Some homeowners are familiar with propane as an option for powering their homes. But many are not, with their knowledge of propane limited to its role in backyard barbecues.
“There is no middle ground with propane,” says Ted West, sales director at Liberty Propane, in Philadelphia. “You either know and you are OK [with it], or you don’t know and need to be educated. That’s the big issue with homeowners. Builders need to be able to speak to them directly about propane or it becomes an issue.”
Below are some of the most common questions about propane that construction professionals can expect from homeowners, and guidance on how to answer them effectively.
“I’m familiar with natural gas and electric. How does propane compare?”
Richard Laughlin, owner and president of Laughlin Homes and Restoration, says many customers in his rural central Texas market come from urban areas and assume that natural gas is readily available. Upon learning that it typically is not, they go straight to asking about electric. He has to tell them about propane. “They are kind of surprised there is an alternate source,” he says. “Generally, it’s pretty easy to convince them to go with [propane] gas.”
Most builders don’t use propane if natural gas is available. Which means owners are usually deciding between propane and electric or heating oil. Most systems capable of running on natural gas can also run on propane, giving owners a familiar option. Propane is cost-competitive with electricity in many markets, but with lower carbon dioxide emissions.
Builders should focus the conversation on performance. Recent research shows that a high-efficiency propane furnace has lower first costs and energy costs than electric options, and it delivers significantly warmer supply air temperatures. Propane-powered tankless water heaters, too, cost less to install than electric heat pump water heaters, and they can be placed inside or outside and located either centrally in the home or closer to the point of use.
“Can propane be used to power all of my home systems?”
Propane is a versatile and reliable option for powering a variety of home features and systems. Those include space and water heating, cooking, clothes drying, fireplaces, and standby generators.
Brian Campbell, owner and CEO of Cedar Knoll Builders, in Philadelphia, says natural gas doesn’t run to about half of the homes he builds. In those cases, he specifies a propane-powered furnace. “We’re in Northeast Pennsylvania, so [customers] like the heat that comes from propane gas more than they do electric heat,” he says, given the region’s cold winters. Although he starts customers with an electric hot water heater, they often ask to upgrade to a gas option.
In Laughlin’s market, meanwhile, winter temperatures dip below freezing at night but can reach beyond 60 F during the day. As a result, he regularly installs dual-fuel systems that pair an electric air-source heat pump with a high-efficiency propane furnace, which is more effective than the former in cold temperatures.
Another advantage propane provides Laughlin’s customers is in the kitchen. “They are used to cooking with gas, so they want to maintain that ability,” he says. Many of the homes he builds are high-end custom projects, and those owners are investing in luxury gas cooktops that offer instant heat and temperature control. The ability to install exterior gas lighting is another opportunity propane affords — something Laughlin uses often in his historic community.
Propane-powered standby generators are becoming more common in new homes, Campbell says, particularly for individuals who rely on refrigeration for medicine. Laughlin’s customers are coming to expect the feature. “They don’t want to be without air conditioning, they don’t want their freezers to thaw, they don’t want their lights to go out,” he says.
“What’s propane going to cost me?”
Electricity prices in Laughlin’s rural location can be up to 50 percent higher than in nearby urban areas, meaning propane can help owners save money. The cost of propane relative to electricity and heating oil varies by market.
As with any fuel source, energy costs incorporate more than just the power supplied. Although propane and natural gas have a lot in common, they are delivered differently — natural gas is run from a main line through service lines to the home, where its use is metered. Propane, meanwhile, is either delivered to the home and stored in a tank on-site or run from a development’s central tank to homes nearby.
Builders should be sure customers understand the associated costs — to purchase or rent the tank, for example — as well as how frequently they will be billed for propane used.
Check out our Space Heating Energy Calculator and Water Heating Energy Calculator to determine the payback periods for investing in propane-powered systems in your area.
“How often will my tank need to be refilled? And do I have to be there when it happens?”
West tries to keep his customers’ tanks at least 30 percent full at all times, which could mean between two and four top-up visits each year depending on the size of the home and the occupants’ energy demand.
Most of his customers have opted in to autofill, meaning that Liberty monitors their tank levels and tops them up when they fall below a certain threshold. That can help propane suppliers plan ahead to ensure customers have enough fuel to heat and power their homes when temperatures drop.
“Ninety percent of the time you wouldn’t even know [the tank was being refilled],” he says. “Our truck pulls in the driveway, runs the hose to the tank, fills the tank, and then drives away. We leave a delivery receipt on their door knob letting them know how many gallons [were filled and the price].”
“Is propane clean and safe?”
Propane tanks can be buried outside, hiding them from view without environmental risk. Meanwhile, the propane company typically owns the tank, and in addition to monitoring levels for top-ups it also ensures the system is operating as intended.
“[The homeowners] are at peace with that,” Campbell says. “They don’t necessarily want to own the tank or the components of it and have to manage it. They like the fact that a qualified company is managing it.”
Check out the Propane Energy Pod Home model to learn more about the advantages of a propane-powered home.