Index Home About Blog
From: John De Armond
Newsgroups: rec.outdoors.rv-travel
Subject: Re: Propane tank warning
Date: Thu, 12 Jun 2008 04:34:24 -0400
Message-ID: <>

On 11 Jun 2008 12:54:02 -0500, nothermark <> wrote:

>On Wed, 11 Jun 2008 12:57:21 -0400, Lon VanOstran
><> wrote:
>>The following was received by my niece in Queen's Creek, AZ, and passed
>>on to me. She works for the city there. There really is a Chief Deputy
>>Scott Mellinger in Monroe, county, Indiana, as demonstrated by this
>>story in today's paper.
>>Snopes is neutral, saying it's possible but unlikely. It sure won't hurt
>>to watch for blue or green corrosion if you ever exchange tanks, which
>>we never do.
>Interesting page:
>Looks like they may be transporting anhydrous ammonia or cooking in
>the LP tank.  
>FWIW I wouldn't take any pressure tank that showed signs of corrosion.
>That's Darwin award material. 

Ye gods, and to think people of this mental capacity are allowed to carry guns
and put people in jail.  This is so wrong.  The worst part is, cops of this
ignorance level will get on the stand and swear that this kind of
"information" is true.  Even worse is that the system presumes them truthful
and the average government school educated jurist doesn't know the difference.

Where to start..  Maybe at the Big Bang.

A Big Bang is what you get if you follow this guy's description and

"...empty the chemical contents of cold compress packs, fertilizer, Red Devil
Lye, and sulfuric acid into a tank".

Lye and concentrated sulfuric acid (the red jug in one of the photographs)
react explosively, generating massive amounts of steam and heat and spattering
the highly corrosive chemicals all over the place. The guy doing the mixing
will be burned, possibly blinded and if a substantial quantity of chemicals
(such as those in the photo) are involved, blown off his feet. When the
chemicals do react, they neutralize each other producing sodium sulfate and
[[water]], both totally worthless in a meth context.

Cold compress packs contain ammonium nitrate.  Fertilizer, at least the kind
that might be used in this meth process is also ammonium nitrate.  Same stuff.
Duh.  Cops and meth cooks operate at about the same level of stooooopid so
it's no surprise that the bag of fertilizer shown in the photo is NOT what is
required.  That bag contains ordinary low potency multi-purpose fertilizer.
Again, perfectly useless for meth cooking.*

Ammonia CAN be made by mixing ammonium nitrate and lye but it is NOT anhydrous
- dry, pressurized, liquefied - ammonia.  It forms aqueous ammonia which is
useless for meth production.  The anhydrous ammonia is used in meth production
as a solvent.  It is under about 125 psi at room temperature (70 deg F).  Keep
that in mind as we proceed.  More discussion of the solvent properties of
anhydrous ammonia can be read in this Wiki article

Typical of Wikipedia, mostly right but filled with glaring errors.  The
solvent discussion is correct to the best of my knowledge.

The first photo in the downloadable .doc file, the one with the blue tank, the
coffee can and the coke bottle, is a setup for drawing liquid anhydrous
ammonia out of the tank, letting it cool and expand so that some of it can be
contained at atmospheric pressure in the coke bottle. There it can be used as
the solvent.

The gunk on the bottle walls is undoubtedly the impurities that the ammonia
solvent was used to extract.  Important point here.  The liquid ammonia was
ALREADY IN THE TANK, obtained from somewhere else.  More on THAT in a minute.

The photos of the chrome fire extinguisher almost surely do NOT show a
container of anhydrous ammonia.  I can tell from several indications.  First,
the pressure indication is too low.  Unless it is very cold, and the green
grass indicates to me that it probably isn't, the pressure indication should
be well up in the green area.

Second, the destruction of the gauge.  That little gauge contains a curly tube
attached to the pointer that is made of brass.  Anhydrous ammonia does not
attack brass.  Moist ammonia eats it up!

Third, the green grunge on the tank.  That's copper compounds formed when
ammonia attacks brass.

The tank probably contains a super-saturated solution of ammonium hydroxide,
what ammonia forms when it dissolves in water, under moderate pressure.
Perhaps the "cookers" had instructions that said to use "liquid ammonia" and
he knew just enough to make ammonia-water.  Who knows?  Not enough information
to be definitive.

The red compressed air tank MIGHT contain anhydrous ammonia.  The tank could
withstand the pressure.  The green grunge on the brass fitting might be from
an ammonia leak or it might just be from ammonia vapors wafting around the

Earlier I mentioned the anhydrous ammonia (I'm getting tired of typing
"anhydrous" so I'll just say "ammonia" from now on.) already being in the blue
tank.  Where did it come from?  Your friendly local farmer's co-op.  Ammonia
is a very common and fairly inexpensive fertilizer.  It is stored in tanks
that look just like propane tanks.  In fact, at one time, propane and ammonia
were shipped in the same rail tankers.  Many of the fittings are the same.
More on THAT later.

Ammonia theft has been a problem for years for farmers and the co-ops.  I've
been hearing about it for at least 10 years.  The important point is, the meth
cooks were NOT manufacturing ammonia - they'd either bought it or more likely
stolen it.

Another ammonia theft problem has to do with very large low temperature
refrigeration systems such as cool many frozen food warehouses.  Most of these
systems use ammonia because it is the most efficient refrigerant known.  Using
ammonia saves a TON of electricity over using any of the freons.  I've seen a
LOT of reports in the HVAC press of ammonia being stolen from such systems.

Back to propane tanks.  Back in the mid-80s when I owned the welding supply
distributorship, a minor disaster happened.  Since ammonia and propane have
similar vapor pressure curves, it was a popular practice to use railroad
tanker cars to haul ammonia in the summer and propane the rest of the year.
Just clean out the tank, change the label and away you go.

That is until one time someone didn't clean out the ammonia before loading the
propane.  For a variety of reasons, fuel propane is invariably laden with
moisture.  Mix ammonia and water and you end up with ammonium hydroxide, a
fairly strong caustic solution that eats brass and copper like Clinton ate
interns.  ahem....

What's inside almost every gas-fired heating appliance and gas regulator?
That's right, brass fittings and valves.  This contaminated propane got out to
customers and when it reached the brass it started eating it up.  The result
was a whole rash of heating equipment failures.

I sold propane but I didn't get any of the contaminated stuff.  One of my
competitors did.  It bankrupted him.  Because of this literally one in a
million event, the feds banned the dual use of tankers. Typical over-reaction.

What does this have to do with meth?  For one thing, dozens of times I've seen
the essential facts of this accident folded, spindled and mutilated so badly
to where I barely recognize the facts.  For another, I see elements of the
event embedded in this false alarm about propane cylinders.

Now a propane cylinder CAN be used to transport ammonia.  The smart person
will install an ammonia-rated steel valve in place of the brass one.  A meth
cook probably won't.  If the scenario unfolded as described - an off-the-shelf
propane tank emptied of its propane, filled with ammonia and turned back in
after use, well, it wouldn't go that far.

With the moisture that is in all commercial propane, the ammonia would go to
work on the brass valve.  It would eat the valve up!  The valve, particularly
the safety valve, would start leaking, probably within hours of the first

If the tank did somehow make it back to the local C-store, there would be a
big green blob where the valve is. Or used to be. Not even a C-store clerk
would accept one in that condition and for certain, that tank wouldn't get
refilled and re-sold.

One more item.  Ammonia doesn't attack steel.  Period.  Neither anhydrous or
aqueous.  Steel pipe is what is used to handle the stuff.  If a propane TANK,
as opposed to the valve, is corroded then something besides ammonia did it.

A question that one might ask is, "how do I know so much about this?"  Easy.
Aside from my life-long interest in and experimenting with chemistry and
refrigeration, I ran a 1000 ton ammonia ice plant one summer for TVA.  In the
summer, ice was added to concrete in the batch plant to regulate the curing
temperature.  My plant made that ice, several tons at a time.

The plant used an old open-shafted compressor that leaked ammonia like a
sieve.  We kept a 1000 gallon tank of ammonia (that looked just like a propane
tank) connected to the system all the time.  The first thing I did each shift
after donning my gas mask, was to add ammonia to the system to bring the
receiver level up to par.

With that much ammonia in the air, we learned very quickly what it attacked
and what it didn't.  ANYTHING brass was quickly rendered into green dust.
Brass fittings.  The brass rivets in my pocket knife.  The brass rivets in my
blue jeans and boots.  Brass bits on watches and watch bands.  Ink pen points.
Copper wire not in explosion-proof conduit.

When we arrived each day, we went through the "brass alley" where we were
given a numbered brass disc.  This disc was used to check out tools from the
tool room and was turned in each evening as proof of attendance.  I'd get a
new brass about every two weeks.  I brought clear fingernail polish to work
and painted the brass with a heavy coating.  That only slowed the process.  I
learned to leave ALL my pocket stuff back in the car.

The awful part of this is, other than "a lie told often enough becomes the
truth" that this kind of garbage puts non-criminals at risk.  I have
everything mentioned in that article in my shop including a tank of ammonia
but AFIK, I've never been close to meth or a lab.  One day if I get a round
tuit, I intend to build a modern version of the Crosley Icy Ball

Why?  Well, because I can and because I want to.  Plus, an Icy Ball is a
spit-load better than a cooler of ice for camping.  No water mess and it can
be regenerated over a camp stove or campfire.  And it gets cold enough to deep
freeze stuff.  Ice cream while dry camping.  That's the ticket.

It's a national tragedy that people like me who experiment and invent things
have to be in fear of having his door busted down by the drug gestapo.  Can
you imagine, say, an Edison,  today trying to experiment independently,
outside the corporate or academic world?  Sad, really and truly sad.

If nothing else comes out of this article, it should be an understanding that
cops lie, both intentionally and out of ignorant hubris.  And that their egos
let them present patently false information as the gospel truth.  Remember
that if you get called to jury duty.


* There is another meth recipe that doesn't use ammonia but does use red
phosphorus.  Phosphorus CAN be extracted from PURE phosphate fertilizer.
Perhaps this amateur chemist intended to try that process too.  Only problem
is, the fertilizer that he bought is only 10% phosphate.  Duh.  Shoulda paid
attention in Chemistry class.

Index Home About Blog