Regarding fueling appliances and equipment, two of the most common options are propane and natural gas. But what are the key differences between propane and natural gas? Propane, also called liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), and propane is actually a byproduct of the petroleum refining and natural gas processing industries.
It is typically stored in pressurized tanks near where it will be used. Propane comprises a three-carbon alkane called propane (C3H8), along with some ethane (C2H6) and butane (C4H10) – all hydrocarbon gases. Since propane is compressed into a transportable liquid form, it offers versatile applications for powering everything from outdoor gas grills to construction equipment.
Natural gas is found underground and comprises several different gases, including butane, methane, and propane. Methane makes up the major part of natural gas; it is transported through underground pipelines, and natural gas is delivered to individual homes and businesses, although you can get compressed natural gas.
With natural gas widely available through existing utility lines, it is commonly used to fuel natural gas appliances and equipment that require a fixed piping connection. This includes home furnaces, stoves, dryers, and more.
In our guide, you can learn more about these types of gas and which delivers the best amount of heat to heat your home. Also, find out if it’s better to use a natural gas grill or using propane grills you can have anywhere. (Read What Type Of Fire Can Be Put Out Safely With Water)
What’s the Difference Between Propane and Natural Gases?
What’s the difference between natural gas and propane? Basic differences exist regarding their physical properties, energy efficiency, storage, and delivery methods. Here you can see how to compare propane and natural gas.
Physical Properties of Natural Gas Vs. Propane
Propane is usually stored under pressure in tanks, while natural gas exists as a gas and is supplied through underground pipelines or natural gas can be stored in tanks.
- To keep propane safe for transport, it is compressed into a liquid, and propane is stored in tanks. When the pressure is released, the liquid propane becomes a gas you burn to get energy from propane.
- Natural gas, however, exists in gaseous form at everyday temperatures and pressures. It’s delivered directly to homes and businesses via gas utility pipelines.
While both can produce heat and energy when burned, propane and natural gas contain different amounts of energy per unit.
One cubic foot of natural gas has around 1,020 BTUs (British thermal units), while one cubic foot of propane delivers more BTUs at about 2,515 BTUs. This means it takes less propane to produce the same amount of energy as natural gas.
Propane packs more potential energy in a smaller volume than natural gas. Propane produces around double the BTUs of natural gas per cubic foot.
Storage and Delivery
Another key difference between propane and natural gas is how they’re stored and delivered. One thing to note is while propane is measured in gallons or liters, you’ll find natural gas in cubic feet or cubic meters.
How Are Propane Gas and Natural Gas Used?
Propane and natural gas have specialized uses and applications thanks to their unique properties. (Read Yellow Stove Flame)
Portable and self-contained, propane has many uses away from gas pipelines:
- Outdoor gas grills and fire pits: The portability and pressurized storage of propane make it ideal for outdoor cooking and heating appliances. Propane-fueled grills and fire pits can be used anywhere outside.
- Construction heaters: Portable propane heaters provide efficient heating for construction sites and other outdoor locations.
- Forklifts and other equipment: The compressed storage of propane allows it to fuel forklifts, generators, and other mobile equipment.
- Remote homes: Homes outside natural gas service areas often rely on propane delivered in periodic tank refills. This gives them fuel for heating, cooking, etc.
- Back-up emergency fuel: Because it’s stored on-site, propane can provide critical backup energy if electric or natural gas service is interrupted during a storm or other emergency.
Natural Gas Uses
Piped in from central supply points, natural gas is better suited for more permanent, stationary applications:
- Home heating systems: Natural gas furnaces and boilers provide efficient heating for homes connected to gas service lines.
- Gas stoves and ovens: Natural gas fuels many stoves and ovens for residential cooking needs.
- Clothes dryers: Most gas-powered home dryers run on piped-in natural gas.
- Water heaters: Natural gas is a common fuel source for heating residential water.
- Business and industrial uses: Restaurants, factories, and other businesses with access to natural gas pipelines can meet high fuel demands more quickly.
How Do Costs of Propane To Natural Gas Compare?
When considering energy costs, propane, and natural gas can offer savings over electricity. But natural gas is the more affordable option per BTU of energy produced.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average household paid:
- $17.28 per thousand cubic feet of natural gas in 2020
- $2.88 per gallon of propane in 2020
Because natural gas contains more BTUs per cubic foot, producing the same amount of energy typically costs less than propane. However, propane costs and prices are more stable than natural gas prices.
For example, for one million BTUs of natural gas, this would be around 11.20 gallons of propane gas to heat your home.
Another example would be that a 100,000 BTU natural gas furnace can burn 97 cubic feet in one hour. While a propane furnace will burn 40 cubic feet compared to natural gas to get roughly the same amount of heat.
One thing to think about is if you run out of gas when relying on propane. Natural gas is available all the time. (Read Disposing Old Gasoline)
Can I Convert Between Propane and Natural Gas?
Many appliances are designed only to burn one type of fuel. But for some equipment, you can convert from propane to natural gas and vice versa with an approved conversion kit.
Some common conversions include:
- Gas grills – Outdoor grills can often be converted with a kit containing new valves, burners, and orifices. This allows switching from portable propane tanks to a natural gas hookup.
- Gas fireplaces – Interior natural gas or propane fireplaces can be converted to an alternate fuel source.
- Generators – Portable generators running on propane can sometimes be converted to natural gas to take advantage of an available supply.
- Furnaces – HVAC professionals can convert existing propane or natural gas furnaces to other fuel. This may require some new equipment like gas valves.
Which is Better – Propane or Natural Gas?
When deciding between propane vs. natural gas, there are a few key factors to consider:
- Available supply – ensure you can access the preferred fuel, either a natural gas line or propane delivery.
- Portability needs – Propane’s compressed storage suits mobile applications, while natural gas is better for fixed installations.
- Upfront costs – Propane may involve a large initial tank purchase, while natural gas requires a utility connection fee.
- Ongoing costs – Natural gas is cheaper per BTU on an ongoing basis. But propane prices remain more steady.
- Future plans – Converting between the two fuels is possible for some equipment but may require professional help.
For many homeowners, natural gas makes sense for heating systems, water heaters, and other permanent appliances. But the unique properties of propane offer advantages for portable outdoor heating, cooking, generators, and construction equipment.
When choosing between propane and natural gas for your home or business, consider factors like accessibility, portability needs, upfront costs, and ongoing fuel prices in your area.
For many homeowners, a combination of both propane and natural gas provides maximum benefit. They can use natural gas pipelines while fueling portable outdoor equipment with easy-to-use propane tanks.
Using each fuel source strategically will help ensure reliable, cost-effective energy to fit your growing needs.
FAQs About Propane vs. Natural Gas
Is propane or natural gas more environmentally friendly?
Natural gas is a non-renewable, clean-burning greenhouse gas and emits less carbon dioxide per BTU than propane gas.
However, propane is considered a green fuel compared to alternatives like gasoline, diesel, and heating oil, thus not as damaging to the environment.
Can I run out of natural gas?
Your natural gas supply won’t run out like a propane tank, but service could be interrupted by storms, leaks, or other distribution issues. Having an alternate fuel like propane can provide backup.
One thing to remember is propane tanks can also leak, and it would take your propane provider to offer a replacement.
Is it cheaper to cook with propane or natural gas?
The price of natural gas is the cheaper option for cooking. But propane allows gas cooking in locations beyond natural gas pipeline access, and propane contains twice the energy of natural gas to heat or cook. (Learn How Deep To Bury Gas Line)
Can I have natural gas and propane at my home?
It’s common to use natural gas for appliances and permanent heating systems while also having propane for portable outdoor heating and cooking options. Natural gas and propane are both used domestically and are mostly fossil fuels.
Is propane or natural gas safer?
Both are safe when equipment is installed correctly and maintained by qualified professionals. Natural gas leaks can be hazardous, while improper propane handling has risks.
How is propane delivered and stored?
Propane is trucked to homes and businesses in portable, pressurized tanks. It’s liquefied and it’s held under pressure until released, and propane turns into a gas for use, whereas natural gas comes in pipes to your home or business.