Propane is an incredibly versatile fuel that is becoming a more popular alternative to oil, electric and natural gas as a means for heating the home or small living spaces. Especially for those who live in the northern states who rely on their heating and use it more often.
When it comes to moving house or replacing your heating equipment, it might be time to think about switching to propane as it might just work out better for you financially in the long run.
After all, many appliances can run from propane, or if you are skilled enough, be converted to run from propane. Everything from furnaces, propane space heaters, barbeques, and even vehicles can be powered by propane which is why it’s hailed as being so versatile.
This isn’t to say that propane is perfect, and that’s why we’re here; to investigate the pros and cons of propane heating. Every type of fuel has its own advantages and drawbacks and you may decide in the end that you would prefer to stay with natural gas or other heating methods after all.
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What is Propane?
Propane is extracted and isolated during the process of oil refining. During this process, crude oil is broken down and the products obtained are separated into several classes: refinery gasses, kerosene, gasoline, diesel oil, and other residues.
Propane, alongside methane, butane and ethane belong to the refinery gas class. Propane is also further defined as an LPG (liquid petroleum gas) because when it is isolated it is pressurized to the degree that it changes from a gaseous to a liquid state. This is when it is stored and used as a fuel.
It’s stored in vessels such as the steel tanks you would most likely recognize, and this is how you would encounter propane when purchasing it for yourself. That is unless you rent the propane supply from a fuel company.
When the pressure from the canister is release, for example when you activate your propane fuelled appliance, it turns back into a gas vapor to be combusted. Propane is nearly always burned in its gas vapor form and only stored as a liquid.
The PROs of PROpane
As we’ve mentioned already, propane is such a versatile fuel but that’s not all there is to praise it for. There are a number of benefits to using propane over other types of fuel which are discussed below.
Propane is a clean fuel: It’s considered as a clean fuel by the government in the energy policy act of 1992. This is because propane reduces the number of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide or pollutants like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide when used as a substitute for other fuels like oil or petroleum.
Cost Effective: Propane is easy to get a hold of and is generally cheaper than other fuel types, including electricity. Also since it burns cleaner it leaves less residue on the appliance that uses it unlike, for example, oil-based furnaces which can get clogged. This saves money on maintenance and replacements.
No Monthly Bills: If you are paying for your own tanks upfront, you won’t have any monthly or annual bills to deal with, you just pay for refills when you need them. It is, however, quite costly to buy your first tank.
Convenient and Efficient: Propane can be stored on your property and last up to 40 years. And since it is stored in its own tank, its portable and you can use them for your RV or take them camping too. Additionally, propane based appliances run much more efficiently than those which use other fuels.
Great Backup Fuel: If you are not planning to use it as the main source of your home heating it’s a great backup fuel. Propane generators are really handy if you experience power outages and small room heaters and propane garage heaters make great supplemental heat for spaces out of reach of the central heating.
Relatively Safe: When compared to fuels like petroleum or diesel, propane is pretty safe. Having said that, it does come with its risks!
Is Propane Safe for Home Heating?
As long as propane is handled with the care and consideration it requires, it is completely safe when compared to other fuel types. When stored correctly, it’s one of the cleanest and most reliable fuels that have a relatively little effect on the environment.
Naturally, propane is colorless and odorless which does present a risk. But commercially available propane has an additive, ethyl mercaptan. This sulfur based compound results in the smell of rotten eggs or skunk spray which helps to alert you to the occurrence of a leak.
Dangers of Propane
Propane Poisoning: Touching liquid propane can result in symptoms similar to that of frostbite. If propane gets into your body through inhalation or swallowing, propane poisoning can result which can be deadly. There are many symptoms of propane poisoning which you make yourself aware of.
Carbon Monoxide: Propane needs to burn in a certain range of oxygen in an ideal ratio of 4 parts propane to 96 parts oxygen. If the conditions are not optimal, it can lead to the incomplete combustion which in turn releases carbon monoxide, a toxic and incredibly dangerous substance, especially in poorly ventilated areas.
High Flammability: Propane needs to be flammable, that’s what makes it reliable as a fuel because it combusts with little effort. Its flammability can be a drawback though as a leak can cause a build-up in an enclosed location and contact with an ignition source can result in an explosion.
High Pressure: As propane is stored in tanks in liquid form under high pressure, a dent or rupture to its tank can also result in an explosion. This is why it’s important to ensure a tank you purchase or rent is in top condition with no rust or dents and that you move it and store it safely.
Other Disadvantages of Propane
Delivery: Even though there is plenty of propane to go around and it’s pretty easy to obtain in the majority of states it still needs to be transported when purchased. This can be a hassle for some.
Storage Space: If you are using a propane for heating the whole house, maybe by using a propane-fueled furnace, you’ll need pretty large tanks and they take up space. Again, for some thins is not an issue and for others, it gets in the way.
Initial Cost: Equipment which uses propane tends to be more expensive than those that run on other fuels. Also when you buy your first propane tank, it can be quite costly, which is one of the reasons many people choose to rent a propane tank instead.
Propane Heat vs Natural Gas
One of the more popular fuels used in households for heating, particularly in the northwest where heating is used more regularly is natural gas. What people tend to not know is that “natural gas” is a mixture of the refinery gasses mentioned above, including propane!
Most people want to compare the price of the two fuels and will want to go for the cheapest option but it’s not that simple. Value for money is also important and this means looking at the amount of heat energy the fuel produces (measured in British Thermal Units, BTUs) for the amount that is burned.
Propane is usually measured in price per gallon as it is stored in its liquid form, but for the purposes of a comparison between the two, we will convert this into price cubic feet, the metric used to measure natural gas.
Propane Heat vs Natural Gas: Cost
The prices for both of these fuels fluctuate or a regular basis, but the baseline cost of natural gas is seemingly increasing on an annual basis which is what leads people to look for alternative fuel sources.
The reality is, natural gas is still cheaper than propane in most states with the highest cost for residential natural gas supply being in the state of Hawaii at $25.83 per 1000 cubic feet. The U.S wide average cost is $10.03 per month.
If you convert 1000 cubic feet into gallons, we have 7480.52 while costing an average of $2 per gallon is significantly more expensive! But how far does a gallon of propane go vs a cubic foot of natural gas? Well on average, residential properties use 1,100 gallons of propane or slightly more a year, so it’s not as expensive as it seems.
Propane Heat vs Natural Gas: BTU Output
On the other hand, propane is dramatically more efficient than natural gas because it contains more energy that is released when it is combusted.
Natural Gas: Releases 1,030 BTUs per Cubic Foot
Propane: Releases 2,516 BTUs per Cubic Foot
This means that propane is more than twice as efficient and you will need to use half as much to achieve the same output. To put it into perspective:
If you have a 50,000 BTU heater operating on full power for 1 hour, it would need 48.5 cubic feet of natural gas compared to only 20 cubic feet of propane. When you look at it this way, propane can indeed save you money!
Whether or not it is worth you switching to propane, even if it’s just partially using propane for smaller appliances and not necessarily your central heating, is completely down to your situation, your local prices and the available space you have for tank storage.
If you are moving home or switching up your appliance, compare the prices carefully. There no doubt that propane as a fuel is extremely useful, especially as back or supplemental heat but as your main central heating, it could end up costing you more.