Section 7E: Compressed Gases

SECTION 7: Safe Work Practices and Procedures

7E: Compressed Gases


Compressed gases can be toxic, flammable, oxidizing, corrosive, inert or a combination of hazards. In addition to the chemical hazards, compressed gases may be under a great deal of pressure. The amount of energy in a compressed gas cylinder makes it a potential rocket. Appropriate care in the handling and storage of compressed gas cylinders is essential.


Hazards (top)

The following is an overview of the hazards to be avoided when handling and storing compressed gases:

  • Asphyxiation: Simple asphyxiation is the primary hazard associated with inert gases. Because inert gases are colorless and odorless, they can escape into the atmosphere undetected and quickly reduce the concentration of oxygen below the level necessary to support life. The use of oxygen monitoring equipment is strongly recommended for enclosed areas where inert gases are being used.
  • Fire and Explosion: Fire and explosion are the primary hazards associated with flammable gases, oxygen and other oxidizing gases. Flammable gases can be ignited by static electricity or by a heat source, such as a flame or a hot object. Oxygen and other oxidizing gases do not burn, but will support combustion of organic materials. Increasing the concentration of an oxidizer accelerates the rate of combustion. Materials that are nonflammable under normal conditions may burn in an oxygen-enriched atmosphere.
  • Chemical Burns: Corrosive gases can chemically attack various materials, including fire-resistant clothing. Some gases are not corrosive in their pure form, but can become extremely destructive if a small amount of moisture is added. Corrosive gases can cause rapid destruction of skin and eye tissue.
  • Chemical Poisoning: Chemical poisoning is the primary hazard of toxic gases. Even in very small concentrations, brief exposure to these gases can result in serious poisoning injuries. Symptoms of exposure may be delayed.
  • High Pressure: All compressed gases are potentially hazardous because of the high pressure stored inside the cylinder. A sudden release of pressure can cause injuries and property damage by propelling a cylinder or whipping a line.
  • Cylinder Weight: A full size cylinder may weigh more than 130 pounds. Moving a cylinder manually may lead to back or muscle injury. Dropping or dragging a cylinder could cause serious injury.


Handling Precautions (top)

Cylinder Stand

  • Avoid dropping, dragging or sliding cylinders. Use a suitable hand truck or cart equipped with a chain or belt for securing the cylinder to the cart, even for short distances.
  • Do not permit cylinders to strike each other violently. Cylinders should not be used as rollers for moving material or other equipment.
  • Cylinder caps should be left on each cylinder until it has been secured against a wall or bench or placed in a cylinder stand, and is ready for installation of the regulator. Cylinder caps protect the valve on top of the cylinder from damage if knocked.
  • Never tamper with pressure relief devices in valves or cylinders.
  • Use only wrenches or tools provided by the cylinder supplier to remove a cylinder cap or to open a valve. Never use a screwdriver or pliers.
  • Keep the cylinder valve closed except when in use.
  • Position cylinders so that the cylinder valve is accessible at all times.
  • Use compressed gases only in a well-ventilated area. Toxic, flammable and corrosive gases should be carefully handled in a hood or gas cabinet. Proper containment systems should be used and minimum quantities of these products should be kept on-site.
  • When discharging gas into a liquid, a trap or suitable check valve should be used to prevent liquid from getting back into the cylinder or regulator.
  • Where more than one type of gas is in use, label gas lines. This is particularly important when the gas supply is not in the same room or area as the operation using the gases.
  • Do not use the cylinder valve itself to control flow by adjusting the pressure.


Storage of Compressed Gas Cylinders (top)

  • All cylinders must be secured to a wall, bench or fixed support using a chain or strap placed 2/3 of the way up. Cylinder stands are an alternative to straps.
  • Cylinders should be strapped individually.
  • Cylinders should not be stored with a regulator attached. Secure the proper gas cap to the threaded portion on the top of the cylinder to protect the valve.*
  • Do not store full and empty cylinders together.
  • Oxidizers and flammable gases should be stored in areas separated by at least 20 feet or by a noncombustible wall.
  • Cylinders should not be stored near radiators or other heat sources. If storage is outdoors, protect cylinders from weather extremes and damp ground to prevent corrosion.
  • No part of a cylinder should be subjected to a temperature higher than 125oF. A flame should never be permitted to come in contact with any part of a compressed gas cylinder.
  • Do not place cylinders where they may become part of an electric circuit.
  • Keep the number of cylinders in a laboratory to a minimum to reduce the fire and toxicity hazards.
  • Lecture bottles should always be returned to the distributor or manufacturer promptly when no longer needed or discarded if at atmospheric pressure.
  • Ensure that the cylinder is properly and prominently labeled as to its contents.
  • NEVER place acetylene cylinders on their side.

*Air Liquide offers a new type of valve protection device that remains permanently attached and still allows access to the main valve. See Air Liquide for more information.


Using Compressed Gas Cylinders (top)

Pressure Regulator

Before using cylinders, read all label information and safety data sheets (SDSs) associated with the gas being used. The cylinder valve outlet connections are designed to prevent mixing of incompatible gases. The outlet threads vary in diameter; some are internal and some are external; some are right-handed and some are left-handed. Generally, right-handed threads are used for fuel gases.

To set up and use the cylinder, follow these steps:

  1. Attach the closed regulator to the cylinder. Never open the cylinder valve unless the regulator is completely closed. Regulators are specific to the gas involved. A regulator should be attached to a cylinder without forcing the threads. Ensure the threads of both the regulator and main valve are clean. If the inlet of a regulator does not fit the cylinder outlet, no effort should be made to try to force the fitting. A poor fit may indicate that the regulator is not intended for use on the gas chosen.
  2. Turn the delivery pressure adjusting screw counter-clockwise until it turns freely. This prevents unintended gas flow into the regulator.
  3. Open the cylinder slowly until the inlet gauge on the regulator registers the cylinder pressure. If the cylinder pressure reading is lower than expected, the cylinder valve may be leaking.
  4. With the flow control valve at the regulator outlet closed, turn the delivery pressure adjusting screw clockwise until the required delivery pressure is reached.
  5. Check for leaks using Snoop or soap solution. At or below freezing temperatures, use a glycerin and water solution, such as Snoop, rather than soap. Never use an open flame to detect leaks.
  6. When finished with the gas, close the cylinder valve, release the regulator pressure and replace the gas cap if it will not be used in the near future.


Assembly of Equipment and Piping (top)

  • Do not force threads that do not fit exactly.
  • Use Teflon tape or thread lubricant for assembly. Teflon tape should only be used for tapered pipe thread, not straight lines or metal-to-metal contacts.
  • Avoid sharp bends of copper tubing. Copper tubing hardens and cracks with repeated bending.
  • Inspect tubing frequently and replace when necessary.
  • Tygon and plastic tubing are not appropriate for most pressure work. These materials can fail under pressure or thermal stress.
  • Do not mix different brands and types of tube fittings. Construction parts are usually not interchangeable.
  • Do not use oil or lubricants on equipment used with oxygen.
  • Do not use copper piping for acetylene.
  • Do not use cast iron piping for chlorine.


Leaking Cylinders (top)

Most leaks occur at the valve in the top of the cylinder and may involve the valve threads valve stem, valve outlet, or pressure relief devices. Lab personnel should not attempt to repair leaking cylinders.

Where action can be taken without serious exposure to lab personnel:

  1. Move the cylinder to an isolated, well-ventilated area (away from combustible materials if the cylinder contains a flammable or oxidizing gas).
  2. Contact Public Safety at 911 or EHS at (609) 258-5294.

Whenever a large or uncontrollable leak occurs, evacuate the area and immediately contact Public Safety at 911 or EHS at (609) 258-5294.


Empty Cylinders (top)

  • Remove the regulator and replace the cylinder cap.
  • Mark the cylinder as "empty" or "MT" and store in a designated area for return to the supplier.
  • Do not store full and empty cylinders together.
  • Do not have full and empty cylinders connected to the same manifold. Reverse flow can occur when an empty cylinder is attached to a pressurized system.
  • Do not refill empty cylinders. Only the cylinder supplier should refill gases.
  • Do not empty cylinders to a pressure below 25 psi (172 Kpa). The residual contents may become contaminated with air.
  • Lecture bottles should always be returned to the distributor or manufacturer promptly when no longer needed. Do not purchase lecture bottles that cannot be returned.


Flammable Gases (top)

  • Keep sources of ignition away from the cylinders.
  • Oxidizers and flammable gases should be stored in areas separated by at least 20 feet or by a non-combustible wall.
  • Bond and ground all cylinders, lines and equipment used with flammable compressed gases.


Highly Toxic Gases (top)

Highly toxic gases, such as arsine, boron trifluoride, diborane, ethylene oxide, fluorine, germane, hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, and silane, can pose a significant health risk in the event of a leak. Use of these materials requires written approval by the Principal Investigator or supervisor, using the Particularly Hazardous Substances Use Approval form.

The following additional precautions must be taken:

  • Use and store in a specially ventilated gas cabinet or fume hood.
  • Use coaxial (double walled) tubing with nitrogen between the walls for feed lines operating above atmospheric pressure.
  • Regulators should be equipped with an automatic shut-off to turn off gas supply in the event of sudden loss of pressure in the supply line.
  • An alarm system should be installed to check for leaks in routinely used gases with poor warning properties. The alarm level must be set at or lower than the permissible exposure limit of the substance.
  • Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) may be appropriate for changing cylinders of highly toxic gases. Use of an SCBA requires enrollment in the Respiratory Protection Program and annual training and fit-testing.
  • Ensure storage and use areas are posted with Designated Area signage.


Gases Requiring Special Handling (top)

The following gases present special hazards either due to their toxicity or physical properties. Review this information before using these gases.