[Editor’s Note: Tim Deagan is the author of Make: Fire, which features everything you need to know to get started with propane-based fire projects.]
No matter how much planning and work you put into your project, transporting, setting it up and tearing it down extract a hard price. Few things are more frustrating than bringing your fire project out to some event and discovering you can’t light up because of an equipment fail. In this article, I’d like to share a few of the tips I’ve learned over the years to increase the odds that projects will work when I want them to.
The first thing that I’ve learned is that, while the parts involved in propane fire projects are generally incredibly robust, they all have a ‘mean time between failure’ value. While budgets often preclude having duplicates of all your parts, it’s a huge advantage to have a few key parts ready to swap out if needed.
Most propane based projects have parts that can be usefully grouped into some high level categories; source, plumbing and control. For our purposes, I’ll include the high (or low) pressure regulator along with the propane cylinder as the source. I’m doing this because unless you can draw propane safely at less than cylinder pressure, you don’t have a viable source. Plumbing includes all the hoses, pipes and fittings, including the quick cutoff quarter turn ball valves but not the electrically controlled solenoid valves. I’ll include the solenoid valves in with control since they have some special needs that fit better into that group.
For your source, the most important backup part is a spare regulator. Assuming you’re using a high pressure adjustable regulator, it’s not necessary for your backup to have as a high rating, and commensurate cost, as your primary regulator. Since regulators are replaced, not repaired, having any usable source is better than glumly tearing your project down before you even get started. Plus, given that a propane cylinder, once chilled from having a bunch of vapor drawn from it, will be putting out 30-35 psig, you won’t be missing much if your secondary isn’t a 0-60 psig or 0-100 psig like your main regulator.
In the plumbing category, a spare 10′ high pressure hose and a collection of brass fittings can be a lifesaver. You can spend your life savings on brass pretty quickly, so it helps to focus on a few key parts. Your hose is likely to have a male pipe thread fitting on one end and a ⅜” female flare on the other. Having the fittings to turn the male pipe thread into a male ⅜” flare can really save a situation. Different hoses have different size male threaded ends, but it’s likely to be either ¼” or ⅜”. A female pipe thread to male ⅜” flare adapter can allow the hose to serve as an extension to your existing hose-run. This can be critical when placement forces your supply cylinder farther than you anticipated. If that hose (or an adapter) allows it to replace your standard hose, it also serves as a backup.
You’ll have hopefully attempted to use as few sizes of pipe thread in your project as possible, but even a simple project can end up with a mix of ⅛”, ¼”, ⅜”, ½” and ¾” fittings. A bag with a few bell adapters, gender changers and occasionally bushings can let you reconfigure on the fly. More importantly, always bring two rolls of yellow gas rated Teflon tape with you. It’s better to strip a project and re-tape it than to not get to light up due to leaks. Running out of tape in the middle of a fix is infuriating. Extra tape also lets you lend to friends in need.
Control systems typically include 12VDC solenoids and some circuit to open and close them. This implies a 12V source such as a battery. Having a means to recharge that battery can be critical. I tend to use car jumper boxes that come with a cable that lets them recharge from a 12V cigarette outlet. I’ve had to do this on multiple occasions. While I’ve never had a solenoid fail, I have had the wiring break. Often it’s easier to replace the solenoid with another prepped one. But if you don’t have a spare solenoid, having a few wire nuts that let you directly wire to your existing solenoid can get you out of a jam. Long ago I settled on electrical cord for control wires (it’s crazy cheap to buy as extension cords that you cut the ends off of) and 2-pin trailer connectors, but if they aren’t buggy, I can cut and strip the wire and use the wire nuts to get my rig working quickly. Spare cord the length of your longest run is also a must have. Finally, hiding deep in my “gas bag” is an item sold as a 12V Remote Starter Switch. It’s a switch with a couple wires coming out of it sold at discount tool stores. A little clever wiring, a few wire nuts and some spare wire have allowed me to use this in an emergency ‘dead man’s switch replacement for the emergency kill or as a replacement for the fire button when all else failed.
I mentioned my “gas bag”, it’s a beat up old rolling tool bag that accompanies me on all my fire excursions. I keep it packed with the items above and do my best not to raid it for parts when I’m in build mode back at the shop. It’s saved my bacon more times than I can count. It also contains my minimal tool set for heading out to an event. This consists of:
- Two crescent wrenches, one of which should have a 1½” jaw opening
- Two pipe wrenches, one in the 10″ range and one in the 14″ range
- A screwdriver with changeable large and small flat and Philips heads
- A wire brush, needed for cleaning Teflon tape off disassembled fittings
- A cheap multimeter, used for testing voltage and wiring
- A flashlight, preferably one with a magnetic or other clamp
- A “torch” for lighting the pilot made of 1″ of cloth (or Kevlar) tightly wound around the end of an 18-24” dowel and bound in place with wire
- A bottle of hand sanitizer to squirt on the torch as fuel (plus it cleans your hands!)
- A spray bottle of 1-part dish soap to 8-10 parts water to use a leak detector
- A towel to wipe things off
There are a few things that can be handy to add. I mentioned earlier that I long ago standardized on 2-pin trailer connectors for all my 12V connection. You may have used something else, but whatever you use, it’s worth whipping up a spare connector with an LED and resistor that will give you an immediate opportunity to plug in and see if you’re getting voltage from your source or supplying it to the solenoid.
You may have determined by now that I am a bit of a preparedness freak. While my friends tease me about it, they also have no hesitation in asking to borrow parts that will get them running. I love being able to help them out. Trying to get a flame effect operating without appropriate parts is too dangerous to be worthwhile. Packing a little extra insurance can make your event safer and a lot more fun.