The Propane Project and The Joy of Not Blowing Up

When last I posted about this topic I’d reached out to Ballard Sheet Metal to fabricate two custom brackets I intended to use to mount a pair of 20lb propane tanks on the stern of Miss Teak. I was contacted last Friday and told they’d be ready this Friday, a week later. Monday afternoon however, Greg contacted me to let me know the parts were ready for pickup. Felt like Christmas morning…the kind of Christmas morning where you pay Santa over $300 bucks before he hands over your presents.

One of two finished propane mounting brackets.

Nonetheless I was excited about the end product. In addition to the speed of service, the quality of the fabrication is exceptional. They are not anodized. I’d contacted a local company to get a quote on anodization and was told it could be done for ~$150 apiece. I will not be anodizing these brackets any time soon. 😐 Sure Marine provided the tanks, the stainless steel straps, hoses, brass tees, propane and advice.

Here’s the tanks dry fitted on the stern.

Miss Teak has jet packs!

Here’s the assembly I’m using for the tanks.

The connection assembly.

I’ve got three shutoff valves. One for each tank and one for the high pressure outlet for the BBQ. The valve on the BBQ outlet is redundant since it automatically cuts off the gas when the hose is disconnected. I figure better safe than sorry since it wouldn’t be the first time a component designed not to fail has failed. In fact, the other two valves which shut off the incoming propane from each of the incoming tanks are equally redundant since I could simply turn the valve knob at the tanks to shut off gas from an individual tank if need be. A single pressure gauge facilitates leak testing (more on that later). The high pressure shutoff solenoid below the BBQ outlet is wired to a Xintex controller mounted in the galley which is in turn wired to two gasoline/propane sniffers to warn us if any gasoline or propane is accumulating in the boat and shut off the propane automagically should this occur. Currently I’m still trying to determine the best location to permanently mount each of the two sniffers. Finally, two hoses lead back to the two appliances consuming propane in the cabin. Specifically our older 70’s-era 3 burner stove / oven and our new Dickinsen bulkhead mounted heater.  You’ll note I’ve given each appliance it’s own low pressure regulator.  This is recommended by ABYC standards but plenty of people get away with running more than one appliance off of a single regulator.  The potential problem is when all appliances are at full throttle, one may be starved for propane.  Depending on the appliance this could pose a hazard.  However as mentioned, most people are just fine getting by with one.  Since I’m building this from scratch and I have the room behind one of the tanks on the stern to mount this assembly I went with one regulator for each appliance as per the recommendation. With two 20lb tanks costing less than $30 to fill together at Sure Marine we’re interested to see how long we’ll get by with the heater running as often as needed and the stove and oven used to cook most of our meals daily.

Speaking of our heater, Dan from Emerald Harbor Marine came Tuesday afternoon to drill a hole in the deck for the chimney vent used by the heater.

Dan from Emerald Harbor Marine installs my heater's chimney.

I was comfortable with all the other details of the install but I couldn’t bring myself to drill a 3 inch hole through our boat’s 40 year old skin. Looking back I can see now I would have been able to handle it myself just fine however with Dan’s experience and a little bit of sunshine peeking through the clouds we got it done within an hour or so. Had I done the work myself I’d have second guessed every step and spent far too much time looking up every step on Google and in books to ensure I wasn’t going to regret the next step. I’m certain it would have taken me 10 times as long since I’d never done it before. Dan was fast, the work was stellar and most importantly he shared with me everything he was doing along with why it was being done. I feel like I came away with more than a chimney install, I came away with some imparted knowledge which alone was worth cost of having someone help me with this step.

After the heater was mounted I wired it up along with the propane controller, solenoid and sniffers. The brass fittings needed to be tightened and the fittings that were threaded needed Teflon added. Fittings sealed with a flare, o-ring or compression fitting should not use Teflon since the seal on these fittings is accomplished by metal on metal contact. Adding Teflon to these fittings introduces the potential the Teflon will get on this metal and prevent a solid seal. After using a couple of wrenches to tighten all the fittings as much as I could keeping in mind not to over tighten it was time to turn on the gas and conduct a pressure test for leaks.

Pressure testing for leaks should be done often. Very often. As often as you care about not having a leak and blowing up, assuming that’s something you care about. Since the test takes only a few minutes one would be prudent to test every single time the gas is turned on. Contrary to some articles and forum posts I’ve found online, the way to test for leaks does NOT involve waving a lighter around the fittings unless you have a keen desire to experience Darwinism first hand, then by all means…:-|.

The correct procedure is simple, utilizes your pressure gauge and is thus:

  • Turn on the propane by activating the solenoid switch in the galley (or wherever you have it mounted).
  • Turn on an appliance, for example a stove burner.
  • Turn off the appliance however leave the solenoid switch turned on.
  • Go to your propane locker or wherever your pressure gauge is and note the reading. In my case it read exactly 100psi. If you don’t think you can remember the reading for 3 whole minutes. Write it down.
  • Now leaving everything else as is, close the valves on the tank(s) to shut off the gas from the tank(s).
  • Wait 3 minutes.
  • Read the pressure gauge again.
  • If the pressure reads the same, wait another 15 minutes and read it one more time.
  • If there is no change in pressure you can be confident you are leak free.

If, however, the pressure has dropped in any amount then you’ve got yourself a propane leak and you must hunt it down. Mix some water with some dishwashing liquid and apply it to every fitting. Wait and watch.

I’d like to be able to report after a long evening of cutting and crimping wires, applying Teflon to all the fittings, a considerable effort tightening every one of the fittings and triple checking each, running wires and hoses through the belly of Miss Teak and standing in the cockpit with a headlamp on assembling everything together in the cold midnight rain culminated in a non-eventful leak test ending with me firing up the stove to fry a pork chop and punctuating a successful installation basking in the delightful flicker of the Dickinson heater’s flame while I ate my chop next to my pretty wife in exhausted victory.

This I would like to be able to report. Alas, it was not to be so.

I’ve never actually had to test something for leaks using soapy water although I’d read of the technique before in other topic areas such as testing bike tires for air leaks. Since I had no hands on experience with the method I wasn’t sure what to expect. I imagined myself having to peer, my face mere inches away from each fitting to hunt for teeny tiny bubbles sending miniature frothy SOS signals to signify the presence of escaping gas. I was beyond surprised after using a pastry brush to paint the soapy water across all the fixtures. Giant bubbles of propane began forming before my eyes. Like the kind of bubbles you see little kids standing inside of at the municipal science center demonstrations. Ok, maybe not that big but they were pretty big. They’d grow quickly with drops of rain shooting harmlessly in one side and out the other before some random drop would finally succeed in executing the bubble in a soapy burst of propane stink. Immediately another would begin growing in it’s place like a mythological Hydra who had too many beans for dinner. After three minutes, the gauge read 50psi.

Much like the rain-darted bubbles, I was deflated. What followed was another hour of wrench tightening, three minute tests, colorful language aimed at inanimate brass fittings and enough bubbles to fill a washing machine. Again, like the fabled Hydra, slaying one set of bubbles meant two more bubble heads would grow in its place at another fitting. Eventually persistence paid off, the bubbles got smaller and after three minutes the gauge read 100psi. I’ll be honest here, although I really wanted to enjoy the delayed satisfaction of waiting out the full 15 additional minutes I indulged myself at 12 minutes and rejoiced at seeing the gauge holding steady at 100psi. For safety’s sake I used my soapy solution on the fittings attached to the stove and heater to ensure no gas sneaking by inside and then went out in the rain one last time to look at the unchanged gauge.

The Dickinson was fired up and the initials waves of radiation were immediately absorbed by Melbourne’s solar panel sized ears.

Melbourne soaking up the heat.

Shortly after 2 AM, I fried up a couple of pork chops on the now safe stove and chowed down with my beautiful wife in front of the romantic glow of our new heater. Although the heater did a great job of toasting the cabin’s interior I was warmed more by the satisfaction of finishing up this marathon install without blowing anything or anyone up.   Always a good conclusion to a boat project.  I’ve still got a few minor details to wrap up. The brackets need a couple of pairs of holes for u-bolts to attach to the stern rails to prevent lateral motion while underway. The regulator assembly needs a more permanent attachment to the rails as well. A zip tie currently fills the role but another u-bolt may get the final job. As mentioned previously I still need to find a permanent home for the leak detection sniffers. I’ll have those tasks done in short time along with pictures. For now, we’re warm and confident in the safety of our new system.

The glow of victory. 😛

The Propane Project

Miss Teak uses propane for her stove/oven. The previous owner had a somewhat dangerous setup for his propane locker which he used for a couple of years. The 10 pound tank was in a home built wooden box under the starboard cockpit lazarette. It was not watertight and it didn’t vent overboard. Any propane leaks would have spilled directly into the bilge beneath the engine’s gasoline tank awaiting a boat ending spark.

In all honesty we did use the existing setup during our weekend sails over the past year before baby came. Once we moved aboard with the boy and the baby we said no way and disconnected the whole system. So now we have a non-operational stove and I’ve dismantled the wooden box.

After consulting with Dan from Emerald Harbor Marine I’ve decided to mount two 20 lb tanks on the outside of the stern rail. At the same time I’ll be installing a Dickensen bulkhead mounted propane heater in anticipation of propane being our primary source of heat and cooking fuel this winter and whenever we’re hanging off the hook (did I mention we no longer have an anchor? blake island’s kelp fields stole it from us). The tanks will lead to the stove, the heater and our Magma BBQ also mounted on the stern rail. I’ll have two sniffers in the bilge sniffing for both propane and gasoline which will shut off the gas if propane somehow manages to leak aboard. A separate switch mounted in the galley will control turning the propane on or off as needed.

Running the hoses and wires for all this is fairly straightforward however one problem remains: How do we mount two large propane tanks on our stern rail? I looked all over and couldn’t find any commercially available brackets for tanks that large. Turns out Sure Marine, a local marine propane shop, used to sell such things but they stopped doing so due to lack of demand. Rick from Sure Marine was kind enough to share with me the concept of their old design and with that in mind I contacted Greg at Ballard Sheet Metal and asked for a quote to fabricate a couple of brackets for me out of quarter-inch thick anodized aluminum. While I await his response I figured I’d share the drawing I put together and sent to him.

The idea is for the tank to sit on the bracket and the bracket to lay against the outside of the stern rail. The 4 slits will fit a pair of stainless steel bands which will hold the tank snug against the bracket and the bracket against the stern stanchion. I’ll drill two pairs of holes down the center line so I can use a pair of u-bolts to further secure the bracket to the stanchion. I’ll also drill some holes towards the top to secure the regulator, pressure gauge and solenoid devices. I’ll still need to come up with a solution to protect the hardware from the weather. I’m guessing we’ll have to figure out how to sew up some canvas to cover the whole setup.

Anyhow, once I get it all installed and configured I’ll post again to detail how it all worked out. Wish us luck!

Completing the Move to LED Lighting

I enjoyed the light produced by the two cabin lights I installed recently so much that I couldn’t wait to get the rest installed. The cabin looks great with the light produced by these units. I only have one more to replace over the galley counter since Fisheries didn’t have the item I was looking for today. Other than that the rest of the interior is bathed in either cool white light or warm night vision preserving red light. Here’s the view towards our v-berth.

Now I’m off to fall asleep to the sound of the rain.


Initiating a Move to LED Lighting

The light in our head hasn’t worked since we bought Miss Teak. Neither has the cabin light on the port side of the v-berth which happens to be the same side of the boat as the head. After doing some reading and using my multi-meter to trace the issue which I’d thought was going to be a short in the wire which both of these lights share I discovered the problem with both was simply bad switches.

I’d already promised myself to swap out the cabin lights to lower consumption, longer lasting LED lights once they died but due to the cost of wholesale replacement I knew I’d have to do it piecemeal. Since our fancy new Type I waste treatment system was finally installed having a light in the head was going to be a key piece of necessary equipment for nighttime visits. We’d been getting by with a battery powered work lamp up until now. Since I was replacing that light I figured I may as well replace the non-working v-berth light as well. I found these stainless steel LED lights at Fisheries Supply which have both white and red LEDs.

Now the head and the v-berth are brightly lit when needed:

The red light is for use during night voyages when you don’t want to ruin your night vision.

One more project initiated. These two lights look so good when lit I’m considering just replacing the other 5 asap. A few other projects are currently higher priority so asap may not be soon.

How to Poop in the Ocean

When we bought Miss Teak at the end of last spring we knew the previous owner had her head plumbed to go directly overboard. For those of you who aren’t hip to boat terminology the “head” is boat speak for the toilet. In the United States, it’s against the law to dump black water within 3 nautical miles of shore. Although this is against the law many boaters choose to ignore this for convenience and to save money and effort to the debatable detriment of the marine environment. This wasn’t a big deal last year when we were going on day sails or short overnights when a bucket on deck was a simple solution for short stays. Just like a camping trip!

Once we made the decision to move aboard we knew we’d have to find a remedy. During these first few weeks it’s gotten REALLY old REALLY quick for all of us walking in the late winter wet weather the 100 yards or so to the marina bathroom facilities EVERY time we have to go. We’d have to bundle up, put on a raincoat, put on a life vest, get the dog collared up since it’s an ideal time to let him stretch his legs each trip and make our way through the weather (sometimes urgently) to get to the toilet. Replacing the head system very quickly shot to the top of our project list.

Most people think the only solution is what the Coast Guard refers to as a Type III marine sanitation device (MSD). This consists of some sort of holding tank which is plumbed to the head and which is periodically pumped out at a pump out station when it gets full. I should note the pump facility then submits the waste to the municipal treatment center which then (hopefully) treats the waste before transferring it directly into, you guessed it, the ocean. A y-valve exists in the head plumbing system to allow waste to be directed overboard when beyond 3 nautical miles from shore however the Coast Guard requires you to have the valve locked in the holding tank position when within that distance threshold.

On our boat, there is a location under our v-berth, where my pretty wife and I sleep, suitable for a holding tank. To put it simply, the common solution is to put a big tank of sloshing waste water under our bed which we store until it gets full at which point we either pump it out ourselves or pay someone to do it for us. If properly installed with quality hoses and connections, theoretically speaking, any smells or problems should be minimal or non-existent. However there is a level of maintenance that comes with this setup to ensure this remains the case. Additionally, as mentioned, there’s a level of effort with periodic pump-outs else you can choose to pay for the convenience of having a professional service come handle the pump-out for you.

One of our mottos during this transition to boat life has been to simplify as much as a possible whenever possible. To this end I began researching options.

Given that the most common option for boaters is a Type III MSD, one naturally wonders what a Type I and Type II might be. Turns out they’re both essentially the same thing albeit for different size boats. Type I and II devices are flow through devices which essentially disinfect the waste and macerate it (mush it up 😐 ) so no visible solids are left behind before sending the whole sanitized lot is sent over board. No holding tank, no pump-outs, just environmentally friendly treatment before sending the waste over board. The difference between Type I and II is that Type I is for vessels under 65′ in length. Type II is for boats of any size however are typically more complex, larger, (think expensive) systems reserved for large yachts and cruise ships.

Here’s some information from the EPA explaining the difference.

Another option are composting toilets made especially for boats. These are technically classified as Type III devices since they have a holding tank to keep the waste while the composting reactions are taking place. The benefit of these beyond the environmental aspects is the lack of pump-outs. You need only remove the disease free compost made from solids periodically while dumping liquids separately. No pump-outs but it seems to me one is trading one level of effort for another. In addition to this it means swapping out our existing head with another and drilling a vent hole through our deck to allow composting gases to escape. The thought of drilling more holes through our boat makes my ass twitch.

There aren’t a ton of Type I devices for smaller boats but luckily Raritan makes one which has been in use on boats for the past 30 years although it’s a little pricey. We are very quickly learning when it comes to boat life, everything of true quality which will drastically increase our safety, peace of mind or quality of life tends to be pricey. It works by mixing the waste with salt water then running an electrical charge through the whole mess which converts the salt water to a type of chlorine. A macerator removes solids before converting the liquid back to salt water and then the sanitized waste gets flushed overboard next time the head is flushed. A report from the EPA testing this device shows traces of bacteria from the treated waste range from non-detected to more than 99.99% removed. In many cases, this is far better treated than most municipal treatment centers. Awesome. Since we’re already plumbed directly overboard it means removing the hose leading overboard and attaching it to the device and then adding another hose from the device back to the overboard thru-hull. A little bit of electrical wiring and we’re done.

After weighing our options and recognizing that any improvements we make to Miss Teak are improvements to our home we made the decision to go with the Raritan Electro-Scan device on Friday and by this evening I’ve got it finally installed.

The evening is filled with little joyous moments when we know we have to go to the bathroom and the dread of having to depart the boat begins to creep over us before we’re flooded with realizing we can now use our fully functioning and legal head on our little floating home.

Smart Plugs and Preventing a Fire

Our boat gets power from our marina’s dockside power outlet. A 30 amp shoreside power cord plugs into a single 30 amp inlet installed on our boat. When attempting to plug in today which just so happens to be the day we’re moving aboard from our apartment I had a look at the inlet and discovered this:

This type of charring can occur for a variety of reasons including but not limited to foreign materials (dirt, moisture, etc) on the prongs, a loose connection, or not having the plug fully seated. Prolonged electrical arcing or increased resistance raises the temperature. When prolonged high watt appliances are used (think multiple space heaters) the heat generated can melt an inlet (see above) and is one of the top reasons for boat fires at the dock.

Smart Plugs are designed to eliminate these risks by uniquely seating themselves snugly in the custom inlet and maximizing the contact area with the prongs. I read about them at the recent boat show and given that I’m about to move my family aboard which includes our son and infant I’ve to install one before flipping on the electrical breaker on board. One problem preventing a quick install is that the previous owner had the inlet installed with different sized screws through the plastic fitting. The Smart Plug housing is stainless steel and works with screws smaller than the existing holes. So tonight I’ve epoxied the holes shut so I can drill new holes through the repaired deck. Because the nights here in Seattle are still very cold we’re staying at a hotel tonight to allow the epoxy to dry. Tomorrow I’ll install the Smart Plug and we should be back in business with some good ole’ electricity.

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