Outdoor barbecues are an iconic part of Australian culture – but how safe is the one at your place?
Over 70% of Australian homes have a barbecue, and half a million new ones are sold each year 1. They’re looking pretty sharp, too; those old grease-caked, cobweb-covered wood barbecues of yesteryear have given way to modern gas models – the centrepiece of many a backyard get-together.
The sizzle of steaks, smell of sausage and taste of fried onions are part of every Aussie summer – and impossible to resist.
Keeping safe around your home barbecue isn’t difficult if you follow a few simple precautions.
Complacency is your enemy, however – each year in this country, unsafe gas barbecues (and their connections) are responsible for injuries, fires and property damage that might easily have been avoided. Any kind of gas equipment or appliance around your home has the potential to be dangerous if not used and maintained correctly, so here are some tips to maintain your barbecue and stay safe.
Firstly, What Is LPG?
The fuel used in most Australian barbecues is LPG, which stands for Liquefied Petroleum Gas (or Liquid Petroleum Gas). A few people call it all sorts of other things too, which can be confusing. Alternative names for LPG include LPG gas, LP gas, barbecue gas, bottled gas, camping gas and propane (this is the American preference). But Down Under, we mostly refer to it as LPG 2.
Keep in mind that LPG Autogas is a different beast altogether – it’s a specific blend of LPG (mixed with butane) that’s made solely for use in automobiles.
Never use LPG Autogas in a barbecue gas cylinder – these two types of gas are NOT interchangeable 3.
Cranking Up The Barbecue?
Do these checks first:
Check your gas hoses for cracking, stretching or other wear. If you have any doubts at all about your hoses, have a qualified gasfitter check them for you.
- Your barbecue should be safety certified for use in Australia. Look for a data plate and label with a certification number. There should also be certification details on your connecting hose.
- Barbecues are designed to be used outdoors in a well-ventilated area. Never use your barbecue indoors. Aside from the fire safety risk, there is a danger of dangerous carbon monoxide gas building up, which can be fatal. Carbon monoxide is odourless, tasteless and colourless and is a silent killer.
- Make sure your barbecue is on a level surface and the area is clear of flammable materials.
- Check your LPG cylinder to make sure it’s not out of date. The most recent date of testing will be stamped on the cylinder’s neck, collar or foot ring. LPG cylinders should be tested every 10 years. If your cylinder is out of date, damaged or rusty, return it to your supplier and replace it with a new one.
- At your house, how far away is the nearest fire extinguisher from your outdoor barbecue area? Make sure an extinguisher and fire blanket are within reasonable reach: you don’t want to be running off to some distance room to pull an extinguisher off the wall.
- Check your gas hoses for cracking, stretching or other wear. If you have any doubts at all about your hoses, have a qualified gasfitter check them for you.
- A quick way to check for gas leaks before you use the barbecue is to spray a weak solution of soapy water (household detergent works well) on the hose or connection and watch for bubbles. This video shows how it’s done.
- Keep children, inebriated adults and chronically uncoordinated people away from the barbecue area. Contrary to popular belief, outdoor cooking does not require a dozen nosy onlookers offering ‘helpful’ suggestions during the entire phase of the operation. Have one responsible adult in charge: they can ask for help if they need it.
- If the barbecue is dirty, clean it before use. Aside from the dangers to your digestive health, a barbecue smeared with layers of grease, old burnt food and excessive oil is a fire hazard. Clean your grill and drip tray and check to see if your burner holes are clogged with crud.
- Ensure all gas hose connections are snug before lighting the barbecue.
If Your Barbecue Is Brand New
After buying a new barbecue, read the owner manual to familiarise yourself with how everything works. Consider barbecue placement carefully. Some wind protection is advisable and it should be positioned well away from fences, house walls or anything that might be damaged if there’s a sudden fire.
Most barbecues will come with instructions on how to ‘season’ the cooking surfaces. This is a process to remove any coatings used in shipping and help cure the surface of the hotplate to prevent rust from developing.
Line the drip tray with aluminium foil and use a fat absorber on top of that
Normally, the hotplates are removed and cleaned, then dried and replaced. Then the barbecue is turned on, left to heat up for a specified period and then turned off. A light coating of canola oil (don’t use butter, margarine or olive oil) is applied to the grill plate and rubbed in with a paper towel until no more black residue comes off on the paper towel.
The barbecue is heated up again and then left to cool.
Note: this is only one example of a seasoning procedure – the method for every barbecue is different, so follow the directions in your owner manual 4.
You may want to line the drip tray with aluminium foil and use a fat absorber on top of that (don’t use sand or cat litter). Fat absorbers do a great job of reducing flare-ups by soaking up the dripping fat.
A barbecue cover will protect your outdoor cooker from the elements, but only use it on a thoroughly cleaned barbecue: covering up a dirty barbecue is a bit like creating a convenient mini-mansion for cockroaches.
Basic Barbecue Safety Tips
Barbecues are fairly safe when used correctly, cleaned properly and maintained regularly. Here are a few handy hints to help you avoid those ‘operator error’ incidents:
When you finish cooking, turn off the gas at the bottle first and the burner knobs second – this permits any built-up gas to burn away.
- Store all LPG cylinders upright, in the shade and on a solid surface. If you’re transporting one by car, keep it upright and positioned where it won’t tip over; make sure your vehicle is well ventilated during the journey.
- When you finish cooking, turn off the gas at the bottle first and the burner knobs second – this permits any built-up gas to burn away.
- If you use a fat absorber in your drip tray, replace it at least every 10 barbecues.
- Look after yourself while barbecuing. A pair of heat-resistant barbecue gloves will protect your hands from the heat and a pair of sunglasses will keep wayward oil spatters from hitting you in the eye.
- Don’t connect the gas hose around any ignition sources or naked flames. Keep smokers away from the barbecue area. Don’t store cylinders near aerosols, petrol or flammable liquids.
- Summer is barbecue season, but it’s also bushfire season. Each state has its own rules about what you can and can’t do during a Total Fire Ban, so check with your local Fire Service about whether you’re permitted to use your barbecue at certain times – it will often depend on the type you own and where it is located. Common sense should always be your guide: if the surrounding countryside is bone dry and a hot wind is blowing hard, it’s probably not the best time to be adding heat to the equation with a barbie – whether you have official permission or not.
- Children are naturally curious, and if you’re cooking on a barbecue while there are kids around, assign another adult to supervise them so they don’t come near the hot surfaces. Keep your matches and fire lighters out of reach of young hands as well.
- Never try to put out an oil or grease fire with water – this can make it spread more quickly. Have the correct type of fire extinguisher nearby and use that instead. A fire blanket works great for smothering small barbecue fires.
- Have a garden hose nearby in case your house, dry grass or backyard plants should catch on fire.
- Once you start cooking, don’t leave the barbecue unattended until you’re finished and have turned off the gas.
- Like all gas appliances, your LPG barbecue should be tested by a licensed gasfitter at regular intervals (every couple of years is not too often).
Charcoal (Flame) Grills
If you’re using a charcoal grill to do your outdoor cooking, don’t think you’re safe just because there’s no gas to worry about.
People have even been injured by swallowing loose wire brush bristles (hard to spot on a dirty grill) that worked their way into their food.
Don’t use any kind of aerosol around an open flame grill, including spray-on sunscreens and non-stick oil sprays. Leaving a roaring charcoal grill unattended is also a bad idea – that steak or marinated chicken can catch on fire, sending flames spreading in the direction of your house or a dry backyard.
And of course, we’ve all heard about those silly people spraying lighter fluid on charcoal grills to ‘rev up’ the flames – and ending up on fire themselves 5.
Clean Your Barbecue The Right Way
No one wants to eat food cooked on a barbecue that’s still smeared with last year’s Australia Day grease. Neither the digestive system nor the taste buds will enjoy the experience.
Always clean your barbecue after each use – you’ll enjoy healthier food and your barbecue will last longer.
Those blackened, ancient bits of onion wedged in the oil trap just don’t taste the same as they did when they were originally cooked.
Dirty grills also attract vermin (both rodents and roaches).
Always clean your barbecue after each use – you’ll enjoy healthier food and your barbecue will last longer. Proper cleaning is the foundation of barbecue maintenance. And we’re not just talking about the cooking plates, either. Grease splatters everywhere so the whole unit needs cleaning.
Check your owner manual for guidance, and if your unit came with cleaning tools, use them.
A barbecue plate/grill is best cleaned while still warm, when the debris is easier to scrape off. Don’t wait until baked-on residue has turned into something resembling black concrete.
If your hotplates aren’t too large and the owner manual says there’s no harm in it, stack your barbecue plates in the dishwasher to clean them.
Once clean and dry, give them a light spray with canola oil, put them back on the barbecue and heat them up for 15 minutes or so to re-season and keep rust at bay.
Don’t remove the burners for cleaning, because if you reassemble them incorrectly (very easy to do) it can cause a safety hazard.
The next time you fire up the barbecue, give it at least a 15-minute pre-heat before cooking, to let any residue burn off and kill lingering germs.
Don’t use a garden hose or pressure cleaner to clean your barbecue – they just spread grease everywhere and can force debris into your burner, which can clog them up and interfere with your gas flow.
Don’t use harsh chemicals – they’re not necessary. The stainless steel parts of your unit will clean up nicely with hot, soapy water and a cloth. Be careful using scrubbers on polished stainless steel – you might damage the finish.
Don’t remove the burners for cleaning, because if you reassemble them incorrectly (very easy to do) it can cause a safety hazard. Check your user manual for advice on cleaning the burners 6.
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst and enjoy!
Safe use of barbecues is mainly common sense; keep them clean, be careful when using flammable gas and don’t do anything silly around flames.
Also, ask Auntie June to go easy on the hot sauce, don’t let your brother try to cook frozen steaks and inform your children that the old ‘lone sausage floating in the pool’ gag isn’t funny.
As always, it is good to play it safe and have a fire safety plan for your house. And if the worst were to ever happen, have home and contents insurance so that your house and possessions are taken care of.
If you thought this article was great, check out our barbecue tips here ‘How to BBQ: Tips & tricks.