Is There Any Way To Tell Whether a Barbecue Grill’s Propane Is Going To Run Out In the Middle of Cooking?

It’s pretty hard to look inside that steel tank and see how much propane is left before you fire up the grill, isn’t it? Not all grills have pressure gauges.

But hardware stores sell an ingenious little indicator that looks like a strip of plastic because it is. You stick it onto the outside of the tank and, by changing color, it shows you exactly where the propane level is inside the tank. It works by detecting the cooling of the propane gas as it flows out through the valve during use.

The propane inside the tank is under pressure, so it is actually mostly in the form of liquid, with some gas above it. (You can hear the liquid sloshing around if you jostle the tank.) While burning your hamburgers, you are tapping off some of the gas, and more liquid evaporates to replace it. This evaporation cools the gas, so you have a layer of cool gas above a layer of warmer liquid.

The strip of plastic contains liquid crystals, which have different optical properties at different temperatures. What it shows you, then, is one color above the liquid’s surface, reflecting the temperature of the cool gas, and a different color below the surface, reflecting the temperature of the warmer liquid. The borderline between the colors is where the liquid’s surface lies within the tank.

You’ll find that the gauge works only while you’re bleeding off gas. After you shut down the tank and it warms up, there is no temperature difference inside, and there are no different colors on the gauge.