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Natural Gas vs Propane: What’s the Difference?

propane vs natural gas

With much of the world pushing for cleaner energy sources, the debate between natural gas and propane has become increasingly relevant for homeowners, businesses, and industries alike. Both gasses stand out as efficient and cleaner-burning alternatives to traditional fossil fuels. Yet, propane and natural gas each come with their own sets of advantages and nuances. But what truly sets them apart?

Here, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of natural gas and propane. We will look at their chemical composition, application, and cost, as well as the environmental implications of their use. You might be considering a switch for your home heating system. Or, you could just be curious about these energy sources. Either way, we’ll shed light on the key differences between propane and natural gas.

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What is natural gas?

As its name would suggest, natural gas is a naturally occurring gas. In essence, natural gas mainly consists of methane (CH₄) blended with minor amounts of other hydrocarbons. This gas is drawn from underground deposits. Then it is purified so it can become a usable fuel. Natural gas is channeled to residences and commercial spaces through subterranean pipelines. 

On the other hand, propane (C₃H₈) emerges as a secondary product when refining various petroleum products, natural gas included. Often referred to as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), this term can also cover other condensed gasses.

What is propane?

Where does propane come from?” you ask? Propane is a hydrocarbon that is primarily created from the refining of crude oil and the processing of natural gas. The production of propane begins with the crude oil refining process. When crude oil is refined to produce gasoline, diesel, and other petroleum products, propane is one of the byproducts. This process involves heating the crude oil. The crude oil evaporates and then condenses into its various components in a distillation tower. As the different hydrocarbons have distinct boiling points, they can be separated effectively. Propane, being a lighter hydrocarbon, is one of the first to be separated and collected.

At the same time, propane is also obtained during the natural gas processing phase. Natural gas, as extracted from the ground, consists of a mixture of gasses, with methane being the predominant component. However, it also contains other hydrocarbons like ethane, butane, and propane. When natural gas is processed to make it suitable for consumer use, these heavier hydrocarbons are separated out. Propane, now separated, is subjected to a purification process to remove any impurities. Once purified, it is stored as a liquid under pressure. This is commonly referred to as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

What are the biggest differences of natural gas vs propane

Although the two gasses have a lot of similarities, there are a lot of differences between propane and natural gas. 

Energy efficiency

When comparing fuels, it is essential to consider how much energy you can get using the same amount of fuel. You can measure energy efficiency in BTUs. BTU stands for British Thermal Units and is a measurement of thermal energy. Using one cubic foot of natural gas produces 1,030 BTUs. Using one cubic foot of propane produces 2,516 BTUs. That means that if you use the same amount of both fuels, you get 2.5 times the energy from propane.

Price of natural gas vs propane

Propane typically costs more than natural gas when looking at unit prices, but it’s considerably more efficient. That means in the long term, propane provides greater savings. Propane can generate more than double the heat energy compared to the same volume of natural gas.

The cost-effectiveness of either fuel doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. A big reason is because prices fluctuate across different regions. Though you can check local prices, it’s crucial to note propane’s superior efficiency. In many areas, both natural gas and propane outperform electricity in terms of cost and efficiency. Propane heating systems are known for their durability. They generally cost less for maintenance and repair than electric furnaces or heat pumps. What’s more, the existing appliances in your home play a role in your choice of propane versus natural gas.

Environmental impact

Both natural gas and propane burn cleanly. Propane stands out as the most eco-friendly among fossil fuels, with natural gas trailing closely. So, why is propane labeled as an environmentally friendly fuel while natural gas isn’t? A fuel’s environmental impact isn’t just about how it burns, but also its effects before and after combustion. Propane, if released, remains harmless to the environment. Natural gas, on the other hand, is primarily composed of methane — a potent greenhouse gas. This makes preventing natural gas leaks crucial to prevent its release into the atmosphere.

Installation of natural gas vs propane systems

Before you heat your home or start grilling, it’s essential to sort out your fuel source. If you’re using natural gas, typically you just make sure your devices are properly connected, and you’ll have a steady supply. But that is only if you live in a region with the necessary utilities and infrastructure. But what if you don’t have access to a natural gas source?

If natural gas isn’t accessible in your location, propane is a great alternative. Instead of relying on a city’s gas network, propane is stored in local pressurized containers. While small tanks cater to individual items, whole-house propane systems use larger tanks. These can be positioned either above or underground on your premises.

Choosing aboveground tanks is cost-effective and quick. But they might not align with your landscaping aesthetics. To make an aboveground tank more visually appealing, think about surrounding your tank with fences, shrubberies, or flowering trellises. Opting for an underground tank is akin to connecting a natural gas line. If any greenery is disturbed during installations, professionals can restore it. Make sure you check with the Federal “Call Before You Dig” service by dialing 811. You’ll want to do this before any digging to prevent utility damages.

Many gadgets can function on both natural gas and propane. However, swapping between the two isn’t straightforward. The distinct pressure levels for each fuel mean they need specific fittings and regulators. Transitioning might require specialized conversion kits for your devices. Unfortunately, if you have electric appliances, switching to gas might not be feasible.

Household use and transportation

Both natural gas and propane are commonly used for home heating and cooking. The main distinction between their domestic use lies in their distribution. Natural gas is channeled directly to homes through a network of pipelines. This ensures uninterrupted availability once connected. In contrast, propane is typically kept in liquid form within storage tanks. These tanks can be transported to locations beyond the reach of gas pipelines. However, a limitation is that propane tanks must be replenished. Situations like severe weather can disrupt refills, potentially leaving a home without warmth.

Safety considerations

Both propane and natural gas are inherently scentless and invisible. This makes them hard to detect. To make detection easier, manufacturers add chemicals like ethyl mercaptan that emit a distinct and pungent odor. A key distinction between propane and natural gas is their weight relative to air. Propane is denser, causing it to settle at lower levels, such as the floor, if leaked indoors. Conversely, natural gas is lighter, causing it to rise and accumulate near the ceiling in enclosed spaces.

Is it better to have natural gas vs propane?

Propane stands out as an environmentally friendlier option compared to natural gas and various other fuels. While natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than propane, it’s important to consider other emissions. Natural gas combustion releases a larger amount of methane — a gas with significant environmental and climatic repercussions, compared to propane. Propane emits far less carbon dioxide and methane.

Is it cheaper to use natural gas vs propane?

The answer to this isn’t as straightforward as you might assume. As previously mentioned, propane is more expensive than natural gas, but natural gas burns much faster than propane. Indeed, natural gas burns at a rate of two to one compared to propane. That means if you were to heat two spaces of the same size, you would use twice as much natural gas than propane.

Should I switch from natural gas to propane?

Deciding whether to switch from natural gas to propane involves a nuanced evaluation of various factors. Propane is often spotlighted for its environmental benefits. It’s a cleaner-burning fuel with lower carbon content than natural gas. Moreover, propane’s portability offers flexibility, especially in regions lacking natural gas infrastructure. Storing propane in tanks allows users in remote locations to access a reliable fuel source. 

Natural gas is billed through a metered connection, which offers continuous supply. Propane requires periodic tank refills. Cost considerations also come into play. Regional price fluctuations can make one fuel more economical than the other at different times. Lastly, the logistics of making the switch, including potential infrastructure modifications or the purchase of new appliances, must be weighed against the anticipated benefits. It’s crucial to undertake a comprehensive assessment of your specific needs, local fuel prices, and environmental priorities before making a decision.

The bottom line on natural gas vs propane

There are a lot of similarities and differences between natural gas and propane. Both are odorless, colorless, and clean-burning fossil fuels.

The key thing is that propane is more energy-efficient and considered to be a green fuel, whereas natural gas is not. Natural gas is delivered to houses via gas pipelines. Propane is delivered in propane tanks. Additionally, propane is heavier than air, while natural gas is lighter. When deciding between using natural gas and propane, you need to consider all the factors listed above, especially things like local conditions and cost-efficiency of propane versus natural gas.

3 thoughts on “Natural Gas vs Propane: What’s the Difference?”

  1. First Fuel and Propane offers delivery of propane for both residential and commercial purposes in various counties including Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, Columbia, Dutchess, Warren, Green, Washington, Rensselaer in the state of New York, as well as Berkshire County in Massachusetts.

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