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It's a little hard to enjoy grilled hamburgers, if you've just blown the siding off your house, or set fire to your trousers. That's part of why safety is an important part of grilling.

You've heard this before, but read the grill manufacturer's instructions, and keep those manuals and papers where you can find them later.

What follows is just a quick overview of some high points. You'll find a pretty good discussion of grilling safety at http://hpba.org/consumer/bbq/safety.shtml.

Before getting into this subject, a disclaimer: Just as I am not a chef, I'm not an expert on safety. That HPBA page would be a good place to start learning about grill safety. What I write should not be viewed as an authoritative resource for grill safety.

Grill Outdoors

The first safety point should be fairly obvious. Grill outdoors. Don't grill in an enclosed area, like a garage. Grilling with charcoal or LP gas generates carbon monoxide, which can be lethal. Under normal outdoor conditions, the gentlest breeze will carry the gas away. Inside, that doesn't happen. Grilling in a garage, in the basement, or some other place that isn't outside, can kill. Even if you leave a window open.

Besides, if you don't grill outside, you'll never enjoy the thrill of grilling in the rain. Or snow. And you won't have the comforting experience of having your spouse call you in out of a hailstorm.

LP gas

Propane is an excellent fuel: clean, efficient, and easy to handle. If you're careful. If you're not careful, sooner or later it will explode. Then you may experience a brief, and possibly posthumous, moment of fame.

When to Get a New Gas Cylinder

Buying an LP gas cylinder with an OPD safety valve, and following the grill's safety instructions, is a small price to pay for keeping the buildings around you intact, and you on the right side of the sod.

When it is time to get the cylinder filled, see if it's dented, gouged, or rusty. If it is, you probably need a new one. Another thing: LP gas cylinders for grills now have an "OPD," or Overflow Prevention Device. If the gas cylinder you use doesn't have one of these things, it is time to get a new one.

You probably don't like spending money any more than I do. Gas cylinders are expensive, but think about it: buying one is a whole lot cheaper and easier than buying a new house, and finding a new family to live in it.

Close the Valve

Making sure that the valve on the tank is closed when you're through is a good idea. You don't want that gas escaping. If it collects, and makes contact with something hot, it will ignite.

Don't overdo it, though. I'm told that some folks have gotten enthusiastic with a wrench, using mighty force to shut the valve. This isn't necessary, and can damage the valve.

LP gas cylinder valves typically have handles that are obviously designed to be shut by hand: and are designed to be opened and closed by someone with normal strength. Just be sure the cylinder's valve is turned all the way to the closed position when you're done.

Don't Overfill

Do I have to say it? A 20 pound cylinder holds 20 pounds of LP gas. That leaves a little room for the liquid to expand. And it will, particularly in Minnesota, in normal August heat. Asking a dealer to overfill your cylinder is the opposite of smart.

Don't Let Your Grill Blow Its Top

When you light a gas grill, leave the lid open. If it is shut, gas could build up and "flash" when it ignites. That wouldn't do the grill, or you, any good.

Storing the Cylinder

Storing LP cylinders takes a little attention. They should be kept upright, in a place where the temperature won't get above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The storage area should outside, away from fire (that includes the grill), more than a yard from windows or doors leading into a building, and at least 2 yards from air intakes for air conditioning or ventilating systems. That's according to a couple of more-or-less official safety resources, anyway.

A (Fairly) Clean Grill is a Happy Grill

Finally, if the grill has been in storage or out of use for a while, like over the winter, check the grill and gas lines for leaks, rust, and anything else that may need attention. You might even find spider webs in the burner.

The grill shouldn't be used until leaky lines are replaced, rusty parts are fixed, spiders are evicted and their webs extracted.

If you grill year-round, like I do, it's a good idea to give your grilling equipment a once-over twice a year.

I learned that grilling in winter allows grease to build up in the bottom of the grill. Normally, grease would drain into the grease trap, but sub-freezing temperatures don't let that happen. I got a surprise, one spring, when the winter's accumulation of grease caught fire.

That time, flames from the grease fire danced under the grill like a fireplace in a Christmas greeting card. The hamburger patties sizzled, popped, and quickly browned. I acted quickly, but they were charring around the edges before I got them off the rack and onto a plate. Happily, I didn't have any more trouble with that fire, beyond those exceedingly well-done burgers.

A smart way to avoid a repeat of that little incident is to remove most of the stuff that accumulates around the briquettes before spring temperatures rise.

And this leads into another important safety topic: fire.


Keeping fire where it belongs is another way to keep grilling safe.

Fireball Fryers

I made an important discovery, the first time I grilled chicken. Grilled chicken meat produces a great deal of grease, and chicken grease burns.

I call the phenomenon "fireball fryers." Here's how it was done. Once.

Following directions, I had made an aluminum foil tray on the grill, and laid the chicken pieces on it. Chicken fat melted and gathered in the tray. Soon, enough had collected to bend the aluminum foil and spill most of the grease onto hot metal and briquettes below.

With a small but insistent roar, a grease fire flared under the chicken. And around the chicken. Then flaming grease dripped into the grease trap, and a merry little blaze sprang up in that little dangling soup can under the grill.

Happily, I was standing at the grill. It took several minutes, but finally I had some of the grease drained off, some of it burned off, and not enough around the now very well done chicken to cause more trouble. That chicken came out a little crisper than we usually like, but it was quite edible.

That was the last time I let grease accumulate. I still grill chicken, but now the chicken gets wrapped in foil, rather than put on a foil tray. I still get a few flare-ups, but not anything like the conflagration that so nearly consumed an entire chicken dinner.

And, the chicken comes out juicier.

Water and Grease Fires Don't Mix

You know this already, and don't need to hear it again, but I'll repeat it just to cover all the bases: don't put water on a grease fire. That just spreads the grease, and the fire. It may be possible to put out the fire by covering it with something fireproof, like a pot lid or metal pan.

If the fire and the supply of fuel is small enough, and there is positively no danger of it spreading or damaging anything, it may be safe to let it burn itself out. If you have to, use a fire extinguisher.

Remember: dry leaves burn

Then there was the time that a drop of flaming grease fell from the grill and onto dry leaves. The leaves caught fire, igniting the leaves around them. At this point, my daughter helpfully pointed out that my shin would soon be turning medium-rare, if steps weren't promptly taken.

By this time the fire didn't involve grease, so I used water to extinguish the fire, and to soak the surrounding area.

I then resolved to never, ever, let plant waste accumulate around a grill again.

Don't let your grill get lonely

One more thing: Don't leave a grill unattended. That doesn't mean that you have to stand over it every minute, when you're baking something like potatoes. Go ahead, stroll around the yard. Have a seat in the shade.

But don't let that grill out of your sight, and don't take a nap. Even good grills can go bad. If yours does, you'll want to be no more than a few steps away. Those little accidents I described could have gotten very serious, very fast, if someone hadn't noticed what was going on within seconds of the start of trouble.

Safety Goggles

Oddly, I haven't seen eye protection mentioned in discussions of grilling safety. Grease from grilling meat will spatter. I often have to wash my glasses after grilling, and once in a while a spot will suddenly appear as I'm looking at the grill.

At moments like that, I'm glad that there's something between my eyes and that hot grease. For folks with perfect vision, it might make sense to wear sunglasses or safety goggles while grilling.

Raw Meat and the Potato Salad That Wouldn't Die

Don't let your food poison you. You've probably heard enough public service announcements about this, so I'll keep it brief.

Don't let meat, potato salad, or other perishable foods, sit around. Eat it, cook it, freeze it, or put it in the refrigerator.

Wash the counter where you put raw meat, or worked with it, before you use it again.

When you're done grilling, don't put the food on the plate you carried it out in. Use a clean plate. Unless the food is baked potatoes, and the plate didn't have meat on it.

Finally, although every once in a while some newspaper or magazine publishes a scary article about carcinogens and grilling. Less exciting, and I think better informed, publications point out that sensible grilling does not seem to be a health risk. The harmful chemicals form when meat or fat is burned. And, unless you prefer meat briquettes to steak, burned fat mostly ends up as the charred stuff at the bottom of the grill.

So, you shouldn't eat blackened debris from the bottom of the grill. Your meat, on the other hand, should be good to eat. That's assuming that the meat itself hasn't been incinerated. Seriously, scrape or cut the blackened debris off your steak, before you eat it.

Next: Extreme Safety: Above and Beyond the Call of Reason

Or: How to Grill

Copyright 2005 Brian H. Gill

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