For almost every threat to our domestic comfort, there is a plan B in place to reestablish some degree of normality. If the electricity goes out, there’s a backup generator. In worst-case scenarios, we have kerosene lamps and candles. And, there’s always a furnace or boiler to back up a woodstove, and space heaters to backup both. It’s like the redundant systems engineers build into cruise ships and airplanes to ensure they keep functioning smoothly after one of the systems fails. For many of those backup appliances in and around our homes, propane is the fuel of choice. As it should be. It is safe, clean burning, and portable. And, it just may have more uses than you realize.
Natural Gas vs. Propane
Chemically, both methane (the main constituent of natural gas) and propane are alkanes, which simply means that they consist entirely of carbon and hydrogen in the same ratio. Thus methane (CH4) and propane (C3H8) both have n carbon atoms, 2n hydrogen atoms, plus two
additional hydrogen atoms. (Do the math; it works.) Because they are saturated with hydrogen and lack carbon-carbon bonds, alkanes (which also include ethane and butane) are the cleanest burning of all hydrocarbons. When burned in the presence of sufficient atmospheric oxygen (O2), the only byproducts are carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H2O).
Unlike natural gas, which moves via pipeline, propane—a byproduct of crude oil refining and natural gas processing—can be fairly easily compressed into a liquid. As a liquid, propane is both transportable and indefinitely storable in and around the home in containers ranging from one-pound bottles to thousand-gallon storage tanks.
Storing and Using Propane
Typically, rural folks rent one or more 500- or 1,000-gallon storage tanks from a local coop and take delivery of propane on a pre-arranged schedule. Lozenge-shaped aboveground tanks are the norm, but underground tanks are available for those who find the standard ones unsightly or distracting. If you go with an underground tank, however, be sure to site it somewhere far off the beaten path. Otherwise, you risk driving over the valve, like a friend of ours once did. He lost over $1,000 worth of propane and suffered untold embarrassment, but fortunately it all evaporated and dispersed without igniting.
Earning Its Keep
LaVonne and I take delivery of around 300 gallons of propane each fall before the snow flies, storing it in a standard 500-gallon tank with chipped beige paint. It does nothing for the landscaping, but earns its keep by supplying fuel to heat our water, dry our clothes, cook our food, and fire our boiler when no one is around to stuff the woodstove.
Even though we use it for cooking and clothes drying—things most grid-tied homeowners do with electricity—we can get by with so little propane primarily because we heat our home with wood and use a propane-fired on-demand water heater that requires a fraction of the fuel standard tank-type heaters need. They have made a big difference in how much we spend on propane each year. Soon after moving into our new log home, we thought we should get our money’s worth from our expensive in-floor hydronic heating system and the indirect water heater tied into it. In those days we used four times the propane we currently use. It was an expensive lesson, but one well learned.
Of course, not everyone has the luxury of heating with wood, but even going to an on-demand water heater can save you a bundle. And, the new high-end super-efficient gas boilers and furnaces can pay for themselves in a very short time. Use these cost savers if possible, but in the following circumstances propane is the fuel of choice.
Space heating is a natural application for propane. Small heaters that run on one-pound propane bottles are safe and handy for occasional use in places heat from the woodstove cannot always reach, and if you refill the bottles yourself from a larger 20- or 30-pound bottle (yes, it’s legal and adapters are available for under $10.00) the cost is negligible. For garages and small shop buildings, large portable heaters that attach directly to 20-to 100-pound propane bottles work nicely. Vent-less wall-mounted heaters are also quite functional in small spaces that sometimes need a little extra heat.
Unlike gasoline-powered backup generators, propane-fired home generators do not require a manual choke. This makes them perfect for on-and off-grid generator systems configured for automatic remote start. For on-grid systems, the generator is hardwired directly into a transfer switch that sends a signal to start the generator whenever power is lost. In off-grid applications, the inverter automatically starts the generator once the solar batteries reach a preset low-voltage threshold. Receiving virtually unlimited fuel right from the home’s propane tank, these stationary generators are a dream come true for those who cannot always be around when backup power is needed.
Welding And Cutting
Though most of us think of a propane torch as low-heat device suitable only for sweat-soldering copper plumbing pipes, the truth is, propane is a high-temp fuel when mixed with pure oxygen.
When mixed with air, propane burns around 3,600 degrees F., far cooler than a plumber’s acetylene/air torch, which burns at a little over 4,600 degrees F. However, when mixed with pure oxygen, propane burns at nearly 5,100 degrees, just a little over 500 degrees cooler than an oxy/acetylene unit.
Oxy/propane cutting/brazing sets are therefore a suitable replacement for all but the most rigorous oxy/acetylene chores, at a fraction of the cost of acetylene. If you already own an oxy/acetylene outfit, a propane regulator and a couple of LP-rated tips should be all you need to get started.
Some Assembly Required
Virtually all major gas appliances are configured from the factory to run on natural gas. Unfortunately, natural gas is delivered at a lower pressure than propane, which means that your new range or clothes dryer will have to undergo some changes to run on propane. Sometimes all it takes is a new orifice, other times it’s more complicated than that. Fortunately, conversion kits are available; unfortunately, you may be the one doing the converting.
But take heart; it’s all part of the lifestyle you and your family have chosen, and deep inside you know you wouldn’t have it any other way.
This article is from the spring 2018 issue of The New Pioneer Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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