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Do you know the answers to these common propane questions?

Make sure you're ready when customers ask these nine heating questions.

By Jeffrey Lee

Staff Writer

Did you know that if you're building or remodeling a home without access to natural gas, you can heat the home with a propane furnace or boiler instead? In fact, about 5 percent of all U.S. households heat with propane. While propane heating is common in some parts of the United States, construction professionals in other areas may be less familiar with it. To make sure you're prepared for any questions your clients may have, take a look at these common propane heating questions and see if you know the answers.

What's the difference between propane and natural gas heating?
Very little. Other than some minor installations differences, propane heating and natural gas heating are the same. Propane furnaces and natural gas furnaces have comparable fuel inputs (as measured by British thermal units, or Btus) and heating outputs. "From the comfort perspective of temperature, humidity, and sound, homeowners would never know the difference," says Kim Do, heating product manager for furnace manufacturer Lennox.

How do you measure the efficiency of propane furnaces?
Propane and natural gas furnaces are measured in AFUE, which stands for annual fuel utilization efficiency. A higher AFUE means a more efficient system. If you have a furnace with a 95 percent AFUE, that means 95 cents of every heating dollar spent goes to heating the home. Keep in mind that other heating systems, such as heat pumps, are measured differently.

How efficient should my furnace be?
The level of efficiency you need is generally dictated by the climate where your project is located, Do says. Climates with mild winters, for instance, may be able to get away with 80 percent furnaces. Homes located in regions with more extreme winters should consider furnaces with efficiencies ranging from 93 to 98.5 percent, she adds. You can see how propane heating systems compare with alternatives in your region using our comparative heating map.

What's the difference between single-stage, two-stage, and modulating propane furnaces?
These terms indicate how sophisticated a furnace is at matching its heat output to the needed temperature. Single-stage furnaces, often used in mild climates, only provide one level of heat. "They offer basic comfort at an affordable cost," Do says. Two-stage furnaces provide both a low heating stage, which saves on energy costs and is used most of the time, and a high heating stage that kicks in during more extreme temperatures. "With the two operating stages, you also get better comfort, because the furnace runs for longer periods of time," Do says. "It provides dehumidification and air filtration, and it minimizes temperature swings."

Furnaces with modulating gas valves provide ultimate comfort, precisely modulating their heat output to the needed temperature. Lennox's furnaces, for instance, can fluctuate between 35 and 100 percent capacity in 1 percent increments.

How do you convert a natural gas furnace to run on propane?
Most gas furnaces are shipped configured for natural gas, and they are field-convertible to propane. A licensed HVAC contractor will use a propane conversion kit to make the minor changes needed to operate with propane. Because propane operates at a higher pressure than natural gas and contains more energy per cubic foot, propane furnaces use smaller burner orifices.


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"In most cases, you're going to have to change an orifice in the pilot assembly, if it has a pilot," says Ron Keeven, owner of Keeven Heating & Cooling in New Haven, Missouri. "If it doesn't, it will have a direct-spark ignition, but then the orifices definitely will have to be changed in the main burner." The contractor will also change the regulation of the gas pressure.

Can I use both propane heating and an electric heat pump?
Yes. These "dual-fuel" or "hybrid" systems use propane for heating and an electric heat pump for cooling. They can improve energy efficiency and comfort, especially in mixed climates. Here's why: At temperatures below about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, electric heat pump systems begin to operate less efficiently. They either provide discharge temperatures at the register below 100 degrees, which feels uncomfortable for the homeowner, or they rely on inefficient electric resistance back-up heat, which can send energy bills soaring. At those colder temperatures, a hybrid heating system can switch to propane heat, which provides better comfort and more efficient heating in the cold.

Keeven says some homeowners, especially in older generations, may not realize that their heating system will switch over between the heat pump and furnace automatically. You can reassure them that the HVAC installer will configure the thermostat and an outdoor temperature sensor to switch heating sources based on a pre-set outdoor temperature. "The switchover there is critical in maintaining comfort," Keeven explains.

Is propane heating more expensive?
Propane generally costs more than natural gas, but there are many situations where using natural gas simply isn't feasible, or where it would cost too much to bring the natural gas main to a community. In projects without access to natural gas, propane is often the most affordable option. Check out our Comparative Heating Systems Study and our Energy Cost and Carbon Calculator to learn more about the cost, comfort, and carbon emissions associated with various heating systems in your region.

What rebates are available for propane heating?
The Propane Energy Pod Builder Incentive Program offers an incentive of up to $1,500 to qualifying and select builders who build new homes that follow the Propane Energy Pod model and include propane equipment for space heating, water heating, cooking, and other heating and power applications. Your state, locality, or propane retailer may provide other tax credits, rebates, grants, or incentives for propane projects. Check out our Rebates and Incentives page for the latest updates.

In addition, electrical co-ops in some parts of the country may provide rebates for the installation of dual-fuel systems. Why? Demand for electricity in some areas spikes when temperatures drop below 40 degrees and homes switch over to power-hungry electric resistance heat. To help avoid overwhelming demand for electricity, these co-ops incentivize customers who switch over to more efficient propane or natural gas heating when it gets cold.

Why did propane prices spike last winter, and what can my customers do to minimize their risk?
This past winter was tough for many homeowners. While temperatures stayed cold week after week, boosting the need for heating, the price of propane surged in many areas, making it more costly for both homeowners and propane providers. Several factors created unusually high demand for propane and put upward pressure on prices:

  • Record cold drove demand for heating fuel 10 percent higher than it was in the 2012-2013 winter season.
  • An unexpectedly high demand for propane for grain drying last fall depleted local inventories in the upper Midwest heading into winter.
  • There were fewer propane transportation options, as a major pipeline in the upper Midwest shut down in December and fewer railcars were carrying propane because of increased demand to carry other fuels.
  • High demand for propane and rising transportation costs caused the wholesale price of propane to go up. Propane providers were forced to pay a higher price for the fuel delivered to homes.

To the propane provider, homeowners and construction professionals are more than propane customers. They're also neighbors and friends. Helping keep families warm and safe is your propane provider's top priority.

The Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) has initiated several studies to assess the infrastructure and market factors that contributed to the situation. The good news is that the long-term supply picture is positive and the logistical and transportation challenges we're experiencing today can be overcome. No one can predict the weather, but there are some steps you can encourage homeowners to take to minimize their risks.

  • Call to schedule a delivery when the tank is 35 percent full to give the propane retailer enough time to reach the home.
  • Use energy wisely and conserve propane when you can.
  • Keep a path to your propane tank clear. Doing so helps propane delivery drivers get to the tank easily, refill it quickly, and get to the next home.
  • Check to see if the family is eligible for help with paying their propane bill. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, also known as LIHEAP, helps qualifying families pay their heating bills.

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Home/ News & Incentives/ Do you know the answers to these common propane questions