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Calculating How Long Your BBQ Propane Tank Will Last

Updated on March 11, 2016
Grilling is a great way to entertain parties. It's even better when you know that you have enough propane to cook everything.
Grilling is a great way to entertain parties. It's even better when you know that you have enough propane to cook everything. | Source

Cooking food over a hot open flame is one of my favorite summer time activities. Although I prefer the flavor of a charcoal grill, nothing can beat the convenience and control of grilling with propane. Whether it's a perfectly seared tuna or a flawlessly cooked steak, a propane grill can give you the precise control necessary to properly prepare it.

However, there are a few downsides to this method of grilling. Besides having a diminished flavor, propane tanks tend to run out of fuel at the worst possible moment. To fix this problem, I initially bought a propane tank gauge. I had hoped that it would tell me when the tank was getting low so that I could go get a refill just before it ran out. Unfortunately, this did not work too well for me. The gauges that I tried were either highly inaccurate or actually reduced the amount of gas flowing to the burners. After scratching my head for a moment, I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be nice to know long the tank would last under normal cooking conditions?" If I knew this information, I could calculate about how many meals I could prepare before my grill ran out of fuel. So that's exactly what I did. In this article, I will derive a formula which you can use to determine how long your propane tank will last under normal cooking conditions.

A Bit of Information About Propane

Propane is a very lightweight hydrocarbon with a chemical formula of C3H8. It is a by-product of the crude oil and natural gas refining processes. At room temperature, propane is a gas. The gas is compressed into a liquid and stored in a variety of sizes of steel containers. Propane has a heating value between 91,200 & 92,000 BTU per gallon (depending on your source). A heating value of 91,600 BTU/gal (21,600 BTU/lb) is the commonly accepted value presented by the American Gas Association. Since it is also the midpoint of the range of values found in my research, this is the number you should use to calculate your propane usage time.

A Bit of Information About Grills

Your estimated total cooking time for a single propane tank will also depend on the type and size of grill that you have. There are literally hundreds of types and configurations of propane grills that you can choose from. All grills should have a maximum heating value reported in their manual. If you don't have the manual, you can estimate that each burner produces about 10,000 BTU/hr of heat. A typical grill might have a maximum total heat output of 20,000-40,000 BTU/Hour (2-4 Burners). Some small grills may only produce 10,000 BTU/hour (1 Burner), while larger ones may have an output of 80,000 BTU/Hour (8 Burners).

Formula Derivation

Deriving this formula is rather simple. Let 'T' equal the grilling time, 'P' equal the amount of propane you have, 'H' equal the heating value of the propane, and 'B' equal the maximum heat output of your grill.

First, multiply the amount of propane you have by its heating value: PH

Next, divide that by your grill's maximum heat output to get the minimum grilling time: Tmin = PH/B

However, most people don't cook at the maximum grill setting for an extended period of time. In fact, propane usage during typical cooking conditions is normally around 50-75% of the maximum heat output. If you cook with the all the burners set on medium, your output would be around 75% of the maximum. If you use less burners, your actual output will also change. This is where I introduce an efficiency factor, 'k,' to adjust the time calculation for this variation.

With the introduction of the 'k' factor, the final formula becomes:


The 'k' factor effectively reduces your grills total output in the computation. Use the chart at right to determine the 'k' value for your typical grilling scheme. The derivation of the various 'k' factors is beyond the scope of this article.

Once you select a 'k' factor based on your typical grill's usage, you can compute the total estimated grilling time, T. Divide this time by the average time it takes to cook a meal to estimate the number of meals you can grill. Now all you have to do is keep track of how many times you use the grill to know how much fuel you have left.

For example, if you have a six burner grill and only cook with one burner on the lowest setting, you are effectively generating only 10% (0.10) of the maximum heat output of that grill. However, if you crank that same burner to its maximum setting, you will only be generating about 17% of the maximum heat that could be generated by the grill.

Example problem

John just bought a new propane tank (15lbs of propane) and wants to know how long this will last him. John's grill has a maximum heat output of 30,000 BTU with 3 burners. A typical meal takes John 30 minutes to complete using medium heat.

Step 1: Define the Variables:

Amount of Propane: P = 15 lbs

Heating Value of Propane: H = 21,600 BTU/LB

Maximum Heat Output of Grill: B = 30,000 BTU/hr

'k' Factor: 0.74 (All Burners, Medium Heat)

Step 2: Solve for Propane Usage Time:

T = (15lbs)(21600 BTU/LB)/(0.74)(30,000 BTU/hr) = 14.6 Hours

Step 3: Now compute how many meals John can make with his grilling arrangement:

Meals = 14.6 hrs / 0.5 hrs = 29.18 meals. Therefore, John could cook once a day for a month or about once per week for 7 months.

Quickly Find Out How Much Propane You Have Left

Let's say that you want to know how much propane you have left in the tank connected to your grill and you don't have a pressure gauge with you so what do you do? It's simple actually, all you need to do is weigh the propane tank and then subtract the Tare Weight (marked as a number following "TW" on the top of the tank) from the weight shown on the scale. A standard barbecue propane tank can hold 20lbs of propane and even if you have 1 or 2 pounds of fuel left, that can be enough to prepare just one more meal.

Should I Refill or Exchange My Tank?

This is a common question these days. If you want convenience (and you'll pay for it) then go for a tank exchange. Some retailers even have automated machines that can exchange a tank for you without even having to interact with an employee.

However, if you want to save lots of money, always have your tank refilled. Not only will you pay less per pound of propane, you won't lose what's left in the tank when you exchange it. Also, if you get your tanks refilled, you will often actually get more propane than if you just exchanged the tank. Many tank exchanges don't even give you a completely full tank (which would contain 20lbs of propane) but instead leave the tank filled to 15-18lbs. Most people never check and don't even realize that they aren't getting a full tank!


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    • danielleantosz profile image

      danielleantosz 5 years ago from Florida

      lol, love this. I laugh because my family does steak and lobster for Christmas and my dad ALWAYS runs out of propane...and it is Christmas so there is no where to buy it. Forwarding it to him. While I suspect you didn't think this would be amusing, it was for me! Thanks.

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 5 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      I'm printing this up! This is really great to know this especially during the grilling summer season. I enjoyed this very much. You have this laid out beautifully and it is easy to understand. Keep up the great HUBS. I must give this an “Up ONE and awesome.” I'm now your fan! RJ

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Nice information, brother. You have done a great job here. I learn much from you. Vote up and useful!


    • profile image

      Pierre 4 years ago

      Wouldn't be much simpler to buy a spare propane tank and switch tanks when needed? I would refill the empty one next day or whenever is convenient.

      But definitly interesting math. Thanks.

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 4 years ago from Arizona

      Pierre - You make a great point. Having a spare propane tank is a preventive measure that can easily save a dinner or summer party. However, you still wouldn't know how long you could use your tank and you wouldn't get to do any fun calculations.Pierre - You make a great pointYes, that would be a great preventative measure, however you still wouldn't know when you would run out of fuel.

    • profile image 4 years ago

      How long can I let a propane tank sit unused.

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 4 years ago from Arizona - Depending on the type and condition of the storage container you have, the propane could be stored for many years. The propane itself should never go bad, but the container will slowly corrode and develop leaks over time. This of course depends on the environment that they were stored in. I have heard many stories about people being able to use old grills and camp stoves that have been sitting in storage for 15-20 years. In those cases the propane tanks were protected from the weather. Always thoroughly check an old tank for leaks, cracks, and damaged valves before using again.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Your math is flawless and should work reasonably well. I'm just too lazy to keep track of the meals cooked (and sometimes run out, too!). My method is to feel the side of the tank - if you are using a good deal of propane the top of the tank will be a different temperature than the bottom, and the dividing line is the level of liquid in the tank. It works. Most of the time - as I say I did run out occasionally until I bought a new grill and got a tank with it so now I have two tanks and one is always full.

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 4 years ago from Arizona

      Wilderness - Thank you. I recently ran across some peel-and-stick thermometer gauges that you can quickly attach to the side of a propane tank. All you have to do is rub a damp cloth over it and it reveals the level of propane left in the container. Its a genius solution to a common problem.

    • profile image

      HankHill 3 years ago

      Clearly, you are a devote follower and believer in propane. May the God's keep your tank full and your meats cooked to the proper temperature with no carcinogens.

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 3 years ago from Arizona

      Haha thanks Hank!

    • Steel Engineer profile image

      Steel Engineer 3 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine

      After I once ran out of propane, I went out and bought a back-up tank. When one went empty, I switched them out and filled the empty the following day. That solved my problem.

      Overall, it means fewer trips to fill the tank. When you take an almost empty tank, let's say with approximately 10% remaining, It creates an extra trip for every 9 trips.

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 3 years ago from Arizona

      Steel Engineer - I agree that having a spare tank is the most practical and logical solution. However, I enjoy solving math problems so for me this is helpful.

    • profile image

      Angelia 21 months ago

      My tank has lasted me 7yrs i'm telling you the honest truth i live in texas and i'm amazed that with the heat we have here that it has never evaporated we had the only major cookout a week ago and did some heavy grilling i poured warm water on the side of the tank then where you feel cold is where the gas is in the tank i fear next time it will be the end for this tank but it keeps on going!

    • CWanamaker profile image

      CWanamaker 21 months ago from Arizona

      Angelia - That's pretty cool. I've heard of other people experiencing the same thing as well. Propane tanks are usually well made and will resist leaks for long periods of time. Thanks for reading.

    • profile image

      Rose 3 months ago

      I have a propane tank I've had for 14 years is the propane inside still good

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