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The Preferred Fuel for the Food Truck Kitchen: Propane

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Running a mobile kitchen? Here’s a rundown on how to keep your propane tanks running smoothly — so you can keep your customers safe and happy.

Operating a food truck can be an exciting opportunity to grow a small business and contribute to the community. When using propane tanks, that opportunity also comes with a tremendous responsibility. Our aim is to support you in your business — by providing you with the right information, resources, and service, to keep things safe while using propane on your food truck.

The food truck opportunity.

You might be a mobile restaurant pro or turning your food truck dream into a reality. Either way, you’re in good company: Over the past 10 years, the food truck industry has gained prominence in the community landscape and in the economy. Nationwide sales from food trucks increased from $660.5 million in 2012 to $1.2 billion in 2017 — a bump of 79 percent . Some cite the recession of 2008 with the rise in popularity , as food trucks moved from lunch spots at construction sites to a broader appeal in urban commercial areas. Traditional restaurateurs, existing food truck establishments, and enterprising individuals looking for new opportunities took to the streets with an expanding menu of mobile food options — from tacos to kimchi to waffles and cupcakes.

Looking into the 2020s, the trend continues. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million people left their jobs in April 2021. And the Census Bureau reports that as of May 2021, 2.5 million new business applications had been filed for that year — more than half of all the businesses established in 2020. Many of those may well be mobile food operations. For entrepreneurs in a rapidly changing economic and social landscape, the food truck has proven to be a business that can endure uncertainty and change while satisfying new, more mobile and socially distanced entertainment choices.

Opportunity and responsibility.

But, to borrow a phrase from Spider-Man’s playbook, with great potential comes great responsibility. Food trucks require at least as much attentiveness to safety as a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and you’ll need to get yourself and any employees up to speed on how to prevent and respond to emergencies. Nowhere is this more important than when using propane on your mobile eatery. Here, we’ve provided a menu of pro tips for using propane with your food truck.

Why propane?

Just as in any kitchen, appliances are available in a variety of fuel options: electric, natural gas, propane, and so on. Here are the main reasons to consider propane:

  • Propane is efficient. Propane heats faster and lasts longer than other sources, such as natural gas, making it an excellent choice for the mobile kitchen. Stoves and other equipment that operate with propane can remain in continuous operation during a long festival day or rush hours and can fire up quickly for the odd customer during slow periods.
  • Propane is powerful. Propane’s efficiency speaks to its power. That means it’s reliable, but it also means you’re carrying a big responsibility. Handled incorrectly, propane tanks can expose workers, customers, and bystanders to dangerous safety risks — risks that can be avoided with proper tank maintenance and supervision.

We recommend… Taking advantage of propane’s heating power and efficiency! Another bonus: Its low to no exhaust is super customer friendly. Just make sure you and your food truck staff are properly trained on how to safely use propane.


What size tank(s) should I use?

Whether you’re just setting up your first truck, adding to a fleet, or converting from another fuel source, you’ll need to do some calculations to determine how much propane your mobile kitchen needs to stay fired up. Of course, tank size is limited to some extent by the size of your vehicle, but here are some rules of thumb:

  • Figure out the total BTU requirement of your appliances. Add up the BTU numbers of all the propane-using appliances on the truck. Say you have two fryers that can run at 90,000 BTU each. That’s 180,000 BTU.
  • Find out how long you can operate at 100 percent. Take that BTU number and divide it into the BTU capacity of the propane tank you’re considering. For example, a 40-pound propane tank has a capacity of about 860,542 BTU; that number divided by 180,000 (your two fryers) is 4.78. T hat’s the number of hours you can run your appliances continuously, at full capacity, on that one tank of propane.
  • Determine your operating schedule and the truck’s carrying capacity. You don’t want to interrupt your operation to have your tanks refilled. At the same time, the size of your propane tank is somewhat limited by your vehicle’s size, weight, and design.

We recommend… Consulting an expert. A propane technician who specializes in commercial and mobile propane tank requirements will be familiar with typical usage patterns and the health and safety regulations specific to food trucks.

Where to place tanks.

When placing propane tanks on the food truck, there are two options: vertically, on the back of the truck; or horizontally, in a specially designed container underneath the truck. Each has its pros and cons, and rules about each may vary by location. These are the basics :

  • Horizontal: Propane tanks can be installed inside safety containers and attached to the vehicle’s undercarriage. Advocates of this method say it keeps the tanks out of the way in case of a traffic collision — a common cause of food truck explosions. However, propane tanks riding under the truck are exposed, even if indirectly, to bumps, potholes, debris, and other opportunities for impact that can loosen or damage the safety containers or even the tanks themselves. This method also makes it difficult to access the tanks for inspection.
  • Vertical: Propane tanks attached to the back of the truck are secure and easy to access for inspection and refilling. When in park, you can minimize the risk of impacts by putting up small barricades around the truck and by stationing the truck off the street. When in motion, while there are many variables out of your control, you can mitigate risk by attaching warning labels to the truck and limiting your travel to short distances in low-traffic areas.

We recommend… Checking with the municipality where your business will be registered. They require food truck owners to submit detailed plans of the truck layout to minimize risk and will have more information specific to your area.

Make sure supplies are safely on hand.
These points may seem obvious, but they’re worth mentioning:

  • Fire extinguishers: Every truck needs two types: a Class K extinguisher for suppressing grease, fat, or cooking oil fires, and an ABC extinguisher for putting out fires involving paper products or other types of fires. Make sure these are on hand and everyone knows how to use them.
  • Cleaning agents, cooking oils, and other flammable materials: Just as you keep these away from open flames, keep them away from propane tanks.

We recommend… Keeping your work area clean and orderly, and assigning every item in the kitchen a place for easy access and safe storage. And mind your feet: watch for leaks and spills on the floor, and clean them up immediately.

Establish a refill routine.

  • When: It’s common for food trucks to refill their tanks every couple of days. Build this into your operating schedule and make sure everyone is trained on how and when to get the tanks refilled.
  • Where: Always have your tanks filled by a certified professional propane technician. Find a refill location  near your food truck.

We recommend… Establishing a relationship with a preferred propane provider, setting up a refill and maintenance schedule, and sticking with it. It’s more efficient and safer than winging it. Talk to your propane retailer for more information.

And finally, make sure you know…

  • How to identify propane odor on your food truck. By nature, propane is odorless. Manufacturers add an odorant, the sulfur compound Ethyl Mercaptan, so that anyone can detect leaks if they happen. It smells rotten eggs. Propane suppliers often provide scratch cards to help you identify the smell.
  • How, when, and where to look for leaks. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that 68 percent of all food truck fires are related to leaks and structural failures of propane tanks . So it is absolutely essential that everyone on your food truck is familiar with the signs of tank damage and propane leaks and to have your tanks inspected regularly.

    It’s good practice to put eyes on your tanks every time you open the truck for the day. A visual inspection should look for scratches or dents on the tank, rust, and signs of corrosion around the collar. Learn more about checking for leaks and other safety protocols here.
  • How to turn the gas off if someone smells propane. Everyone who works on the food truck should be aware of the parts of the tank and how to turn it off and contact help in case of a leak.
  • When to get tanks recertified. Typically, it’s every 12 years. But you should stay aware of the date on your tank and check with local and state regulations to make sure you’re in compliance.

We recommend… Learning the NFPA regulations — particularly NFPA 1 and NFPA 96, which were written specifically in response to fires and explosions on food trucks — and take them seriously.

Enroll yourself and your employees in a propane safety course and refresh your knowledge every few years.

In the end, operating a food truck is a lot like operating a brick-and-mortar restaurant: Health and safety come first. And when you go mobile, your food truck’s propane tanks are the heart of the operation. Make sure they’re in good shape, and you’ll be on the road to success.

Thinking about a shift into the food truck business? Find out how to make AmeriGas your commercial propane partner.

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