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Monday, September 29, 2014

Propane: the dirty little secret of rural living

propane tanks below my solar collectors
Living in rural America, one notices propane tanks everywhere because we do not have natural gas pipelines out in the country.  It is a convenient fuel source for cooking, water heating, clothes drying and building heating.  The tanks pictured above are used to supplement the heat from the solar collectors that heat my workshop, and also run our backup generator during power outages which are frequent in the winter.

While propane is a fossil fuel, in the grand scheme of things it is one of the cleaner fossil fuels and is also relatively benign.  I found this webpage promoting propane that offers the following bullet list:
  • Propane is not considered a greenhouse gas.
  • Propane is not damaging to freshwater or saltwater ecosystems, underwater plant or marine life.
  • Propane is not harmful to soil if spilled on the ground. Propane will not cause harm to drinking water supplies.
  • Propane vapor will not cause air pollution. Propane vapor is not considered air pollution.
  • Propane vapor is not harmful if accidentally inhaled by birds, animals or people.
  • Propane will only cause bodily harm if liquid propane comes in contact with skin (boiling point -44°F).
This webpage also states: "damaging emissions following LP Gas combustion is far below that of any readily available carbon based fuel used in vehicles and engines today."  Despite all of the above slightly biased factoids, I have been doing everything I can to reduce our usage of propane, for instance over the last 10 years or so we have dropped our propane consumption from about 800 gallons a year to around 400 gallons a year in our house.  This propane is used for heating, water heating, clothes drying, and cooking in pretty much that order.  This reduction was  created by installing solar collectors for water heating, and replacing our old propane water heater tank with a tankless unit.   Here is a chart showing our annual propane since 2003:
propane statistics for our home
You can also see live statistics of how well my solar collectors are working on this page of my website.

In my workshop, I have dramatically reduced my propane use - largely by burning wood that I cut on my own property:
propane use in my workshop 2000-2014
workshop propane usage - reduced by using solar and firewood
 Live performance statistics for the solar heating system are on this page of my site.

Many of my neighbors have traditionally heated their homes exclusively with firewood.  Two neighbors in particular have added supplementary propane heat over the last five or six years.  One of them rationalized it because he did not want to worry about freezing pipes in his house if he needed to leave it for more than a few days in the dead of winter when temperatures dip below 0°F frequently.   Another neighbor added an in-law suite that was at the far end of his home from the wood stove and elected to put in a propane heater rather than another wood stove.  Unfortunately, propane heaters require electricity to operate so if the power does fail as it often does during winter storms one is still without backup or emergency heat.  This makes a wood stove and/or a propane fired backup generator an important asset.

I have come to accept propane as a necessary evil.  I remember a quote from an author writing for Home Power magazine in which he stated: "propane is the dirty little secret of off grid living".  And that has stuck with me as a way of focusing my consciousness around this relatively benign fossil fuel.