Butane Versus Propane Stoves

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Nearly all butane stoves look very much like this. You can buy them for about $20

Here at the RTR every possible subject pertaining to vandwelling comes up in our many conversations. Since it has been cold one subject that comes up is using a propane heater in the van or tent. Most of us are using either a Mr. Heater Portable Buddy or one of the Coleman Catalytic heaters. Both are very good heaters and I think they are a great choice for vandwellers. I’ve posted about heaters recently and I don’t want to cover it again yet. But I was telling a friend that I use my Coleman propane 1 burner cook stove for heat in mild temperatures. Her response was that she used a butane stove and was having trouble lighting it in the morning because of the cold. I explained that was a problem with butane, it worked poorly below 32 degrees F. Propane, on the other hand, worked perfectly down to about -30 F. That got me to thinking about stoves and so here is a post on the subject.

Butane stove with the bottle inserted.

I’ve lived in a vehicle for over 10 years, and I have cooked a meal inside of it nearly every day and always with a propane stove. That’s at least 3300 meals. On top of that, every winter I use it for comfort heating. On cold winter nights I cook a meal in the evening and that warms up the van (it is very well insulated). After an hour or two, if it cools down enough to be uncomfortable, I will turn the stove on again and run it for 30 minutes or so until it is warm. Usually that is all that is required, but a few times it has been so cold I had to run it another time. On a very few occasions, it has been so cold that the stove wasn’t enough and then I get out the Mr. Buddy heater and use it,
So which is better, propane or butane stoves? Some people prefer butane stoves and they do have some great advantages:

  • They are very small and compact.
  • Their compact size makes them easy to store and carry around.
  • They have a piezo starter which is very easy to use and no matches are required.
  • The bottles are easier to install than the green propane bottles

 
But butane has some big disadvantages too:
 

  • The bottles can be hard to find. I’ve been to many areas where they simply were not available.
  • When you do find them they can be really expensive. Remember, they are half the size (8 ounces verses 16 ounces for the propane bottles) and often cost more
  • You can’t hook it up to a refillable bulk bottle.
  • Butane doesn’t work well at temperatures below freezing (32 degrees).

Propane is better in every way except the metal arm coming off makes it take up more space and most don’t come with a piezo lighter. Here are some of propane’s advantages:

  • The green bottles are available nearly everywhere.
  • You can buy an adapter that lets you refill the green bottles directly. That cuts the cost of operating one dramatically.
  • Hooking up to a bulk bottle makes the cost of the fuel very cheap. I have a one gallon tank which is very small and fits in the van easily.
  • Buying a bulk bottle lets you keep the small bottles out of the landfill while all butane stoves put them in the landfill.
  • Propane works down to minus 30 degrees.


To me the advantages of propane are overwhelming so I never even considered butane, but I know a lot of people who love their butane stoves and would not consider switching. Other people are very uncomfortable with using any propane appliance inside the van, or even carrying propane bottles at all. I can understand that fear because accidents do happen. I had a fire inside my van and know it is a serious risk.

This isn’t a very good picture, but it is the only one I could find. This is my old Coleman 2-burner stove. I have since switched to a Coleman 1-burner stove.

One day I lit the stove and the crimp at the end of the hose started leaking and caught fire. I quickly turned it off at the bottle, turned off the stove, and sprayed the fire with my fire extinguisher, so no harm was done. You want to learn a lesson from these things, here is what I learned:

  • Always be there when cooking inside.
  • Always have a fire extinguisher nearby.
  • Act quickly but stay calm. Turn off the stove so there is no longer an ignition source for the propane. Then turn off the bottle so only a limited amount of propane can come out.
  • I do have a smoke detector but there wasn’t time for it to go off.

Here you see a 2 1/2 gallon and a 1 gallon bulk, refillable propane bottle and the adapter hose to connect it to a camping appliance like a stove. You can see the small green 1 pound bottle in the front.

I had been using that hose for at least 6 years and owned it for over 10, so I assume old age and use had damaged it. I’m not sure what to do about preventing this from happening again. The crimp on the hose simply got old and started leaking. I guess I could replace it every year or two so it couldn’t happen again. That is what I will do, every even year (2014, 2016….) I will replace the hose. They are about $20 so that is only $10 a year–pretty minimal for the safety.

Even with that fire, I still consider the risk of using propane as very, very small. And compared to the gain of being able to cook in the van and use it for heat, too small to even consider.
Here is a cost comparison of propane and butane:

  • 1 Gallon of Butane (8, 8 ounce bottles) $24
  • 1 Gallon of propane (4, 16 ounce bottles) $10
  • 1 Gallon of propane (bulk) $3.50

To be fair, butane has slightly higher btu’s per ounce, but it is a fairly small difference.

Next Going the Bathroom in a Van: Porta Potties and Composting Toilets

40 Comments

  1. Pat

    You can also make sure your stove is entirely in a metal tray. That way any leaks that catch fire are contained and not spreading to the floor or walls. A fire extinguisher is a most.

    • Bob

      Pat, great suggestion! And I couldn’t agree more about the fire extinguisher. It’s one of those things you never use so you take it for granted or even worse decide you don’t need. Then the one time you MUST have it, it isn’t there. Every rig needs a fire extinguisher!!
      Bob

    • Wing Lives

      Bob will you please tell Can propane be used on a gas stove?

  2. roger

    If not vented, gas heating at night with a stove can eat up all the oxygen and the result can kill. Opening a window slightly is enough to guard against asphyxiation. -R

    • Bob

      Very good point Roger! I never leave my stove on unless I am right there to watch it and so it is never on at night. Every propane appliance consumes oxygen so you MUST have adequate ventilation to replenish the oxygen being consumed. When I lived in Alaska I left my Olympian catalytic heaters on 24/7, even at night when I slept, but I looked at the manual and followed its rules for the number of square inches of ventilation required.
      Other than that one appliance, I NEVER leave any propane consuming device on at night while I sleep.
      Bob

      • Moon Dancer

        Does Butane also eat up oxygen?

        • Bob

          Moon dancer, all flames burn oxygen, it burns it at the same rate as any other flame. The higher the flame, the more it burns.
          Bob

    • Alan

      Butane bottles can be had much cheaper at Korean stores. 8 oz. bottles less than $2 and cheaper by the case. The last I paid was #3.99 for 4 8oz bottles. There are many Korean and other Asian food stores that carry them in Southern Cal – especially Garden Grove.
      Butane stoves are so small,light, and easy to move that you can easily store them on a shelf or somewhere when not in use freeing up counter space. Can be bought for less than $20.They are also modern and attractive looking. I don’t know where you got that ugly blue one in the picture.

      • Bob

        Very good point Alan, thanks. I’ve never seen them for $1 a bottle, that was a great deal. But that is still $8 for a gallon and I NEVER pay that much for propane to fill my bulk bottles.
        I also use propane for heat which is difficult to do with butane because it will not work below 32 degrees. Even if it did work I could never afford to do that with butane–too expensive.

  3. Steve & Zeke the Mountain Dog

    There are risks in every day life that we must accept from driving to crime… In vandwelling planning is the very key point in simple comfort and can drastically alter an out come in dangerous weather… We are now here at the RTR having a good cold snap, I have advised as best I can about winter safety via experience to the tent campers… Preparing for a cold night and into the morning if/when the weather warms up is a serious issue, I have strongly suggested bringing in there stove, water and cookware to include the coffee pot or pot to heat water, soup, cocoa, tea etc… have everything ready (water poured, cups ready) so all you have to do is lean over and start the stove… With butane this now becomes a issue when it become dangerous cold because it is the weal link in all of the planning and the key issue to maybe even survival…
    As one can surmise, if the stove dont work then you may very well be in a world of hurt at the very worst time…
    Best all around bet is propane, there are just too many overwhelming pluses to using it…
    Just my two cents…

    • Bob

      As usual Steve, I agree totally.
      Bob

  4. velojunkie

    Bob, I’ve got a Brunton stove with a hose connection from the green bottles to the stove. So I knew they exist, just had to find one. Brunton doesn’t make stoves or accessories anymore and have moved into optics, portable power, etc. I did some searching though and found this:
    http://www.amazon.com/30-Hose-Appliance-LB-Cylinder/dp/B005EUE214
    I can’t vouch for the quality, but it might solve a lot of headaches for folks. Keep up the good work. Not van dwelling yet, but I do a lot of traveling/living in the back of a truck.

    • Bob

      Hi Velojunkie, that is a good find! I have a friend here with one of those Brunton stoves and they are very nice. The rubber hose is much easier to work with than the metal one on Coleman stoves. It looks like that hose should be a direct replacement from the metal arm. The quality of Stansport products is pretty hit or miss but it seems like a hose would be hard to mess up. I don’t mind the metal arm, so I won’t get one.
      Thanks for the suggestion, that is a great one.
      Bob

  5. Dizzy

    I am just setting up my first rig (final moving day is thursday!) and propane just seems way better for me for all the reasons you listed. I love to cook so I ordered a camp chef stove/oven combo which I think will be great. That and my trusty volcano grill both run on propane. I don’t feel like I will be missing out at all in the van!

    • Bob

      Hi Dizzy, I don’t think you will be missing out at all either! I am very impressed with those stove/oven combs but I’ve never been sure where to put it because of it’s size. Where are you going to put yours? What kind of a vehicle are you moving into?
      Glad you are here!
      Bob

  6. Cyrus Palmer

    Hank Hill calls butane a ‘bastard gas’. Now I know why, lol

    • Bob

      Cyus, Hank Hill is a very wise man. But I’ve never been able to figure out what he did to be surrounded by such a crazy cast of characters! (For those of you who don’t know, Hank Hill is the dad in a Fox animated series called “King of the Hill” a show I like very much! I own a couple of seasons on DVD)
      Bob

  7. Botbotcoco

    I have been living in my van up here in Canada since May 2012.
    I am currently in Alberta where the temps are getting down to -35c and windchill hitting -40 last night.
    I have been using my Mr Heater Buddy with no issues and staying TOASTY WARM in my 91 Chevy G20 conversion van.
    But yesterday, when i would turn the burner to low heat,,, the flame would slowly die off. I know my 20lb tank is low,,,, but it has been low before and I never had this issue.
    I have a 10ft hose from the tank to the heater.
    Any thoughts?
    Thanks
    Botbotcoco

    • Bob

      Hi Botbotcoco, do you have a fuel filter on it? The Mr. Buddy is designed to use the little green bottles of propane which is very clean and pure propane. When you hook it up to a bulk tank you get much dirtier propane and some of the chemicals in the propane hose come off and together they will plug up the tiny little jets in the heater. The first symptom is usually it starts to sputter and the flame diminishes and finally it just won’t work at all. As far as I know they can’t be fixed but you might try anyways.
      If you are going to hook it up to a bulk bottle (which is the only way to be able to afford to run it constantly in a very cold environment) you must use the fuel filter made by Mr. Heater for the Buddy Portable Heater. You can get it on Amazon.com for $11.
      Bob

  8. Ken in Anaheim

    Hi Bob; I happened to be re-reading this article and had a coupl’a comments;
    1) Your price breakdown shows butane at 8x8ozs=1 gal. I think ya missed it by half (16×8=128ozs)so butane is actually $48/gal (?)
    2) Any chance of getting Steve to do a pictorial tour of his rig ?
    3) I don’t know what your web site storage limitations are ….but…have you considered a place for other folks to send in pix of their rigs ?
    4) Lastly, do you not find it inconvenient to have just one burner rather then the old Coleman double burner stove ?
    THANKS again to all you (and the other contributors) do !!!
    Ken

    • Bob

      Hi Ken, here are answers to your questions:

        1) Propane is strange stuff that doesn’t follow the normal rules. A gallon of water weigh 8 lbs which works out to 128 ounces a gallon. But propane only weighs 4 pounds per gallon (I’m rounding off for simplicity) which equals 64 ounces per gallon. You can verify that to yourself when you consider that a normal barbecue tank is 5 gallons of propane and weighs 20 pounds: 5 gallons X 4 pounds per gallon =20 pounds.
        2) Steve’s conversion is very simple, there really isn’t much to see. But I will talk to him and if he wants to I will go ahead and do it!
        3) I would love to include more articles from the readers. Several times I have invited them to do so. I even had an announcement asking people to send in their pictures on the side-bar. But I have gotten very little response so far. Only two readers sent in anything, and they really aren’t enough for a post. Almost 100% of the time if I do an article for someone else’s rig, I wrote them and asked them to do it for me. So I will say it again EVERYBODY, PLEASE SEND IN YOUR BEST PICTURES! SCENICS, CAMPSITES OR YOUR CONVERSION ARE ALL WELCOME!!!!! I would especially welcome whole articles with text description and lots of pictures of your conversion.
        4) You know, I almost never regret not having 2-burners. In fact I am now carrying both a 1-burner and a 2-burner Coleman stove, and never use the 2-burner. The reason I carry both of them is that at the RTR and other gatherings I need multiple burners to cook lots of food for big groups. At the last RTR we had 4 burners (or more) going on 4 different occasions (chili, soup, spaghetti and breakfast).So this way I am sure I have enough burners. The one time I wish I had 2 burners is when I make myself breakfast. I have a griddle that goes over both burners and I can cook 2 pancakes, bacon and 2 eggs at the same time. I miss that!

      Thanks for the great questions!
      Bob

    • Bob

      No problem at all Ken. I want every one to get the best deals they can. Sometimes that is amazon, but not always. Generally, I find if Walmart and Amazon sell the same stuff Walmart often beats them, and sometimes by a lot. that’s not usually true of REI (although I am a member and love them!) but this time it is.
      If there isn’t a REI store near you, you can order it off the internet.
      Bob

  9. jackal

    Regarding Mr. Heater (Big Buddy), a fuel filter is NOT required if your bulk tank has a regulator AND your fuel hose is connected directly to the heater’s on-board, quick-connection port (low pressure). IOW, in such a configuration, your fuel line between the tank and heater is under low pressure — not high pressure.
    On the other hand, if your fuel line IS under high pressure (no regulator at the tank), relying instead on one of the heater’s own on-board regulators, which regulate 1-lb. bottles, then a filter IS required. It’s this high pressure that deteriorates your fuel hose, creating contamination that, without a filter, can and eventually will plug heater orifices.
    This is not my opinion but, instead, facts from my notes I had taken while talking to Mr. Heater Tech Support, some time back. It’s a point of much consumer confusion, something that wasn’t well discussed in the documentation, if at all.
    For my own part, I’d never bring any bulk tank of propane inside any habitable, enclosed area. What you basically have is a ready-made bomb, much less a powerful, pressurized flame thrower should a leak ignite the fuel. Even if the leak doesn’t ignite, the vapor itself is lethal. There’s enough energy in a 20-lb. bottle of propane to power most any minivan more than 100 miles. Imagine releasing that much energy not over a 2-hour journey but instantaneously! It’s why we always see, for example, AmeriGas exchange tanks out front of Walmart and convenience stores. Federal law prohibits commercial indoor storage of bulk propane (1-lb. bottles are exempt).
    I always use my heater with the bulk tank outside, using the Mr. Heater hose, which came with a regulator for the tank and a quick-disconnect at the heater. In fact, I’m not very comfortable using even 1-lb. bottles in any enclosed area because, well, these bottles are under high pressure, too. They’re only safer because the amount of fuel is less AND the connection is metal-to-metal, e.i., without a hose that is subject to deterioration with use and age.
    With consumers constantly refilling 1-lb. bottles, there’s growing risk of a leak at the needle valve, increasing with each refill. These bottles are intended to be throw-away, the needle valve designed for low-cycle use, certainly not life-tested for unlimited cycling.
    There’s still an awful lot of lethal energy packed inside a 1-lb. bottle of propane.
    I’m curious; that propane fire you had back when, was the hose regulated or under high pressure?

    • Bob

      jackal, I know you are right, the Big Buddy is capable of being connected to a regulated tank which eliminates the need for a fuel filter. And of course you are right, it is the high pressure that causes the problem. I have never owned a BIg Buddy so I do not really know anything about them. They are MUCH too large to use in a van, no vandweller should have one. The 4500-9000 Buddy is too large for a van but it is workable. Either one works great for a the larger space of a RV. In fact I know several RVers who connect their Big Buddy to the RV low pressure system and are very happy with it. My thinking is the fuel filter is $10 and if I am unclear and somebody buys one who doesn’t need it that is okay. That will will not happen very often and in the meantime I may have saved many people from ruining their expensive heaters.
      No doubt you are right about never having the bulk tank inside. NO SHOULD EVER HAVE A BULK TANK INSIDE THEIR RIG!!!!!! Having said that, I have one inside my rig less than 5 feet away from me right now.
      I agree about the little green bottles. As a campground host I often went into campsites after the camper left and found them hissing away. The little valves fail fairly often and then the camper didn’t know what to do with it so he just leaves it on the table.
      I had a hose for over ten years, and then one day I swapped out the bulk tank and when I restarted the stove the crimp had failed apparently and it started leaking gas and caught fire. It literally was a blow torch!! I turned off the valve to the tank and it went out. No harm done, but i had to change my underwear!
      Bob

      • jackal

        High-pressure propane weeps oil from the flexible fuel line (according to the tech rep at Mr. Heater). A regulator at the tank prevents hose weeping. Just curious, but was it possible that your fuel-line failure was caused by brittle rubber at the point of the crimp, after 10 years of high pressure having compromised the hose?
        You’re right about the Big Buddy being too large for a van, however, I run mine at 4500 BTUs, making it just about ideal for my purposes. The higher settings do come in handy to quickly warm things up during sub-freezing temps or to add lots of comfort to a cabin or whatever.

        • Bob

          Hi jackal, yes I am sure that the rubber got brittle and failed. They aren’t that expensive so I decided that i would just replace them every 2-3 years rather than risk that again. My last one I got made at a propane store. It cost twice as much but I suspect it is much better quality rubber.
          Bob

  10. james allen

    Great article but you over looked one thing many dont even know about….if your using refillable propane you are getting a better deal but its not a pure as the propane in a new green bottle and the residue can clog some of the smaller orifices That’s why they make the buddy filter. Its only $10 and with it to extend the life of the unit. http://www.cabelas.com/product/Mr-Heater-Buddy-Big-Buddy-Fuel-Filter/746840.uts?productVariantId=1633557&WT.tsrc=CSE&WT.mc_id=GoogleProductAds&WT.z_mc_id1=50024618&rid=40&channel=GoogleBaseUSA&mr:trackingCode=ADD21BCD-958E-DF11-A0C8-002219318F67&mr:referralID=NA&mr:device=m&mr:adType=pla&mr:ad=36061690751&mr:keyword&mr:match&mr:filter=58017909671&gclid=CLTOy-DF_roCFdKTfgod9hYAxw&gclsrc=aw.ds

    • Bob

      James, thats a very good point, thanks for sharing it. I do discuss that whenever the Buddy Heater comes up but it really wasn’t the focus of this post. But you’re right, you can’t say it often enough!!
      Actually, the problem with the Buddy heaters plugging up isn’t the quality of the propane, it’s the plasticizer used in the hoses to make them flexible. The hoses were designed for low-pressure systems, but the Buddy is a high-pressure system. The pressure pulls the plasticizer of the hose and it plugs up the Buddy heater.
      Mr Buddy makes a special hose just for those heaters. They claim that if you use that hose, you don’t need a filter. But I’ve heard that it does take longer, but they will plug up eventually. That might be from the impurities in the bulk propane like you suggest. So I recommend the use of the filter even if you use that hose. This is the hose they claim doesn’t need a filter:
      http://www.amazon.com/Mr-Heater-Buddy-Series-Assembly/dp/B001CFWF5U/
      By the way, very soon I will have a guest post that shows how to take the Buddy apart and clean its orifices.
      Bob

  11. Charlene Swankie

    Bob, I thought I had sent you a link to my update with permission for you to publish it as per your request. I will resend it. Second, I bought a case of Butane at B&K Tools here in Q before I left in Feb. I’m still using that one case. I think it was 24 bottles/cans and I paid about $35. They told me lots of people buy a case of it right before they leave Q in the spring. Third… your 2-burner Coleman looks like my old 2-burner Coleman, and also kinda looks like Steve’s current Coleman. That’s what I love about our tribe, we recycle. Hee hee.

    • Bob

      Your right Charlene, that is a well-traveled and recycled Coleman stove! I checked on the case price of butane at KB Tools last spring and I think it worked out to $1.38 per bottle. That is a great price!! But you’ve got to find room for the big box of them.
      Bob

  12. Peter

    Butane for those stoves is at Sam’s Club now for $5.28, and on Amazon 12 for $25.49. Asian grocery stores sometimes also carry it. I have one of the butane stoves and have cooked on it several times. I really like it, though I agree with the cold problems you can have. When camping in cold weather we sometimes sleep with our isobutane bottles in our sleeping bags so they will work well in the morning.

    • Bob

      Peter, my problem is I travel into lot of remote places where they nearest Sam’s Club, or Asian store is a long ways away and I don’t have an address for Amazon. Rarely can you find them in those places and if you do they’ll be VERY EXPENSIVE.
      If you spend your time in cities they probably work well. If you spend your time in the remote areas, you better be carrying a big supply of them.
      On the other hand, you can get a bulk propane bottle filled everywhere in the country.
      Bob

  13. Bre

    Hi Bob, thanks for being a great resource. I’m planning out a minivan conversion. You have me convinced to go propane over butane just for the fact that it keeps more bottles out of landfills, but my concern is driving around with a propane tank in my van as they are highly combustible. What if I got in an accident, I assume a tank would blow sky high? Any tips to mitigate this risk?

  14. Charles

    Using propane below freezing is very dangerous. The bottle valve can stick open when you remove it from grill. Happened to me once and luckily was able to throw hissing bottle far away before the gas ball ignited around me. Luckily all that happened was singed eyebrows and hair. Holding my breath kept flames from scorching my lungs.

  15. ed cook

    bob i watched your vidio trying to use your oven on the one burner stove. i made a frame with one in. aluminum angle with 4 1/4in threaded rods running threw it. 4 legs are atached holding just over the stove burnerand it works great. the oven is very stable and level and cooks the best baked goods ever.i watch all your vidios .

  16. Robin Elaine Matthews-Echols

    Mr Bob, you are an inspiration to me and I enjoy watching you as a loyal subscriber on youtube. Thank you for your honor, strength and thank you for sharing your #VanLife

  17. gasNtools

    Interesting post explained well about the propane and butane gas stoves. The advantages and disadvantages of butane and propane stove helped me to choose the best one.

  18. rv propane hoses and fittings

    Propane is what i use on my RV and it has always been reliable. You need good quality fittings for it too.

  19. Jeffrey Thomas

    Who can pick out for me the best product from the list provided in this site?

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