More Dogs on Main
December 16, 2011
The price of propane, like the price of gasoline, has been going up lately for no obvious reason. It’s always higher in the winter when there is a lot more demand, but I got the tank filled last fall before the rush and the bill was still shocking.
The rule of thumb used to be that propane was about double the price of natural gas, but still a bargain compared to electric heat. Just out of curiosity, I decided to see if it still held true.
That wasn’t as easy as I expected. It required math. Propane is priced per gallon, natural gas is priced in cubic feet at your meter, and electricity is in kilowatt hours. It took a while to figure out what natural gas cost, then convert it all to some standard unit to compare. With the help of an online calculator, I was able to get everything reduced to a price per million Btu.
The discouraging conclusion is that propane costs 5 times as much as natural gas for the same amount of heat. It doesn’t feel 5 times warmer. Natural gas coming out of the meter is $7 per million Btu. It is so cheap we have big hotels burning it 24/7 just for decorative purposes. Propane costs about $2.85 per gallon at the end of the hose. That works out to a little over 31 bucks for the same heat.
The worst-case scenario has always been electric baseboards. Those are the hallmark of budget motels and cheap 1970s condominiums. No matter what happened, things could always be worse: You could have electric heat. So how does that compare?
Electric heat is $28 per million Btu.
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I would be better off heating the house with a bunch of toasters.
I became obsessed with this. An energy audit on the house concluded that there were a few things that could be improved but that, overall, the house is pretty energy efficient. It’s a small house and uses a small amount of propane to heat. It’s just very expensive propane. I was hoping that there was something simple that would cut it in half, but no such luck.
On the west side of Summit County, pretty much everybody heats with natural gas except people in the 1970s condos. On the east side, there are huge areas that don’t have natural-gas service and rely on propane. It’s not just remote cabin areas. There are some very high-end neighborhoods that are miles from the end of the pipe and rely on propane. There are people heating half-acre driveways with propane, at least until they drain the tank for the first time.
Nobody can explain why it is so expensive. The cost of the delivery truck is pretty minimal compared to thousands of miles of buried pipeline. The delivery guy isn’t making Wall Street wages. Is it possible that the oil companies are screwing us?
So I started spending nights huddled by the wood stove with my iPad looking for alternatives. I found a system called "outside wood boilers" that are basically buildings that look like outhouses with big fire boxes in them. That heats water, and the hot water is then pumped into the house to heat the house. It looked like a pretty reasonable system. The wood is more or less free, other than the (substantial) labor involved in cutting it. The downside is that you apparently need to start out in November with a woodpile roughly equal to the size of the house. From the videos, it looks like an Amish beard is required.
It has been an interesting exploration into the off-the-grid world. It began to get weird when all of the manufacturers were advertising that the locomotive-sized backyard boilers were now available in a Mossy Oak camouflage finish. That way, those UN helicopters won’t be able to see it (aside from the gleaming stainless steel chimney and smoke plume). I drove to Morgan and looked at the system at a local dealer. It seems like a plausible alternative, but I wanted more information.
The online reviews were mostly along the vein that "I ran the boiler dry and everything warped and broke when I ran it without water in the system and they won’t fix it under warranty." Resistance to bullet holes was another theme. Maybe after spending the summer cutting wood, and the winter loading it into the fire box twice a day, it would feel pretty good to fire a few rounds in that general direction in April.
Anyway, Questar’s people assured me that I will not live long enough to see natural gas in my neighborhood, so I’m still out there searching for an alternative. Maybe after I burn all the trees in the yard, solar would be an option.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column for 25 years.