Don’t Get Burned With Your Gas Grill!

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Expertise Includes:

    • Electrical & Mechanical Control Systems
    • Fires & Explosions
    • Gas Fired Equipment & Appliances
    • ICC, NFPA, OSHA Codes & Standards
    • Industrial Processes & Operations

If there is one thing Americans can agree upon, it is the enjoyment that comes from an outdoor barbeque.  Whether a summertime cookout or a fall BBQ to watch a football game, we all love the fun and fellowship that comes from sharing a meal that was prepared outdoors on a grill or smoker.  In fact, 64% of Americans own a grill or smoker.  The great majority of these are LP fueled gas grills with comparatively few natural gas fired grills.  These products can be enjoyed safely when designed, installed, and used in a proper manner.  However, given the grill’s use of flammable fuel gas and high temperatures, the potential exists for things to go wrong and result in burn injuries or uncontained fires that spread to the surroundings.

I am quite familiar with safe gas grill design and use as, prior to entering the forensics field, I was the Vice President of Engineering at a gas grill manufacturer. Since then, in my practice as a forensic engineer and fire investigator, I have investigated many structural fires and burn injuries involving gas grills.  Typical incidents involve a fire at a grill that spreads to an adjacent residence or an operator that is burned during the use of the grill.  Figure 1 shows a grill which was involved in a residential fire. The grill was improperly installed too close to combustible wood supports. Figure 2 shows flames that issued from the operator’s access opening on a gas grill when it experienced a delayed ignition.  Excessive LP gas had accumulated in the grill due to a leaking valve.  The flames injured the grill’s operator.

Figure 1: Remains of a gas grill that was installed too close to combustible wood support framing. A fire started at the grill and spread to the adjacent residence.

Figure 2: Flames exiting from the operator’s access opening on an unlisted and improperly designed gas grill. The flames injured the grill’s user.

Generally, injuries and fires occur when proper procedures are not followed.  These procedures relate to the design, installation and use of the grills. Regarding the design of gas grills, there are several relevant product standards.  The primary standard is ANSI Z21.58 Standard for Outdoor Cooking Gas Appliances.  Larger gas grills are sometimes designed to ANSI Z83.11  Gas Food Service Equipment.  Additionally, equipment such as smokers or turkey fryers are covered under ANSI Z21.89 Outdoor Cooking Specialty Gas Appliances. I have designed and had products laboratory approved to each of these standards. The standards include many safety requirements of the product’s design and construction.  They also mandate many performance tests that the grill must be able to pass. Also specified are many of the required warnings and information to be supplied in an owner’s manual. Generally, mass produced gas grills have been designed to one of these standards and tested and listed by a testing lab such as UL, ETL or CSA.  “Listed” means included on the laboratory’s database of approved products.  This is a key step in ensuring a reasonably safe gas grill.  Many of the gas grill burn injury cases I have investigated involved unlisted gas grills.  These may lack the safe design provisions and proven performance of listed gas grills.

However, even listed gas grills can have problems if they are not installed in a correct manner.  Gas grills broadly fall into two categories, those with “self-contained” fuel supplies (like 20 pound LP tanks) or “fixed fuel” grill installations that are supplied with either natural gas service or LP gas from a larger fixed bulk tank.  These are illustrated in Figures 3 and 4. Each of these types has specific installation requirements.  For the self-contained fuel type with a normal LP cylinder, these installation requirements largely relate to following the manufacturer’s requirements as to the proper location and operation of the grill.  Additionally, there are code regulations regarding the use of such grills.  For example, gas grills with 20 pound LP cylinders cannot be used inside buildings and are generally not allowed to be used on balconies of apartment buildings.

Figure 3: Freestanding LP gas grill with “self-contained” fuel source, in this case a 20 pound LP cylinder.

Figure 4: Dual grills installed in one island enclosure. This style of installation is called a “permanent” installation with a “fixed fuel” supply. The grills shown were involved with a burn injury incident.

Grills that are permanently installed in a surround or island (see figure 4) and are supplied with fuel gas from a fixed fuel source have more involved code requirements.  Codes require that these grills be listed to either ANSI Z21.58 or ANSI Z83.11. Additionally, the installation must be in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.  In some locales, the construction of the grill island and installation of the grill will require an installation permit and inspection.   In addition to the installation of the grill, the fuel supply system itself, whether LP or natural gas, often will require an installation permit with inspection.  The fixed fuel supply system itself must be designed and installed per the requirements of the relevant gas code, typically either NFPA 54 National Fuel Gas Code, NFPA 58 Liquified Petroleum Gas Code and/or the International Fuel Gas Code.

Once the gas grill has been manufactured and installed in a proper manner, the user must operate the grill in an appropriate manner.  This generally requires operating and maintaining the grill in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. A common operational problem is the delayed ignition of accumulated fuel that creates a larger than normal fire which burns the operator.  Another problem that occurs is a fire at the grill that spreads to the surrounding structure.  Problems in the design, installation or operation of the grill may cause or contribute to these situations.

If you have a burn injury or fire incident that involves a gas grill, contact Warren for an informed investigation that will consider all the potential causes of the incident.

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