What to Know When Buying a Home with Propane Heat
Are you looking to buy a home with propane heat? If you’re like millions of Americans, you probably have no idea what heating with propane entails. You might have used it to fire up the grill, but you’ve never incorporated it into your home — until now. That can be a little bit intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be.
While only 5% of U.S. homes are currently heated with propane, this highly efficient and affordable method of home heat has proven itself to be an excellent option for home heating. Why? A well-functioning propane heating system can reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, propane heat can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 68%.
Additionally, besides providing an even, quality heat, propane is an excellent candidate to work with zone heating. Also, depending on the system, appliances, such as stoves, fireplaces and washer/dryers may be able to run off of propane as well.
We know that when you’re purchasing a home, there are many questions you need to ask. If you’re buying a home with propane heat, there will certainly be a few more questions added to your list. With the right knowledge, however, you’ll be able to make the most of your investment, and you’ll ensure your family has a warm, comfortable home to call their own for many years to come.
Heating With Propane
While it’s not one of the more common heating options today, propane is an alternative energy source available across the United States. Its popularity has grown because of a variety of factors, not the least of which is its ability to be paired with a variety of standard heating options — such as furnace or boiler. Not only that, but it can be utilized with central or zone heating, as well as with forced air or radiant systems.
If your home didn’t already have a propane system in place, you wouldn’t even necessarily need to purchase a special system to convert. Often, retrofitting a home’s current gas line or furnace is all that is needed to change the system.
Like any method of home heating, home propane heat has some advantages and disadvantages, and it’s important to understand them.
Here are some of the pros of heating with propane:
- Potential cheaper energy costs. At one time, propane was a significantly cheaper alternative, especially to electric heat. This truth began to fluctuate as the propane industry dealt with shortages and rate increases, but it still has a lot of potential as a lower-cost energy source — especially if you find a reputable propane company that offers competitive rates. We also recommend ordering propane during the summer months to take advantage of off-season pricing.
- Reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Propane isn’t toxic, which means that even when it’s released, it doesn’t put anything bad into the atmosphere. This makes it an extremely environmentally-friendly option.
- Creates a warmer heat. Not all heat is created equal. Some people with electric heat pumps complain that the heat coming from their air return isn’t very warm. Propane heaters create higher heat temperatures, so the heat coming out of the air registers is noticeably warmer, which makes those cold winter months just a little more bearable.
Some of the cons of propane heat include:
- Added homeowner responsibility. Since there is no central delivery system for propane, it’s not fed into your home through pre-established networks of pipes like you’d find with electricity or natural gas. Because of this, it’s up to the homeowner to schedule regular propane deliveries. The frequency of these deliveries will depend on the size of your tank. If you rent your propane tank from the company, they’ll handle repair and maintenance, but if you own the tank outright, then you’ll also be responsible for scheduling and paying for maintenance and repair as needed.
- Potential for an unsightly tank. Depending on the size and location of the tank on your property, a propane tank can take away from an otherwise beautiful landscape. If you own the tank, you might be able to have it placed underground, but if you’re renting it from the propane company, that’s not an option. Most of the time, homeowners opt to keep it above ground for ease of access and to avoid tearing up their property to install it.
On its own, propane is a highly efficient option for heating a home, but, as with any type of heat, there are some things a homeowner can do to maximize its potential for creating a warm, comfortable environment during colder months:
- Replace pilot lights in furnaces and water heaters with an electric igniter. This reduces the amount of propane used in creating heat because the propane isn’t being used to keep the pilot light on.
- Install a programmable thermostat in your home. You can set this to operate at different settings during different times of the day — thereby reducing the amount of propane you are using to heat your home during times you’re away.
- Evaluate the overall energy efficiency of your home. Check to see that your home is properly insulated. Confirm that doors and windows seal correctly and keep cold air out. We also recommend having a vapor diffuser barrier added to your crawlspace.
The Scoop: Propane Versus Other Popular Heating Options
In spite of constant advances in technology and energy sources, most people are still not very familiar with propane. Especially in areas where electric heat tends to be more common, their differences and similarities are often not understood:
- Cost. Heating with propane can be cheaper than heating with electric. However, as a homeowner, it’s always important to do your homework and know what your costs are. It is important to note that propane rates are subject to change depending on available supplies, which means you may not always know how much you’ll be paying from one year to the next.
- Warm heat. An electric heat pump is designed to heat below body temperature. That’s why the air coming out of your registers often feels cold even when the heat is on. Propane heaters are designed to heat well above body temperature, therefore providing an overall warmer and more even heat.
- Dependable. While you will always have access to your propane supply, a propane furnace will not produce heat without electricity. Having a generator as a backup power supply is always a good idea.
- Longevity. On average, propane heaters can last for 15 to 20 years.
Confusion also often happens when trying to understand the differences between propane and natural gas. Both are fossil fuels, and both are considered very environmentally friendly, but they have some distinct characteristics that may lead a homeowner to choose one over the other:
- Cost. Propane burns less volume per hour than natural gas. Except for in places where natural gas rates are very low, this means that propane can be less expensive. It also delivers more BTUs than natural gas.
- Environmental impact. Natural gas is considered a greenhouse gas, albeit a clean-burning one. Propane is not toxic and doesn’t damage the environment. While this difference is slight, and not generally one that should determine which you use, it bears noting.
- Weight. Although both are safe options, natural gas is slightly lighter than propane, which means that if both are released into the atmosphere, then natural gas would disappear first.
- Convenience. Natural gas is distributed to homes through a network of underground pipes, owned and maintained by a natural gas company, on an ongoing basis, whereas propane is stored in tanks on the homeowner’s property and refilled at the homeowner’s request. Because of this, natural gas can appear to be more convenient because it’s less for the homeowner to monitor.
Questions to Ask Before You Buy
Some questions to consider before you buy a house with a propane system include:
1. What Appliance Are Being Operated With Propane?
Besides the heating system, homes can potentially contain grills, washer/dryers, fireplaces, generators and stoves that are powered off of propane heat. It’s important to know which appliances in the home are already run off of propane and which might need to be upgraded to take advantage of the availability of propane within the home. Knowing this can help in determining monthly energy costs as well.
2. Who Owns the Tank?
In some cases, the homeowner has the option to purchase their tank. In other cases, the propane company rents it to them. If you own the tank, you won’t be paying monthly rental fees, and you’ll most likely have more freedom to make your own choices about fuel use within your home. If you rent the tank, you’ll be paying monthly fees, but the propane company will generally cover repair and maintenance if an issue arises.
While you can transfer a rental agreement during the sale of a home, you aren’t required to inherit the tank and company from the seller. As the new homeowner, you can select the company you want to do business with. We’ve covered some of the big questions to ask in the next section, titled “Questions to Ask Your Propane Company.”
3. How Big Is the Tank?
Home propane tanks come in a variety of sizes. Knowing the size in advance will give you an idea of how often you’ll need to fill up. The larger the tank, the longer you’ll be able to go between fill-ups.
4. Can I See Maintenance Records for the System?
A propane tank is just like any other appliance in a home — it needs regular, preventative maintenance to operate effectively. When you’re purchasing a home with propane, ask the owner to provide records to prove that it’s been serviced and to uncover any past problems they may have encountered.
If they can’t provide those records, then you’ll want to have the tank inspected by a professional to ensure you aren’t inheriting the previous owner’s problems. You’ll also want to make sure you know how old the system is so that you’ll know if you might be replacing it sooner rather than later (see #6 for more on this).
5. Are the Tanks Located Above or Below Ground?
Typically, tanks that are rented from a propane company are located above ground because they are easier to access and maintain. But, above ground tanks aren’t always aesthetically pleasing.
When the tank is owned by the homeowner, they have the option to have it placed underground. While this may create some more challenges with accessibility, although not major ones, it can go a long way in maintaining a beautiful exterior and opening up more usable space in the yard.
6. How Efficient Is the System Overall?
Although there are certain standards that all modern appliances are held to, there are still varying degrees of efficiency among different systems. Make sure you ask detailed questions about the age of the system and overall efficiency.
You’ll definitely want to have an older system assessed by a professional prior to closing. If it’s more than 10-15 years old, you may also need to budget for a system upgrade to avoid running into serious, and costly, problems.
Getting in Touch With Your Propane Company
If you’ve asked all of the big questions prior to purchasing your home, there shouldn’t be any question about who owns and services the tank. However, if that information wasn’t adequately communicated or if you’re reading this after the fact, don’t worry. It’s easy to get the information without having to go back and bug your home’s previous owners.
If you aren’t sure, go out to your tank and check its exterior to see if there is a sticker or some other kind of identifying information that tells you who to call. If you can’t find anything on the exterior, open the dome and look for a tag or sticker that can direct you to the right company. In addition to the company’s name, you’ll also want to look for the tank’s serial number in case the company needs it to help identify the tank when you call.
Once you identify the company and assuming you plan to continue working with them, you’ll want to call and schedule a propane delivery. Filling your tank during the summer months can provide significant savings, so don’t forget about it just because it’s warm outside.
Additional Points to Consider
When the driver comes for the first time after you’ve purchased the house, ask them to help you by showing you what propane smells like. This is very important for first-time propane users because, while leaks are rare, it is important that you are able to identify one.
However, there is no need to be alarmed at the prospect of a leak. Many first-time propane users are under the incorrect belief that propane tanks can easily explode, but this is not true. Propane tanks have been carefully engineered with safety features that are specifically meant to prevent explosions. Even if you were to encounter a leak, it does not mean there will be an explosion or another kind of dangerous event.
If you’ve chosen not to go with the company being used by the prior owner, you may find yourself in the position of needing to research and select a propane company. If you’re new to the concept of propane heat, this might be an overwhelming prospect because you aren’t sure what to look for. Many people will make the mistake of basing their decision off of a rate comparison. While cost is definitely an important factor in the decision, there are several other considerations that are even more important when choosing a company to provide your propane and service to your tank:
- Safety Record. The company should be able to provide you with “references,” or the names of regulatory agencies they belong to or safety programs they operate under.
- Regulatory Agencies. While a state government agency can’t tell you which company to select, they can provide you with information about the business, including their safety record and compliance with rules and regulations.
- Association Memberships. Being a member of one or more associations ensures propane companies are staying up to date on best practices and safety issues. You can also check on their standing with the Better Business Bureau.
- Cost. It’s not the only factor you should consider, but everyone knows that a big part of choosing who you work with is going to come down to their rates. Obviously, choosing a competitor who offers competitive rates on propane, as well as reasonable charges for tank repair and maintenance, is important. Just make sure you don’t get so focused on the numbers that you forget to check that their safety record, reputation and compliance with laws and regulations are acceptable.
Source: Smart Touch Energy