Propane and Natural Gas

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Update: One of our discussion forum members started an interesting thread that includes pricing here.

Most people in Rancho Santa Fe use propane for their heating, hot water, pool heater and clothes dryer since the natural gas pipeline system is not well built out in the ranch. Some people use electricity for their heating needs. Here’s a handy chart showing how much it costs to heat anything with natural gas, propane, or electricity using estimates for local fuel pricing as of December 2019.

So natural gas is less than half the cost of propane, while electricity is more than double the cost of propane (and almost six times more expensive than natural gas). Big caveat on the electricity number. Heating with a heat pump in our climate is more efficient than the above numbers show since mechanical heating produces more heat energy than electrical energy used, so, in our climate, heat pumps are probably about as cost efficient as propane. Electric baseboard heaters, water heaters, dryers or god forbid, electric pool heaters would all follow the above chart.

Propane Pricing

I did a small survey recently for propane pricing and found that people are generally being charged around $3.30 for a gallon of propane, although there are people who are paying less. Pacific Propane seems to be relatively low cost, but calling around to get competitive pricing is always a good idea. I know a commercial client who was recently paying $4.99/gallon from Amerigas – since they didn’t use a lot, they never bothered to call to get better pricing.

Natural Gas

At the risk of sounding like a utility marketing rep, I’d like to point out a couple of other advantages of natural gas over propane in addition to cost.

Natural gas is safer than propane since it is lighter than air, while propane is heavier, and thus a leak will allow propane to accumulate while natural gas will more likely dissipate. True story: Several years ago I replaced my old ageing furnaces with new 90% efficient ones, but the contractor (who is now out of business) didn’t properly tighten one of the gas connections to one of the furnaces. This went on for six months. The furnaces were in the attic and the few times I went up there I had noticed that the air smelled kind of like a bad smog day in Los Angeles. I didn’t think much of it since attics aren’t the best smelling area anyways (yeah, I’m pretty dumb sometimes). One day I bought an electronic gas leak detector to check something else out and happened to go up into the attic, at which point the detector screamed at me. A couple of twists on the furnace pipe connection solved the problem. In hindsight, I was very fortunate that I was using natural gas which allowed the gas to escape through the attic vents rather than settle down into the house as would have happened with propane.

Natural gas also burns cleaner than propane, with little if any combustion smell (for example in a fire pit or BBQ). And finally, you have no danger of running out of natural gas and no visits from the propane delivery truck.

Natural Gas Access

Only certain areas of the ranch have a natural gas main running near them. Since SDG&E doesn’t publish gas main maps, the only way to find out if you have a gas main near your house is to call them. If you do have a gas main near your house, SDG&E will charge you a relatively modest, regulated, fee to set a meter and hookup. But you need to hire a contractor/plumber to dig the three foot deep trench from your house to the street and lay the gas pipe before SDG&E will do the connection. That’s the big expense of switching over. You might break even over a ten year period or so if you use a lot of gas, if for example, you heat a pool.

When switching from propane to natural gas, appliances need to be switched over to use the new fuel – usually an appliance technician can make the switch. A plumber also needs to make sure your in house piping is correctly sized for natural gas.

In the more likely scenario where you don’t have a gas main near you, the adventurous can extend a natural gas main. This would involve convincing neighbors along the route to help pay for the gas main. This process is described here.