enclosed space, excess pressure will work to find a means of escape to a less energy-rich environment. If sufficient pressure builds, the tank can explode launching fire, shrapnel, and other debris in all directions.

Because propane tanks are regulated and include safety devices to prevent over-filling, the tanks should not be able to explode under typical use or under typical temperatures. However, tanks that are defective or are sold without requisite safety equipment present a real danger to consumers. For instance, these containers could potentially be overfilled if sold in violation of federal safety standards. Furthermore chips, cracks, loose connections, or other damage to the tank itself or the method of delivering the propane gas can also lead to leaks. When the cooking surface ignitor is lit or another spark is present in the area, the escaping gas can ignite. The igniting escaping gas can then spread back to the tank where an explosion is then likely.

Propane Tank Safety Features & Over-Fill Prevention Devices

Since at least 2002 when the CPSC issued a press release alerting consumers, many states and local jurisdictions have required propane tanks to be equipped with over-fill prevention devices. The device works to prevent workers at filling and re-filling facilities from filling the tanks with unsafe levels of propane gas. In many instances workers simply wanted to give consumers the most bang for their buck. However by overfilling the tanks, the pressurized gas within has less room to expand with temperature increases or after agitating the tank. The reduced amount of room for the gas to move around in the tank increases not only the risk for gas leaks to develop, but also violent and unexpected explosions. The over-fill prevention device should limit one’s ability to fill the tank past unsafe levels.

Additionally safety features can be found in the form of industry standards adopted in 1995 at CPSC’s urging. These safety standards included improvements to the hoses and connectors that carry the propane from the tank to the cooking surface. These improved safety features include a regulator to prevent the flow of gas if the connection between the tank and grill is not secure.  Furthermore, the 1995 standard also includes a requirement for a shut-off mechanism should the grill overheat or malfunction. CPSC urges consumers to replace grills that were produced before 1995 or otherwise do not contain important safety features.

Recent Propane Tank Explosion Injury Incidents

Propane tank explosion accidents can occur through a broad array of events and circumstances. Consider the ordeal faced by a Cape May, New Jersey couple whose home was destroyed in a 2013 propane tank explosion.

The couple had agreed to stop using propane and convert their home to natural gas heat. According to the lawsuit filed by the couple, the contractor cut the propane line and turned off the valve, but did not did not secure or mark the valve as a danger. A neighbor noticed that the couple’s valve was off and, thinking they were performing a favor, turned the valve back on. Overnight, gas collected beneath the couple’s home until it began seeping into the basement and accumulated.

When one of the home owners went to take a shower in the morning, the hot water heater kicked on. The spark from the heater’s ignitor met with the propane gas. The ignition of the gas caused an explosion that, according to neighbors, police, and those in the vicinity, could be felt for miles.  One of the home owners suffered severe burns to his legs and feet. The other homeowner also suffered from severe burns and two broken legs. The couple was able to reach a seven-figure settlement where liability was incurred by both the utility company and the company that mishandled deactivating the propane line and valve.

Another example of how a propane tank explosion can occur unexpectedly and without warning, consider the events of a 2013 family barbeque in Fillmore, California. At the barbeque a family member had used a hand-held propane lighter to light the charcoal coals on their grill. The family member then placed the propane lighter down close to the heating grill. According to Fillmore Fire Chief Rigo Landeros, “they sat the propane bottle next to the barbecue and the radiant heat from the barbecue heated up the gases in this hand-held propane bottle. The gasses in this propane bottle expanded to the point it had nowhere to expand and actually…exploded.”

One person suffered a severe, unspecified injury to her neck. One neighbor reported that he heard yelling and screaming. When he looked over his fence he saw, “They were applying pressure to her neck. From what I could see, it didn’t look good. It’s a tragedy.” She later succumb to her injuries. Her husband also suffered catastrophic life-altering injuries. While it is unknown if the husband filed any action for personal injury or wrongful death, the behavior of placing the tank near the grill would likely be an issue. However it may be possible to show that the product manufacturer failed to warn against a foreseeable use and a foreseeable risk.

How to Reduce the Risk of a Propane Explosion

Engaging in fairly straightforward and regular safety inspections and precautions can greatly reduce the risk of a tank explosion and resultant injuries. While no measures are foolproof, the following steps are recommended by CPSC as being effective in preventing or reducing the incidence of gas tank explosions. These measures include:

  • Propane tanks should always be used or stored in while in an upright position.
  • Before use, one should always check the grill for broken, cracked, or worn-out hoses and connectors.
  • Before use, one should check for sharp bends in the tubing that will carry the gas. These sharp bends can impede the flow of gas.
  • Gasoline, lighter fluid, and other flammable liquids should not be stored in the vicinity of the grill.
  • A Tank should never be stored in a hot or extremely hot area. Tanks can explode if left in a car or car trunk while the sun beats down.
  • Gas hoses should always be clear of areas where hot, dripping grease can land.
  • Never bring a propane tank into a living area.
  • Be sure the ignitor is producing a spark consistently over time. Problems with the ignitor can lead to a build-up of gas that will ignite and explode when the ignitor begins functioning again.

Of course, users of a propane tank should also take common sense safety precautions used in cooking to avoid burns and other serious injuries that can occur.

Philadelphia Personal Injury Lawyer for Propane Tank Explosion Injuries in Pennsylvania

If you have been injured by a defective propane tank or a tank that exploded, the experienced personal injury attorneys of The Reiff Law Firm may be able to fight for you. To schedule a free and confidential consultation with a trusted Philadelphia firm, call us at (215) 246-9000 today.

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