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Propane Tank Explosions: Is Your Food Truck Safe?

August 13, 2018

Their humble roots began with plastic-wrapped bagels, baked goods and sandwiches.

Today, food trucks line city streets, and are a staple at college campuses, carnivals, festivals and fairs. In 2017, there were estimated to be more than 4,000 food trucks in the U.S., many of which are using liquid propane to power grills and appliances that cook up both casual and sophisticated cuisine.

While the use of liquid propane is quite common, when not handled and stored correctly the result can be a catastrophic explosion that causes horrific injuries and death to truck operators, employees, customers and bystanders.

On Aug. 12, a father and his adult son had to be flown to a hospital that specializes in burns after a food truck explosion in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Other recent food truck propane explosions include:

Recent food truck propane explosions include:

  • March 2018: The founder of Taco Bus food trucks in Florida sustained burn injuries over 25 percent of his body when he went to light a pilot light on his new food trailer, and the propane exploded.
  • March 2018: A woman was hospitalized after an explosion at a crepes and waffles food truck in Beaverton, Oregon. Rescue workers said the incident, which occurred in the morning, was likely an accidental propane explosion. One official said that if the explosion had happened during the noon hour with many customers around, the number of people injured would likely have been greater.
  • October 2017: A food cart exploded in Portland, Oregon, when a food cart employee spilled gasoline while refilling a generator. Two propane tanks ruptured during the ensuing fire, which spread to a second food truck and damaged 10 nearby cars. Several people sustained minor injuries.
  • November 2016: Three employees of a food truck selling falafel near George Washington University were seriously injured when the truck caught fire. As part of their investigation of the incident, officials said they would examine the fuel lines from propane tanks and generators feeding into the truck.
  • July 2014: A food truck operator in Philadelphia and her daughter died when a 100-pound propane cylinder mounted on the back of her truck exploded with the force of a bomb. It was determined that the tank ruptured because U-Haul, the liquid propane dispenser, had disregarded essential and legally required safety procedures when it filled the cylinder. Several others sustained devastating burn injuries as a result of the explosion.

As food trucks proliferate across the U.S., they must meet the different permit and licensing requirements imposed by each state, county and city. But when it comes to the safety of the trucks’ propane cylinders, in addition to local laws, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has promulgated standards to ensure that the cylinders are in safe condition to receive liquid propane and that they are properly and safely filled. The U.S. Department of Transportation has adopted the NFPA standards as part of its federal regulations, making them applicable throughout the country.

Below is some basic information about propane safety that all food truck operators must know in order to protect themselves, their employees, their customers and bystanders from catastrophic accidents.

How Do I Know If a Propane Cylinder Is in a Safe Condition to Receive Liquid Propane?

By law, an entity dispensing liquid propane must first inspect the propane cylinder that the customer wishes to refill to ensure that it is safe to fill and use. Cylinders that to the naked eye show evidence of dents, rust or fire damage are unsafe and should not be used.

Additionally, when a propane cylinder is manufactured, it is required by law to be stamped with the month and year of manufacture. Thereafter, it must be requalified, and stamped as such, within 12 years, and thereafter every 5, 7 or 12 years, depending upon the prior method by which the cylinder was qualified. Cylinders that are out of qualification cannot be lawfully refilled.

Why Do Propane Cylinders Explode?

One reason why propane cylinders explode is that they are overfilled, meaning there is inadequate vapor space to allow the liquid to expand in the cylinder when temperatures rise (liquid propane expands 17 times more than water when heated to the same temperature).  Other reasons for propane cylinder explosions include faulty or missing pressure relief devices and compromised propane cylinders.

What Is a Safe Level for Filling a Propane Tank?

By law, propane cylinders with a capacity for propane of 40 lbs. through 100 lbs. must never be filled to greater than 80 percent of the volume capacity. This fill limitation is to provide sufficient vapor space to permit the liquid propane to safely expand within the cylinder.

How Is Overfilling Prevented?

There are two methods for filling liquid propane cylinders:

  • Fill by volume
  • Fill by weight

In the fill by volume method, the cylinder must be equipped with a fixed maximum level gauge, also known as a “spitter” or “bleeder” valve. This gauge has a dip tube that descends into the cylinder and terminates at the 80 percent volume fill level. When the liquid level of propane reaches the open end of the dip tube, liquid propane is forced through the valve, resulting in visible evidence that the cylinder is at 80 percent capacity.

In the fill by weight method, the entity dispensing liquid propane weighs the tank on a scale to determine when the filled tank reaches 80 percent of capacity.

What Happens If a Propane Cylinder Is Accidentally Overfilled?

By law, every cylinder presented for refilling must have a functioning pressure relief valve. This crucial safety device allows propane vapor to be released in the event of an overfill condition. Without the valve, there is no way to reduce pressure, and as ambient temperatures climb, the liquid propane will expand and increase pressure on the cylinder’s walls. This can result in the cylinder exploding with the deadly force of a bomb.

Beside Cylinders Exploding, Are There Other Dangers Associated with Liquid Propane?

Yes. Propane is highly flammable when it mixes with air and comes in contact with an ignition source.

Therefore, food truck operators should check their propane hoses to make sure they are not brittle and that they do not have any holes, rips or tears. Operators should also perform a leak check between where the propane cylinder and hose join with the regulator. This is done by spraying soapy water in the area with a spray bottle. The appearance of bubbles indicates a leak.

What Happens If I Have Been Injured By a Food Truck Explosion or If a Member of My Family Has Been Injured or Killed?

The lawyers at Feldman Shepherd Wohlgelernter Tanner Weinstock & Dodig LLP are pursuing personal injury claims for victims of food truck explosions. The lawsuits filed on behalf of victims and families seek damages for wrongful death, medical bills, loss of earning potential, pain and suffering, and loss of the pleasures of life.

Feldman Shepherd attorneys recently represented the Estates of a Philadelphia food truck operator and her daughter in connection with a catastrophic propane cylinder explosion that occurred due to U-Haul’s failure to observe essential and legally required safety procedures, including filling a cylinder that was not properly requalified and lacked a functioning pressure relief valve and a fixed maximum level gauge. The settlement amount of $160 million for the victims, including two women who sustained burn injuries, is believed to be the largest pretrial settlement in Pennsylvania history.

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