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The homeowners' guide to propane vs. natural gas: a comparison of differences, cost, efficiency and safety

Most people don’t know that what’s known as “Natural Gas” is actually composed of multiple gases: Propane, butane, ethane, and methane. Propane, a part of “raw” natural gas, is separated from the other gas components during processing at most gas facilities.

Propane is sold to propane dealers such as Petro after this separation. Propane is sold by the gallon, but for the sake of comparison it can be converted to the natural gas standard, cubic feet, rather easily. As people try to reduce their energy costs, they are looking at propane with new interest.

Propane vs. natural gas BTU comparison

Since propane contains more than twice the energy of natural gas (one cubic foot of propane = 2,516 BTUs, while one cubic foot of natural gas = 1,030 BTUs), it’s much more efficient than natural gas. For example, in one hour a 100,000 BTU natural gas furnace burns around 97 cubic feet, while a propane furnace burns only 40 cubic feet in an hour.

Propane vs. natural gas cost comparison

If the natural gas cost is $15.00 per 1,000 cubic feet, the same $15.00 will purchase around one million BTUs, this is the equivalent of slightly over 11.20 gallons of propane. If propane costs $2.50 per gallon, in this example, natural gas is the cheaper alternative.

gas meter

Environmental effects of propane vs. natural gas

Natural gas is a greenhouse gas, however, a clean burning one, but propane is not toxic or damaging to the environment. Natural gas is often praised as a clean energy alternative. It burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels, emitting lower levels of harmful emissions such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxides.

It also produces less greenhouse gases than other fossil fuels. Propane is considered a “green fuel.” Propane is eco-friendly before and after combustion, which means that propane and natural gas are both environmentally safe. Propane is one of the cleanest burning of all fossil fuels. Tests conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show that propane-fueled vehicles produce 30% to 90% less carbon monoxide. It’s also non-toxic and not harmful to soil or water

The difference between natural gas and propane

While they are similar in many aspects, natural gas and propane also have differences. Although propane is a fossil fuel, it’s a hydrocarbon and over 95 percent of the propane used in the US is produced in North America.

Like oil and coal, natural gas also is a fossil fuel. Natural gas was created millions of years ago from ancient plants and animal matter which decayed under the pressure and heat underground on planet Earth. Natural gas is known as a “clean energy alternative,” since it’s clean-burning, producing less harmful emissions than other fossil fuels (oil and coal).

Although natural gas is a greenhouse gas when released into our environment, propane is not on the same level, as it has no toxicity to harm the environment. That’s why propane may be the better choice if you value “green fuel” more than greenhouse gases. Propane also is called “liquefied petroleum gas,” or LP gas for short, like natural gas, it’s odorless so processing adds an odor so people can detect its presence.

Propane also fuels some specially-configured cars and trucks, producing 30 percent to 90 percent less carbon monoxide than typical automotive gasoline.

propane tank beside house

Propane heat vs. natural gas heat energy efficiency

As noted, propane delivers more BTUs (per gallon or per cubic foot) than natural gas. It burns less volume per hour than natural gas by a factor of two-to-one. Propane is an efficient alternative to natural gas for many applications. Depending on the current price of natural gas (per 1,000 cubic feet), propane can even replace natural gas as a source of heating a building, home, or large volume structure. However, when natural gas is relatively inexpensive (say, under $20 per 1,000 cubic feet), the cost of heating a home projects to be less costly than propane, even with the efficiency difference.

Although propane is more energy efficient, both are clean burning alternatives to oil and/or coal. Since there are over 2,500 BTUs in in one gallon, or one cubic foot, of propane, depending on the present cost of propane per gallon, either propane or natural gas could be the less costly fuel to heat a larger structure.

Which heating system type is more eco-friendly, natural gas heating or propane?

There is little evidence to mandate natural gas over propane, since both types are clean burning. While natural gas is technically a greenhouse gas, it burns clean like propane. While propane is labeled a “green fuel,” both do little to impact the environment when burned. You could state that propane is the more eco-friendly option, but reality displays there is little difference on their environmental effects, since both are eco-friendly fuels.

Is natural gas safer than propane?

Since natural gas is lighter than propane, if natural gas is released into the atmosphere, it dissipates more quickly than propane. Therefore, you could feel that natural gas is a bit safer than propane, which, if leaked, takes a bit longer to vanish in the air.

Should you convert from propane to natural gas?

If you’re considering converting from propane to natural gas for heating your home and powering your home appliances, you also should evaluate the following related costs.

  • You’ll need to convert your appliances to natural gas.
  • Your yard will take a beating as it will be dug up to gain access to put in a natural gas line and remove the propane line.
  • You’ll incur cost to remove your propane tank.

Natural gas is economical and better for the environment than other fossil fuels. You won’t need to schedule a propane delivery because you’ll never run

out of natural gas. You only pay after you use the natural gas, since there is no fuel stored in a tank for future use. If you endure a storm that knocks out your electricity, most of your gas appliances will still operate without a problem.

Since propane delivers more BTUs for your dollars, if you like propane to heat your home, you might want to stick with it. Since both propane and natural gas are clean burning fuels, this decision becomes more of a personal choice than a pure factual choice.

Source: Propane 101

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