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Four questions to ask when building high-end homes with propane

Give luxury homeowners the amenities they need to live large off the natural gas grid.

By Hallie Busta

Homeowners building big off the natural gas grid expect familiar systems and amenities — including gas. Propane can help builders meet those expectations, especially for luxury homes where the cost of electric alternatives can be prohibitive to buyers who have their eye on features such as spas and in-floor radiant heating.

"They expect to cook with gas or heat their home with it," says Mike Robare, owner of Robare Custom Homes in San Antonio, Texas, which builds 16 to 20 homes of around 4,000 square feet each year. "They expect their builder to perform some level of gas installation, whether that be propane or natural gas." Most of the homes he builds use propane.

Whether your high-end buyers are aware of propane as an alternative to electric where natural gas is not available or they require some education on its advantages, here are a few factors to consider when using propane to fuel large, amenity-rich homes.

Year-round or seasonal?

Many homeowners at Wolf Creek Ranch — less than an hour's drive from Salt Lake City — are seasonal or occupy the home for only a few days each month, says Todd Christensen, senior vice president of construction for luxury homebuilder Magleby Construction. Homes at Wolf Creek, where Magleby builds, average 7,500 square feet, and a few surpass 20,000 square feet. They all run on propane.

Space and water heating, cooking ranges, fireplaces, and clothes dryers (which together make up the Propane Energy Pod) are common applications. Radiant in-floor heating and tankless water heaters are particularly popular for managing these homes' high hot water demand. Also popular are extras such as outdoor kitchens, backup power, exterior gas lighting, pool heaters, and snowmelt systems.

The homes' size and scale mean they require a large and consistent supply of propane — even if the owners aren't full-time residents.

"If it's not occupied, the systems are going to be turned way down to conserve fuel," Christensen says. "All of these homes have an Internet link where [owners] can manage temperature and control. Most of the use is from a remote location." A monitor on each of the tanks automatically notifies the propane supplier when a top-up is required.

Who is your contact?

Christensen typically works with a property manager or groundskeeper hired by the owner to maintain the home, which includes managing propane refills. Magleby also provides the service as an option to its homeowners. "They've got to make sure the tanks don't run out, because most of these locations have extreme weather conditions in the winter, and it's very important they don't lose the heating capacity," he says.

In Texas Hill Country, Robare's owners occupy their homes year-round and coordinate their own propane deliveries. Because Texas lacks an extreme cold or rainy season, propane pricing and availability is consistent and his customers can top up as needed every few months.


 
   
Click to enlarge  $#160;
Click to enlarge  $#160;
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"They usually just ask who the supplier is going to be, and I give them a couple of options so they can … pick a relationship they like and get going," he says. "From a response standpoint, they want the referral and have got it from there. They know it's their role to handle that."

Informing homeowners of what to expect from their propane supplier is important. Robare tells them: "You'll call the supplier, and they're going to come out and check your tank. They'll probably check it once a month for a few months, and they might not always fill it [early on]. Then, they'll get you on a schedule that keeps you above half-full at all times."

"That's usually the last time I have that conversation," he adds.

What do buyers want, need?

Depending on the market, propane can offer significant cost savings and performance improvements over electric. At Wolf Creek, where features such as snowmelt systems and in-floor radiant heat are common, propane is the more cost-effective solution, Christensen says.

"[Buyers] want to know what's going to be the least expensive to operate and then the comfort level," he says. "We can give them a more comfortable home using a propane or gas system for heating and water."


"[High-end buyers] expect their builder to perform some level of gas installation, whether that be propane or natural gas."


Heating demands are less significant in Robare's Texas market, but performance still matters. Propane-powered systems can be zoned so energy isn't wasted heating areas of large homes that aren't likely to see regular use. "When we talk about propane, we can talk about keeping the bedroom or living room much warmer than the rest of the house in the winter," he says. "I base my conversation around performance on how well propane performs in its heating capacity."

In both markets, efforts to improve efficiency are not limited to a home's systems and fuel or power sources. "The first thing we'll do is make sure they spend some dollars on energy efficiency with insulation and air tightness," Christensen says.

How much capacity is required?

The biggest difference between the large homes Christensen and Robare build and smaller projects is scale, says Curt Hone, owner and president of Hone Propane, in Farr West, Utah, which supplies propane for Wolf Creek. "They need bigger everything — more tanks and bigger lines," he says. Filling one such home completely could require multiple trips, Hone says.

It's not unusual for Magleby's homes at the ranch to have between three and six 1,000-gallon tanks buried on the lot. That capacity is necessary to handle heating loads during the winter, when temperatures regularly fall below freezing, avoiding the need for a mid-winter refill.

"We recommend they fill up in the summer, before fall hits," Christensen says.

Robare typically installs one 1,000-gallon tank at the homes he builds, with more frequent top-ups.

Your propane supplier can help you properly size and install the propane system. And the company can establish an ongoing relationship with your homeowners to handle refills and maintenance.

"I never worry about my propane or my suppliers," Robare says. "I've never had a callback for anything in that realm. Anything that can take something off my plate from a warranty perspective is a home run."

Published on June 15, 2018

 

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