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Be Safe With That Propane Torch

I once found a farmer heating a piece of outdoor farm machinery in the dead of winter by the simple expedient of sliding a torch burning full blast along the ground underneath the motor and allowing flames and heat to rise past the oil pan and upward. Of all the ways possible to warm a completely cold tractor motor, this was probably the worst.

Safety First” is an inherently beneficial motto embracing a full catalogue of activities we’ve all been exposed to virtually since childhood, and rightly so. The range of potential hurt in every aspect of living is virtually endless and on occasion when stupidity has run its rampant course, it is impossible not to reflect on how we and others like us have managed to survive at all never mind reach relatively old age.

In retrospect, my survival to the age of government pension largesse must be attributed as much to good fortune as to innate good judgment, for in making our transition from sheltered city life to wholly inexperienced ranch living, every unfamiliar step brought potentially crippling or fatal dangers.

Country folk born to the land have the intrinsic advantage of generational incumbency in safety instruction. Their parents and grandparents, knowingly or by unconscious example, taught respect for danger and how to avoid such hazards.

left to professionals. We learned that 40 below didn’t mean ranch life came to a halt.

One of the more seemingly mundane but potentially extremely dangerous tools farmers use rather frequently (particularly in partially wooded areas ) is the very handy and ubiquitous propane tiger torch. Rare indeed is the farmer who does not have one in his or her inventory for its uses are manifold, ranging from heating branding irons to thawing water tanks, burning brush piles or simply warming winter seized motors.

The torch is a 20-pound tank of propane gas attached to a 10-foot flex hose. On the other end is a large cast iron nozzle connected to an 18 inch steel pipe. Fuel is ignited and the arm is handled like the flamethrower it is. Heat intensity can be controlled by regulating gas flow from the tank or via a control knob attached to the pipe.

That this torch is so common in distribution and use breeds unwarranted familiarity. Dangers are obscured based on a record of nothing overtly dangerous ever having happened before. Such

Our family of wide eyed city innocents drove our newly acquired obligatory three-quarter-ton 4X4 right into the centre of a world rife with totally unfamiliar potentially life draining perils literally embracing the entire landscape of harm from A to Z.

We dealt with scavenging coyotes and territorially conscious bears (on our first night on the ranch, a bear rang our door bell at 7:30 a. m., its muddy paw prints on both screen door and side frame) and a few totally rank cattle a considerate rancher had prayerful opportunity to unload on unwary, trusting greenhorns.

We operated rickety unfamiliar equipment that had clearly seen better days, safety guards on exposed wheels and shafts long since removed and discarded. Aging, weather checked pressurized hydraulic hoses erupted unexpectedly, gushes of hot oil spewing upward like a high-powered miniature Yellowstone geyser. We casually handled and re-spliced electrical connections cobbled together by an assortment of well meaning but essentially unqualified folk over the years that sputtered and snapped every time a loose wire moved in the wind.

We found that machinery needs to be at a full stop before stepping on or off no matter the urgency for doing so, and that climbing down a well or septic tank is best success masks the very real potential for disaster sparked perhaps by momentary inattention.

I once found a farmer heating a piece of outdoor farm machinery in the dead of winter by the simple expedient of sliding a torch burning full blast along the ground underneath the motor and allowing flames and heat to rise past the oil pan and upward. Of all the ways possible to warm a completely cold tractor motor, this was probably the worst. Aside from the obvious uneven metal expansion damage, the potential for a full-blown equipment fire based on ignition of residual grease and oil was so evident as to be appalling.


The principle of tiger torch use certainly appealed to me for we too parked our tractors outdoors for want of more suitable storage, but there was substantial room for refinement of the block heating process.

Accordingly we draped an oversized canvas over the entire machine, found a 12-foot long six-inch light metal pipe, which we parked with one end under the oil pan the other projecting back well past the drawbar at the rear. We were able to set the torch on

low flame since the feeder pipe was inclined upward at a slight angle. Heat gently migrated forward on the principle of a standard chimney flue. There were no ground cross drafts and little upward heat loss. The motor gradually relaxed from the grip of cold in complete safety and in relatively short order. Live flames were well confined inside the metal pipe, such fire column being perhaps two feet in length. We had both fire safety and controlled performance.

A propane tank can be an explosive fire bomb and should be managed accordingly. The first concern is safe transportation and impractical government guidelines aside, the safest method of preventing tank movement in a pickup box is to lay a large truck tire down flat and use the interior space as storage. The tire will never slip or slide no matter the roadway slope or indeed vehicle speed. The tank will have a maximum movement capacity of perhaps two inches, effectively none in practicality.

Flame lighting should be done with extra care. The torch should be resting firmly against whatever object is to be burnt, its nozzle directed upward at about a 45-degree angle. The tank valve should be opened first, the pipe valve then eased off just enough to make escaping gas audible. A match tossed (not held) toward the far end provides sufficient spark and flame should be burning immediately. If a torch does not light at the first try it is best to close the rod valve and wait a few minutes for released gas to dissipate before beginning again. In still or sheltered circumstances, unlit propane may pool in close proximity to the operator and the potential for disaster becomes obvious.

It is imperative the nozzle not be blocked by having it pressed too close to constricting material for gas needs a free flow path to exit properly. Side air feeder vents should be unobstructed or you might experience blowback. We want flames shooting forward, and forward only.

If there is gas smell anywhere around the unit when the front valve is closed each connecting joint should be tested with a high suds soap and water mix to locate leakage. Propane is highly explosive and should be respected accordingly.

Tanks used in even relatively cold weather will quickly lose pressure as frost builds up on its outer sides. Do not, under any circumstances, presume to heat a tank with its own propane as a remedy. (See bomb comment above.)

Stan Harder writes from St. Brides, Alta.

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