Propane – Butane or LPG – what are the differences/benefits/disadvantages? Well first of all Propane will burn at a lower temperature than Butane so much better if you use your caravan or camper van in winter. Butane is only used in summer months or to be fair Spring, Summer and Autumn in this country.
This article relates only to vapour systems and not liquid systems as all campervans use vapour LPG for domestic appliances and where LPG is used to fuel converted generators these will in most cases still use vapour LPG. Liquid LPG systems are used mainly (in this context) when a petrol engine as fitted in a car/truck/van is converted to run on LPG as its main source of fuel.
LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) or in France Autogas is a Propane derivative and is really a mixture of Butane and Propane with a few additives that is used in cars/trucks that have been converted to run on gas. The real problem for UK based travellers is that there is no European wide standard for gas bottles or regulators so each country has its own supply network that issues its own type of bottle of varying sizes using a whole range of different threads and pipe sizes on its bottles. There is an attempt to standardise on regulators but this is not a legal requirement only a recommendation.
During our caravanning years we had to make sure we left home with two full Propane bottles as we didn’t want to get into a situation where we needed to buy a European gas bottle, regulator or flexible pipes etc. and then have to dump it once we returned home. Sometimes you needed to dispose of it before boarding the ferry or tunnel as there are regulations regarding the number of bottles/storage you can carry. It didn’t really become an issue for us as we only went on holiday for up to two weeks at a time, mainly (almost exclusively) used camp sites and EHU for the fridge. The problems arose during winter when the maximum amperage precluded the use of electric for heating the vans due to sites imposing a 3 amp maximum so your precious gas had to cover heating and BBQ’ing. This is less of an issue these days as more and more European camp sites offer 10 or even 16 amp supply – at varying costs though
On our first camper van, a Dethleffs i7850 Espirit we changed the propane bottles for two Gaslow bottles with a filler attachment and found this to be excellent and decided this was the way to go. The major benefits to us were that we didn’t need to disconnect the bottles and carry them to the dealer and LPG is much cheaper than exchanging Propane bottles on a ltr per ltr basis. Thirdly when travelling throughout Europe we didn’t have to waste gas by changing half empty bottles to ensure we carried full bottles at the start and finally we could re-fill the bottles anywhere throughout Europe and any of the thousands of service stations that sell LPG. The only note of caution is Spain where LPG sites are few and far between. That said as time goes on there is an increasing number of sites in Spain that now sell LPG. On the same theme of gas bottle fittings there is no standardisation on LPG fittings either so you do need to carry a couple of converters with you. There are three converters – one for France, One for Italy and one for the rest of Europe. Total cost of around £7.
When we exchanged our Dethleffs for the N+B Flair it came with an under slung LPG tank that was even better than the Gaslow bottles. I say better because it meant that our dedicated gas locker was empty and we could use it for other items. Under slung tanks come in a variety of sizes and can be fitted to suit space and payload availability. Tanks will help to increase payload if you swap two Propane bottles for a single tank of similar capacity. But that’s not what we had in mind as we have plenty of available payload – our emphasis is on self sufficiency. The Flair is a large van and has a large internal volume and as we use it throughout the year the original tank only gave us around 22 days in winter so we had a second tank fitted – The original one is a 70 ltr tank and the additional is a 100 ltr tank. This allows us to remain off grid for weeks at a time – even in winter.
To sum up our experiences with our LPG set up I would say it has been well worth having an LPG tank or even Gaslow set up. The expense of fitting the extra tank has been a real help though I accept it was not essential. LPG does work out much much cheaper than refilling Propane bottles and it does eliminate the worry of running out of gas while touring on the continent. Over the past 5 years I would think that we have covered the cost of fitting the extra tank (remember the original tank was on the Flair when we bought it) as we probably buy some 150 ltrs each year at an average cost of 45p per ltr whereas the cost of bottle Propane is approximately £1.50 per ltr so over 5 years we have saved roughly £600 against a cost of the second tank of £320 and we haven’t had to carry the propane bottles an inch. We have been able to travel all around Europe without worry and even into Spain we simply topped up near the border and with 170 ltrs on board were able to travel without worry.
In conclusion if you regularly travel to Europe and use your camper all year round then either Gaslow refillable bottles or an under slung tank will pay dividends in the long term. If you change your camper every year or two then you can always change the Gaslow bottles over – you can even change the under slung tank over though that would depend on the available space of your replacement camper.
Update: In February 2012 we were in the South of France during the cold snap that affected the whole of Europe and we discovered a fault in our set up. With temperatures plummeting to minus 15 at night our second LPG tank gave the indication of being empty after only 4 days, necessitating the changeover to the original tank. The reason? Our regulator had frozen. When the original tank was fitted the regulator had a ice warning LED and heater fitted, but the new tank and regulator didn’t and it froze. A simple job of turning the valve to the other tank and we were back on full steam. Moral of story – If you intend to use your camper in winter, regulators can benefit if insulated or better still fit a regulator with a heater. That said the guy next to us had bigger problems – his diesel froze…..To put this into context – this is the first time in over 25 years that a regulator has frozen so it isn’t the end of the world but is a timely reminder to address some of these details. It was also another testament to the excellent thermal qualities of our Flair as all the British built camper vans on our location suffered from frozen tanks, valves and pipework while the Flair remained frost free. Even in 2012 many UK builders still don’t protect their vans against freezing.
Finally a comment from one of the sales guys at Auto Trail when we visited the NEC exhibition in 2012 and we were asking why Auto Trail didn’t protect their tanks and pipework. – Here is his classic reply –
“We have listened to our customers and they have told us they don’t want their pipes lagged or protected as they would rather have a better payload” – what utter nonsense.