LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) is great for barbecuing and heating. But burning it produces harmful gases – nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide – which can have serious health effects and even cause death.

Some Kiwis have died from carbon-monoxide poisoning because they’ve used portable LPG appliances indoors or in poorly ventilated areas. We checked the safety information that comes with these products.

The risks

Carbon monoxide and the other gases given off from burning LPG (plus the extra humidity that’s created) can affect children and unborn babies, elderly people, and anyone who has a heart or respiratory disease.

Carbon monoxide is the most dangerous of these gases. It causes sleepiness and lack of concentration – and high levels can be fatal. Nitrogen dioxide can worsen asthma symptoms. Burning LPG produces about half a litre an hour of moisture, which if it remains inside the house is likely to cause dampness and encourage the growth of mould and dust mites that contribute to illnesses like asthma.

Built-in appliances using LPG, such as cooktops, heaters and water heaters, normally have a flue to vent the toxic gases and moisture to the outside. Portable LPG appliances – like heaters, barbecues, patio heaters and lights, cookers and smokers – don’t have a chimney or flue to take these toxic gases away. So they can be dangerous if they’re not used correctly. They must be used either outside or in well-ventilated areas.

Many motorhomes and caravans are fitted with LPG appliances. Recreational LPG appliances are safe to use - carefully. The risks increase if there are problems such as gas leaks from a poor connection that could result in an explosion. Poor ventilation can cause an LPG appliance to burn inefficiently and produce carbon monoxide.

LPG fridges or heaters fitted to caravans must be ventilated to the outside – so the risk from them is low. But for many years flueless instantaneous water heaters were allowed in caravans. These are risky, especially if they’re used without enough ventilation.

Also, caravan stoves are often misused as makeshift heaters. In cold weather with doors and windows shut, the risk of CO poisoning is higher. LPG stoves are classed as “supervised appliances” and don’t need to be flued.

Our survey

Consumer NZ – together with the Ministry of Health – has investigated whether consumers are being given adequate safety warnings and information about how to use LPG appliances safely.

We surveyed shops selling portable and recreational LPG appliances and checked the safety-information labels on the portable LPG cabinet heaters, patio heaters, barbecues, portable fridges, lanterns and portable cookers we found. We also talked to importers of these products to see how well they understood the labelling rules.

Some stores sold cookers, fridges and water heaters for fitting to motor homes and caravans. We checked any available warning information for these, as well as discussing the safety issues with installers.

We checked with traders of motor homes and caravans, as well as manufacturers of new motor homes, to see how well they understood the safety rules. The rules have been tightened over the past five years. Some issues we discovered were discussed with the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA).

Heaters for indoor use

Portable LPG cabinet heaters are the most common unflued LPG appliances designed for use indoors. In Australia and other countries, the local gas-safety rules mean these heaters are effectively banned.

Since 2011, the gas regulations here have required portable LPG cabinet heaters to carry three types of safety-information labelling. One of these labels must be permanently fixed to the heater. The second label must be attached to the heater in such a way that it’ll be read and removed before the heater is used for the first time (this label may also be put on the packaging). The third label is the Gas Safety Compliance Label – which shows compliance with the gas regulations.

All the three heater brands we found had safety-information labelling. But only the Kent brand had all three compulsory labels. The Gas King brand had two safety-information labels but not the Gas Safety Compliance Label. The DeLonghi model we inspected had the permanent safety-information label but neither of the other two labels. Gas King told us that when the heater was imported it was allowed to be labelled using the pre-2011 rules.

Recreational appliances

Outdoor LPG appliances aren’t always required to have safety-information or warning labels. However, we found most of them did have permanent labels with clear warnings that they should only be used outdoors.

What’s more, the safety-information labels we found on many barbecues and patio heaters were different from the labels required here for portable LPG heaters. We decided to dig deeper and discovered – after checking the Aussie rules – that they were Australian labels.

Australia requires all portable appliances using LPG bottles to comply with the safety standard for that appliance – and they must carry the standard’s warning label. The labels we found on many of the patio heaters and barbecues here were exactly those required by the rules in Australia.

Another important piece of safety information included on most outdoor LPG appliances was a warning about the need to check for gas leaks. Many of these warnings also gave information on how to do it.

Portable appliances

These are typically used for camping, boating and emergency cooking. Changes to the Gas Regulations require portable LPG appliances to show the Gas Compliance label after July 1 2013. Appliances imported before then may be sold without complying with the new labelling rules. But older appliances often have warnings to make sure they’re used with adequate ventilation. Newer warning labels also commonly state for “Outdoor use only”. Energy Safety, part of Worksafe, is responsible for the Gas Regulations.

We thought the level of safety warnings on camping-style cookers, LPG fridges, lanterns, barbecues and heaters was satisfactory for this stage of the transition to stronger warning labels. Importers were aware many older appliances were still in stores and assured us all new products were being correctly labelled. The importers understand the requirements. They are monitored by Energy Safety.

Fitted appliances

Some appliances had safety warnings on the product, but most had the warnings in the instructions. Installers told us they were aware of the rules and used licensed gasfitters and had new gas certificates issued for all work.

Importers also understood the rules. One told us he was often asked by private importers of motor homes to supply certification documents for its appliance brands. The appliances were LPG appliances that weren’t certified for use here and could not be certified or legally installed. These requests were declined.

LPG appliance sellers said they sometimes sold LPG appliances to DIY customers. They explained the rules and the need for a certificate, but wondered whether illegal work was sometimes being done. We found LPG safety advice on the websites of some sellers.

Caravan sellers

Traders said they always had motor homes or caravans issued with a new gas certificate before sale. Importers had the caravan modified and certified to comply with our rules. Several traders said they did not buy and sell older vans as it was too costly to get a certificate.

Some traders suggested a gas WOF should be introduced. This would require a new certificate being issued every three to five years, but other traders thought it wasn’t necessary. One said “our customers are pretty sensible and we don’t need more rules”.

We were shown an older caravan at one yard that seemed to have had illegal DIY work done. The trader said it was a death-trap. It would be modified and safety certified before sale. It had an unflued gas heater. There was also a water heater with an illegal flue: a shutter was fitted to block out the rain. With the shutter closed it became an unflued water heater.

We checked for dodgy caravans on Trade Me but found many had certificates. Two older vans seemed to have an unflued water heater in the shower, but that was legal 20 or more years ago. While this is risky, older systems are still acceptable under the new rules.

Motor home builders

The two interviewed understood the rules and said Energy Safety kept a close watch on them. LPG is mostly used for cooking appliances, with 12-volt fridges and diesel heaters becoming more popular.

New Zealand Motor Caravan Association

It said older, more risky LPG appliances were wearing out and couldn’t be repaired. They could only be replaced with models that met the new rules and a new certificate is compulsory after installation. The association thought a gas WOF was unenforceable and would oppose it.

Our view

  • There should be a permanent safety-information label on every portable LPG appliance whether it’s an indoor or outdoor appliance. The warning should be permanently fixed to the appliance in a clearly visible position, preferably near the ignition control.
  • The new rules mean portable appliances will carry much better safety warnings once the old stock has been sold. Appliance importers and installers for caravans have a good understanding of the rules and as far as possible ensure gas-appliance fitting is done safely.
  • Carbon-monoxide sensors, which automatically turn off the LPG supply, should be compulsory for any LPG appliance (such as a heater or a refrigerator) that’s intended for use indoors.
  • We’d like to see more widely available safety messages. This would mean there’s a greater awareness of the risks of misuse, the risks of using older LPG appliances and the need for safe and certified installations in caravans.
  • Energy Safety should adopt the Australian safety standards for portable LPG-fuelled appliances. It should also introduce compulsory safety-testing and safety-labelling for these appliances.