Related Practices

Danger Lurks in the Form of a Propane Grill

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Manufacturers to place warning stickers on new grills.
Kenneth Howe - Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle


Each year almost 2,000 gas grills erupt in flames, injuring about 300 people, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Some accidents happen when unwitting consumers store spare propane tanks - often dangerously overfilled - under their grills. The peril: Gas from the extra tanks can leak out, ignite and create fireball.

Despite the human toll, manufacturers - who sell more than 4 million propane grills annually - have been reluctant to put highly visible warnings on grills and propane tanks. They say accidents caused by exploding canisters are rare and that many instruction manuals tell consumers not to put spare tanks under grills.

In the summer of 1993, Robert Rapier was tending a neighbor's propane grill during a church cookout in Byron in eastern Contra Costa County.

"I was just flipping the meat when suddenly there was this explosion," said Rapier. "I felt the most excruciating pain and I looked down and saw that my skin was charred. I remember I could hear my skin sizzle."

Rapier suffered second-and third-degree burns on his legs from the 3600-degree fireball that shot out 16 feet, scorching the deck and eaves of the home he was visiting.

Rapier, who blames the spare tank under his grill, is suing the Thermos Co., manufacturer of his grill, and the Worthington Cylinder Co., which made the spare propane cylinder. Both companies deny responsibility for the accident.

In the future, such accidents may become less common. A series of unpublicized legal settlements will require manufacturers to place warning stickers on grill and propane tanks telling consumers not to let service stations overfill their spare propane tanks and not to store extra tanks under the grill.

Companies agreeing to the new warning include grill manufacturers Sunbeam Oster Corp., Weber-Stephen Products Co., the Themos Co., the Ducane Co. and the W.C Bradley Co., which makes Char-Broil grills. Sears, Roebuck, the largest propane grill retailer, has also agreed to apply warning stickers, as has propane canister maker Manchester Tank & Equipment Co.

"We're perfectly willing to start using the warning stickers, though these accidents have not been a big problem for the company: said Gary Anderson, an attorney for W.C. Bradley. He said the grill maker knew of only one spare-tank accident involving its product.

San Rafael attorney Robert Mills, who sued the big grill and cylinder makers on behalf of seven plaintiffs, noted that the new warnings apply mostly to new grills sold.

"It doesn't really solve the problem for those who own the estimated 50 million propane grills out there," he said.

Liquid propane for gas grills is stored under pressure in cylinders that can hold up to 5 gallons of propane. The gas stations and propane dealers who refill the canisters are supposed to stop at 80 percent of capacity, about 4.7 gallons. But LP/Gas magazine reported finding that propane operators overfilled one-third of all cylinders tested.

An overfilled spare canister is a problem because when exposed to heat from the grill, the liquid propane expands and can spew out through a pressure-release valve. When the gas hits the burning flame, it ignites.

(This is not a problem with the operating canister because gas is being released in a controlled manner through the grill flame.)

In June 1989, Linda Gomez of Madera was barbecuing hamburgers on her porch when the overfilled spare tank she stored under the grill ignited.

Suddenly I was standing in the middle of a fireball," said Gomez, who suffered second-and third-degree burns on her hands and legs. As she ran from the porch her hair on fire, the flaming propane canister tipped over igniting her house, which eventually burned to the ground.

Mills said manufacturers have tacitly encouraged their customers to store canisters under the grill by providing extra space alongside the canisters in use. In many store displays, the spare cylinder is placed next to the operating one, he added. And manufacturers have been aware of the problem for years.

Mills said the Consumer Product Safety Commission "has been asleep at the switch on this one, too." He pointed to a 1986 study, commissioned by the CPSC, that highlighted the dangers of gas canisters.

W. Alan Bullerdiek, the private consultant hired by the CPSC to do the study, make several recommendations back in 1986: design grill carts so they can't hold a spare cylinder; print warning against the practice on the grill; and install "stop-fill"; valves on canisters to prevent them from being overfilled.

Bullerdiek said uniform safety measures were not adopted because the CPSC generally relies on the American National Standards Institute to come up with guidelines. But the institute, which is run by industry groups, could never agree on a new set of safety standards.

Critics say manufacturers were afraid that strong warning would scare customers away from buying propane grills and spare cylinders.

But now, as a result of the legal settlements, Manchester Tank has agreed to sell new cylinders with "stop-fill" valves by November of 1997. Most grill manufacturers have agreed to redesign their barbecues so that storing an extra tank underneath is impossible. Within the next few months they also will put warning stickers on both grills and tanks.

However, one of the biggest propane cylinder manufacturers has refused to go along with the settlement. Worthington Cylinder Corp. attorney Richard Urgo said his company, based in Columbus, Ohio, knows of only seven cases of burns from spare cylinders in the past 10 years. He added that consumers already are adequately informed about the dangers associated with propane canisters by the warning label on the cylinders.

"Our objection is that the stickers being proposed highlight two specific hazards." said Urgo. "Our fear is that consumers will focus on these and not read the rest of the warning label, which tells them of other dangers," such as not to store the canisters in an enclosed space, or where children can reach them.