You’ve decided on a gas-powered furnace, but have you compared the benefits of natural gas vs. propane gas? Natural gas and propane gas are two standard fuels for space heating, water heating, and cooking. Natural gas and propane gas are not interchangeable; furnaces and other gas appliances are designed to use one or the other.
Natural gas and propane gas are both sourced from fossil fuels and offer many of the same advantages over other types of furnaces. Both gasses burn cleanly and heat quickly. However, natural gas and propane differ in origin and composition, contributing to additional discrepancies in heat output, efficiency, eco-friendliness, safety, and storage.
What is Natural Gas?
Natural gas is a fossil fuel for furnaces, water heaters, and stoves. Underground pipelines deliver natural gas to homes in certain municipalities. Natural gas is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. A chemical odor is added during processing to make gas leaks detectable.
Natural gas is the most common heating fuel in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 51% of homes utilized natural gas heating in 2020. It is derived from underground compounds of methane, ethane, butane, propane, and carbon dioxide. Most of the raw natural gas components are removed during processing. Natural gas is 90% methane.
The underground natural gas compounds formed from plant and animal remains millions of years old, buried under layers of sand, silt, and rock. Pressure and heat transformed the remains into coal, oil, and natural gas.
What is Propane Gas?
Propane gas, also known as liquefied petroleum gas, LPG, and LP, fuels furnaces, stoves, grills, trailers, and engines. Liquid propane is compressed and stored in tanks. Propane is nontoxic, colorless, and odorless. A chemical odor is added during processing to make gas leaks noticeable.
Propane is a natural gas byproduct extracted during processing to eliminate condensation in natural gas pipelines. Like natural gas, conventional propane is a fossil fuel. Renewable propane, on the other hand, is not a fossil fuel. Renewable propane derives from agricultural waste.
Natural Gas vs Propane: What’s the difference?
Natural gas and propane differ in BTUs, energy efficiency, environmental impact, safety, storage, and transportation.
BTU (British thermal unit) is a unit of energy to measure heat output, precisely the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. Higher BTUs indicate more heat output.
- 1 cubic foot of natural gas = 1,030 BTUs
- 1 cubic foot propane = 2,516 BTUs
According to the comparison above, propane gas produces more heat than natural gas.
Propane furnaces consume less fuel than natural gas furnaces because propane has more than two times the BTUs of natural gas. Therefore, propane is a more energy-efficient fuel. A 100,000 BTU natural gas furnace burns 97 cubic feet of fuel in one hour vs. a propane furnace which burns 40 cubic feet of fuel in one hour.
Natural gas and propane are both clean-burning fuels, but natural gas contains methane, a greenhouse gas harmful to the atmosphere. Propane, however, is non-toxic, burns cleaner, and is considered a “green” fuel. Propane is eco-friendly before and after combustion. Neither leaking propane gas nor propane exhaust damages the atmosphere. Renewable propane is even more eco-friendly because it’s derived from sustainable agricultural waste.
Both gases are flammable, but natural gas has a higher flammability rating. Propane tanks are less likely to explode, but if they do, the impact is less because propane lines are not part of a grid system connecting houses. Natural gas dissipates into the air quicker than propane because it's lighter, but leaks in underground pipes are difficult to find and fix.
Storage and Transportation
Underground pipelines supply natural gas to homes, so it’s always available. Propane must be delivered by trucks and stored in tanks.
Propane is more manageable than natural gas to store and transport because it becomes a liquid at -46 degrees Fahrenheit and remains a liquid when held under pressure. Natural gas storage and transportation are more complicated and constitute an explosion risk.
Propane vs Natural Gas Cost
Natural gas cost is measured in cubic feet, and propane gas cost is measured in gallons. Both fuel prices fluctuate. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas prices averaged $7.37 per thousand cubic feet in October of 2022, and propane prices averaged $2.66 per gallon.
Propane prices are historically higher than natural gas, but because propane has higher BTUs than natural gas, less fuel is consumed when heating. So although propane costs more than natural gas, it can be cheaper if less energy is used.
Propane or Natural Gas: Which is better?
There is no clear answer for whether propane or natural gas is better. Each household has to make its determination. Natural gas has a more convenient delivery system, costs less, and you pay for it as you use it. Propane tanks must be regularly filled, and you are charged for the amount of fuel the tank takes. Therefore, natural gas is better if you can access the supply line.
On the other hand, propane is a good option if your home does not have access to natural gas lines. It has high heat output and is efficient, eco-friendly, and safe.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can a propane furnace be converted to natural gas?
Yes, a propane furnace can be converted to natural gas. Converting your furnace requires a few adjustments and a propane conversion kit.
How to tell if my furnace is propane or natural gas?
Check your utility bill to determine if your furnace is propane or gas. Your furnace is natural gas if natural gas is listed on your statement. Your furnace is propane if you have a propane storage tank.
How much does it cost to convert a gas furnace to propane?
According to Home Guide, converting a natural gas furnace to propane costs $275 to $800 if you rent the storage tank and $1,900 to $4,900 if you buy the tank. The total cost includes the conversion kit, the cost of labor, and installing propane gas lines in the furnace.
Additional costs include capping the gas line and removing the piping.
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