Cooking in UG's part 2

By Teri Simpson of Optimum Preparedness



Well, I sure got a lot of feedback on my last article about using stoves in underground shelters. Enough that I would like to answer some of the issues it brought up.

I spoke about methanol alcohol, propane and butane being short chain carbon molecules and said they give off only carbon dioxide and water when they combust completely.

So then we need to look at the method of delivery of the fuel to the point that it will be lit and create the fire to cook with (this would be the burner). We need to look at this because, while the FIRE is not giving off poisonous gases as the fuel is consumed in flame, the fumes from fuel itself can be a huge issue.

In the last article, I spoke mainly about the alcohol stoves and butane stove, and didn’t go into propane stoves for use in undergrounds. That was not because I think anything is wrong with using propane in a confined space. However there are issues that arise when using propane that don’t arise when using the butane stove. We’ll get into that later in this article.

So, we want to look at options that do not allow any of the fumes or vapors from the fuel to evaporate into the airspace of a shelter, because in a closed environment like an underground a whole different set of rules apply than if you are camping in the open air, or on a boat or even in a regular kitchen that has doors, windows and exhaust fans.

Below are excerpts from the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) sheets on the 3 fuels we’ve been discussing. The highlighting has been done by me to draw attention to certain sentences.


Vapor harmful. Flammable liquid and vapor. Harmful if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. Causes eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation. May cause central nervous system depression. Cannot be made non-poisonous. Target Organs: Eyes, nervous system, optic nerve.

Methanol is toxic and can very readily form extremely high vapor concentrations at room temperature. Inhalation is the most common route of occupational exposure. At first, methanol causes CNS (central nervous system) depression with nausea, headache, vomiting, dizziness and incoordination. A time period with no obvious symptoms follows (typically 8-24 hrs). This latent period is followed by metabolic acidosis and severe visual effects which may include reduced reactivity and/or increased sensitivity to light, blurred, double and/or snowy vision, and blindness. Depending on the severity of exposure and the promptness of treatment, survivors may recover completely or may have permanent blindness, vision disturbances and/or nervous system effects.

Chronic: Prolonged or repeated skin contact may cause dermatitis. Chronic exposure may cause effects similar to those of acute exposure. Methanol is only very slowly eliminated from the body. Because of this slow elimination, methanol should be regarded as a cumulative poison. Though a single exposure may cause no effect, daily exposures may result in the accumulation of a harmful amount. Methanol has produced fetotoxicity in rats and teratogenicity in mice exposed by inhalation to high concentrations that did not produce significant maternal toxicity.


Ingestion is unlikely.

This product is considered to be non-toxic by inhalation. Inhalation of concentrations of about 10,000 ppm may cause central nervous system depression such as dizziness, drowsiness, headache, and similar narcotic symptoms, but no long-term effects.

Vapors are not irritating.

Vapors are not irritating.

[Note from Teri: The butane canisters used with the Porta Chef stove are designed to not let any butane out of the canister until you have engaged the canister in the stove. Even at that point, no butane is released until the piezo electric starter clicks and ignites the fuel – hence no butane vapors. The canisters do not leak. I have some from 1999 and they are all full. I am including the MSDS data NOT BECAUSE THERE IS ANY DANGER OF BREATHING BUTANE GAS, but because if I present ONLY information on the methanol then you would wonder about the information on the other fuels. I include this information so I do not leave any of you wondering.]


Propane vapor is heavier than air and can collect in low areas that are without sufficient ventilation. Conduct system checks for leaks with a leak detector or solution, never with flame. Make certain the container service valve is shut off prior to connecting or disconnecting. If container valve does not operate properly, discontinue use.

Propane is nontoxic and is a simple asphyxiant, however it does have slight anesthetic properties and higher concentrations may cause dizziness.

Asphyxiation. Before suffocation could occur, the lower flammability limit of propane in air would be exceeded, possibly causing both an oxygen-deficient and explosive atmosphere. Exposure to concentrations >10% may cause dizziness. Exposure to atmospheres containing 19% or less oxygen will bring about unconsciousness without warning. Lack of sufficient oxygen may cause serious injury or death.

Ingestion is not expected to occur in normal use.



First thing to do is consider the potential of fumes from a fuel getting into the air so you could inhale any of them.

Will you get BUTANE fumes in the air?

Not unless you puncture the canister (stupid idea), or go take the tip off of a can of hairspray or spray paint and see if you can get butane to squirt out of the canister (and how likely is THAT to happen?).

So I’m going to say NO you will not have any butane vapor/fumes in the air.

Will you get PROPANE fumes in the air?

A lot depends on how the stove/range is installed. If installed by a professional, and there are safe guards in place to insure your safety, you should be absolutely fine. You would want to have propane leak detectors in place by any propane appliances. These range from simple battery operated ones to leak detectors that will automatically shut off the supply of propane to that appliance (these require a manual reset and manually restarting the flow again).

Because propane is heavier than air it pools on the floor much the way water would. Because of this, oftentimes “propane drains” are installed in the floor of an underground shelter so that should there ever be a leak the propane would flow down into the propane drain the way a water leak would go down a floor drain.

And then consideration has to be given on how to get the propane from a buried propane tank to the inside of an underground so as to minimize pipe shearing should there be earth movement.

If you have your propane stove/range installed by a professional, and the builder has taken into consideration ground movement, air flow, air consumption by the stove in it’s varying roles (single burner being used, multiple burners being used, the oven being used, and you have propane leak detectors, then I’m going to say NO you should not have any propane vapors/fumes in the air.

For some people that level of technology is not in the budget, and that is where a portable butane stove comes in so handy. What about portable propane stoves, you may ask. They make a lot of camping stoves that use the dark green 1 lb propane canisters. All I can say on those is that my brother bought a huge quantity of those right before Y2K (1999). Two years later they were all empty, and not because he used them. Because the propane all leaked out. Not a good thing in my book. And lucky he didn’t have them in a confined living space like an underground.

Will you get ALCOHOL fumes in the air?

If you use the Trangia stove or the Origo alcohol stoves, yes you will. Are these fumes bad for you? We have seen that they are.

Can you minimize the skin contact with the methanol/ethanol? Sure: wear latex or nitrile gloves or just be really tidy when filling the burners. Can you minimize the vapors that will evaporate into your air? Sure: when you put the Trangia burner out, when the burner has cooled down, screw on the gasketed lid. When you turn the knob on the front of the Origo, it just slides a non-airtight plate across the top of the burner. This will allow fumes to escape into the air. You will need to wrap aluminum foil over the top and sides of the burner to keep evaporation from happening.

I have a Trangia stove and a bunch of alcohol. I figure I can use it “top side” (i.e. not in a shelter situation) if I use the outlined safety practices, which include lots of ventilation, maximizing vapor containment and not letting any get on my skin.

With alcohol, I’m going to say YES you will have alcohol/methanol/ethanol vapors/fumes in the air of an underground shelter.


A lady wrote in asking if I was suggesting using a propane/butane light/lantern to make light in the UG. NO!

FIRE USES AIR. FIRE IS IN DIRECT COMPETITION WITH YOU FOR THE AIR THAT IS AVAILABLE. With enough fire (stoves, oil lamps, oil lanterns, candles, etc), the fire will win and you will die. If you have lots of fire from different sources using up the oxygen in the air faster than fresh air can be brought into the shelter, soon there will be less and less available oxygen and you pass out. if the air consumption continues at a rate faster than the air can be replaced, eventually you die.

For light in a shelter there are lots of non-fire alternatives: battery lanterns, 12 volt lighting, hand crank lanterns. You’d be surprised how much light the 12 hour snap lights give off – plenty for ambient lighting in a bathroom or bedroom area. And you can fit bunches of them in a 5 gallon bucket. Batteries now store for several years. Fill a bucket with batteries (and consider getting as many things as possible that run on the same kind of battery so you only have to store AA and D batteries for example).

Another person wrote in asking about the 5 gallon propane tanks used with a stove. Again, when proper precautions are taken, there should be no problem with using those in an underground. But you have to be conscious: stupid mistakes are less deadly above ground than underground.

The propane tanks need to be secured so in the event of ground movement they are not crashing around. You need to verify that none of the tanks leak with a propane leak detector. When you connect them to the stove use a good hose and check for leaks on both ends of the hose with a leak detector. Have at least one or two extra hoses in case something happens to the one you are using. Make sure that the stove wouldn’t fall off the table or counter if there is ground movement – if it fell it could potentially damage the connection of the hose at either end causing a leak.

I hope this helps clarify a few of the questions.

Teri Simpson
Optimum Preparedness


Please log in to post comments