Natural Gas or Propane?
Many furnaces and other appliances use propane or natural gas as fuel. They can both keep your Charles Town, West Virginia, home warm and comfortable in winter. Natural gas is found underground, and it contains several different gases, including butane, propane, and methane. It can be a liquid or a compressed or uncompressed gas.
Propane, also called liquefied petroleum gas or LPG, is stored as a liquid after it’s separated from natural gas at a processing facility. Before you decide which fuel source is best for your home, you should consider the differences between natural gas and propane installation techniques, delivery methods, efficiency, compositions, and safety.
Many appliances can work with propane or natural gas, but each fuel source requires special gas utilization fittings. If you want to switch from propane to natural gas or vice versa, you’ll need to order conversion kits from your appliances’ manufacturers if the appliances didn’t come with kits when they were first installed. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to convert electric appliances like heaters, ovens, or water heaters to natural gas or propane. You’ll need to replace any electric appliances that you’d like to run with propane or natural gas.
Natural gas is a utility that’s only available in some areas, and underground pipes bring it to your home. Propane is stored in tanks that need periodic replacements or refills. Some containers are small and portable, and others are several feet long. You can have a larger tank placed in your yard or buried underground. The pipes for propane start at the exit of the service valve on the tank, so some of them could be outside. Indoor conduits for natural gas begin at your gas meter, and your local utility company usually owns the other outdoor pipes.
Having a tank buried is similar to having a natural gas pipeline connected to your home. A professional can replace any grass or other plants disturbed by either process. Before your installer starts digging, call 811, the Federal “Call Before You Dig” number, to make sure that no underground utility lines or pipes are damaged and have them marked for free. Placing a propane tank above ground is quicker and easier, but it could make your landscaping look less attractive. For a better-looking yard, surround the tank with a fence, a trellis with flowering vines, or some hedges.
If you convert from propane to natural gas or if you decide to stop using propane and switch to electric appliances, you’ll need to get rid of your propane tank or have it emptied and leave it in place. Removing a buried tank is difficult, but you can sell it to another user when the process is finished.
Storage and Delivery Methods
A technician can deliver propane anywhere, so it’s an ideal choice for people who live in remote areas or neighborhoods that don’t have natural gas pipelines. However, you’ll have to wait for deliveries to get your tank refilled, and you might not be able to get the fuel you need after a large snowstorm or another emergency. Since natural gas comes inside your home through pipes, it’s always available. Unfortunately, a leak in a pipe that’s connected to an ample amount of natural gas could increase your utility bills more than a leak in a propane tank with a finite supply.
Propane in tanks is a liquid because it’s held under pressure, and it becomes a gas when it’s released through the valve on your tank. Natural gas can be stored as an uncompressed gas, as compressed natural gas or CNG, or as liquefied natural gas or LNG. It’s usually compressed before it’s stored or transported, and CNG is sometimes stored in tanks instead of pipes.
Efficiency and Cost
Propane is usually more expensive than natural gas, but the same amount produces about twice as much heat. While propane is measured in gallons or liters, you’ll find natural gas in cubic feet or cubic meters. Professionals measure the heat from both types of fuel in British Thermal Units or BTUs. One BTU is the amount of energy needed to increase the temperature of 1 pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit.
In some areas, natural gas is more economical, and in others, propane costs less. Both types of fuel are more efficient and less expensive than electricity in many regions. Having a new natural gas line installed is more costly than getting a propane tank added to your home, but the investment could reduce your utility bills more if gas is available in your neighborhood.
You should also think about the appliances that are already in your home. Whether your furnace is electric, gas, or propane, you should replace it if it’s more than about 20 years old. That way, you can avoid sudden, inconvenient breakdowns and reduce your utility bills by having a more efficient system installed. Propane heating systems last longest, and repairs are often less expensive than similar maintenance tasks for heat pumps or electric furnaces.
Propane is the cleanest burning fossil fuel available, and it produces about half the carbon dioxide and other emissions of gasoline. It also doesn’t harm water or soil. Natural gas is mostly made up of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s about 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Fortunately, natural gas also burns more cleanly than most other fossil fuels. Therefore, pollutants from natural gas can usually only get into the atmosphere after leaks in pipelines or accidents during drilling. After spending several years in the air, methane will break down into carbon dioxide on its own.
Since coal power plants are popular in the United States, methane and propane are both more environmentally friendly than electricity in many areas. Both types of fuel are hydrocarbons, but they have different chemical compositions. Methane is CH4, and propane is C3H8. Propane is actually a byproduct of petroleum refining and natural gas processing, along with other hydrocarbons like butane, ethane, and pentane.
Natural gas and propane are both almost colorless and odorless. To help people detect leaks, manufacturers add a harmless chemical called mercaptan, tert-Butylthiol, or t-butyl mercaptan. Sometimes they use a similar compound called thiophane. These chemicals smell like sulfur or rotten eggs.
If you notice a strange smell inside your home, put out any flames and then go outside. After you’re away from your house, call 911. Don’t turn any electronics on or off or plug in or unplug any devices. You could cause a spark that could lead to an explosion. Leaks can also happen in underground pipes in your yard, so you should leave the area and call 911 if you smell sulfur or rotten eggs outdoors.
If you have a propane leak, shut off the supply of gas at the tank by turning the shutoff valve at the top clockwise. Since propane must be very cold to stay in a liquid form, most tanks are white to reflect as much heat and light as possible. If a container becomes too hot, a safety valve will open to relieve the pressure and prevent an explosion. Don’t let propane touch your skin since it can cause frostbite.
If you have a problem with your furnace, your stove, your water heater, or another system powered by propane or natural gas, partially combusted fuel could form carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas that could be deadly. You should use carbon monoxide detectors to warn you if there’s too much carbon monoxide in your home. These devices resemble smoke detectors.
You should also watch for headaches, dizziness, or nausea that gets better when you leave a building or area. Open your doors and windows to let in fresh air and contact an experienced technician to inspect your appliances. Seek medical attention to make sure that exposure didn’t cause permanent damage.