The Pros and Cons of Propane Generators

Sixty million Americans each year use propane gas for everything from cooking and transportation to manufacturing and back-up power. As natural disasters become commonplace, a propane generator can be found outside more homes than ever before. That's because, when the electrical grid temporarily fails, consumers are looking for a back-up source of power to keep the household running.

But why propane? Previously, we wrote about the pros and cons of diesel generators. As we covered, diesel generators are a great option for many, but no fuel option is without its challenges.

Choosing a fuel source for your standby or portable generator is an important decision. Is propane right for you?

Propane generators are the generator of choice for millions across the country. That's especially true for those who lose power infrequently, but we'll get to that in a bit.

Before we dig into the pros and cons of a propane-powered generator, let's learn about how propane grew to such prominence here in America.

The Invention of the Propane Generator

French chemist Marcellin Berthelot discovered propane in 1857. It's a byproduct of, both, natural gas processing and petroleum refining, and it became commercially available in the United States by 1911.

At standard temperature and pressure, propane is a gas. When placed in a canister and compressed, however, it morphs into its liquid form.

After becoming available in America, The New York Times reported that a canister of propane "would light an ordinary home for three weeks."

Not bad for 1912!

Propane increased in popularity throughout the 20th century. By 1947, 62% of all U.S. homes were equipped with either natural gas or propane for cooking. And over the next decade, many cities began utilizing propane-fueled buses.

Nationwide use of propane has continued to grow. In 2012, Wisconsin, alone, used 245 million gallons of liquefied propane. And 90% of the propane Americans use is produced here in the United States.

Propane has proven particularly useful for home power needs. Let's take a look at why that's the case.

The Pros of a Propane Generator

The U.S. Energy Administration reported that in 2016, the average American experienced 1.3 power interruptions per year. That, they said, resulted in approximately four hours of blackout time per household. The risk of power interruption appears to be getting worse as the threat of natural disasters such as blizzards and hurricanes increase.

As more Americans take the need for an emergency power source seriously, many are turning to propane.

There's a lot to like about propane generators. Here are some of their strengths:

  1. Convenience and availability.
  2. Fuel doesn't degrade.
  3. Easy to start and ready to use.
  4. Less maintenance required and low long-term costs.
  5. Not noisy.
  6. Better for the environment.
  7. Safe for you and your family.
  8. Lower upfront cost

Let's take a look at each of these characteristics one at a time.

Propane generators are convenient

What do we mean by convenient? Well, your generator won't do you any good in an emergency if you can't find fuel. Gasoline-powered generators are great, but if your area is hit by a natural disaster, gasoline can be hard to get. That's because gas pumps require electricity to work and gas is in high demand during emergencies. We've all seen the massive lines at the gas station the day before hurricanes. Diesel users face similar challenges.

Natural gas-powered generators have challenges of their own. Their convenience is natural gas lines bring energy directly to your house. However, if those lines crack because of an earthquake or other disaster, your backup energy source is out of commission.

Propane, on the other hand, is easy to get. Propane canisters and tanks are available at most gas stations and many stores. They're not in as high demand as gasoline, though, so no lines.

If your back-up system uses a larger tank for storing propane, it gets even easier. Trucks will deliver propane straight to your tank.

But why wait for a disaster to make sure you have enough back-up energy? That's another strength of a propane-fueled generator.

Storing fuel is easier with a propane generator

There's a lot to love about gasoline and diesel generators. One challenge with them, however, is that the fuel degrades when stored. That means you can't stock up on either fuel source and hold it for the next emergency. If you do, you'll have two choices. Buy additives to try to save the degraded fuel, or wait in a prohibitively long gas line when the next storm nears.

Propane is different. It doesn't degrade -- or, rather, it takes so long to degrade that it won't be an issue for you.

This means you can buy your propane in advance and have it ready for when you need it without expensive additives.

Propane generators are ready to use

Since propane doesn't degrade, it's ready to use when disaster strikes. In fact, your propane-powered generator will recognize when there's a power outage and turn itself on.

You also need to be sure you have enough fuel to get through a long blackout. Learn more about your home's specific power needs by trying AlltimePower's free Power Calculator.

Propane tanks are available in many sizes, from a single pound to 420 pounds (190.51 kilogram) and beyond. If your generator's capacity is small, a new tank can be attached easily. If you have a larger unit, it can operate uninterrupted for days.

Propane generators require less maintenance

Diesel and gasoline generators leave carbon deposits in their engine and exhaust that need to be cleaned out from time to time. Propane generators, on the other hand, can go years without being serviced or cleaned.

Cold temperatures are another challenge for some generators. It can cause fuel sources to become too thick which can lead to a damaged engine.

This isn't a problem with propane, whose freezing point is a very low -306.4 degrees Fahrenheit (ca. -188 °C). As a result, propane generators typically perform well regardless of the temperature. For this reason, they can be a good choice if you live in a cold climate.

Propane generators aren't noisy

Propane generators are more quiet to operate than some other types. It's worth noting, though, that improved technology has helped lower the decibels on even the loudest of generators.

A quiet generator isn't just good for your family. It's a benefit to anyone within earshot of your home. Quieter generators mean happier neighbors.

An environmentally friendly generator is a propane generator

Propane is considered a clean-burning fuel because it produces fewer pollutants than gasoline and diesel. This is good for the environment and your generator.

Propane produces half the amount of carbon monoxide that gasoline does. It also requires less energy to power your home than natural gas.

Fewer pollutants mean less carbon deposits in your generator's engine. That's another reason a propane generator requires less maintenance.

Propane generators are safe

It's important to note that propane is explosive. You should be careful around any generator fuel (except for solar, though sunscreen is always a good idea).

Still, propane has a couple of safety advantages worth mentioning. Propane is less flammable than gasoline. If you're in an area prone to wildfires, propane could be a good option.

Propane tanks are also equipped with safety valves. They're less likely to spill than gasoline or diesel whose storage containers have no valves. Propane tanks also do a better job of stopping gas from escaping.

Less upfront cost with propane generators

Propane generators can sometimes be less expensive to purchase than some other types of generators. For consumers interested in lower upfront costs, this could be a good option.

The Cons to Consider When Buying a Propane Generator

Regardless of fuel type, no generator is perfect. That's true for propane generators, as well.

Here are some challenges of a propane-fueled generator you'll want to consider:

  1. Convenience can cost more.
  2. Environmental issues.
  3. Fewer trained professionals.
  4. Shorter lifespan.
  5. Slightly less efficient than some other sources of fuel.

Propane generators can be more costly to fuel

For those on a budget, one challenge for propane is it often costs more than other types of fuel.

That cost can be lowered if you pay the upfront price to have your own propane tank installed on your property. If power outages happen with some regularity, having your own tank can save money. Purchasing propane canisters or renting tanks can cost twice as much as simply having propane delivered to your home by a dedicated propane provider.

If outages are rare in your area, you might choose propane because it can be stored longer without degradation. In that case, perhaps the higher fuel cost is worth it.

Extreme environmental conditions can be a challenge

While propane works great in the cold, the regulator on a propane generator can sometimes struggle in freezing temperatures.

The regulator is what allows the gas to turn from liquid to gas. If you let the regulator freeze the generator is unusable until it defrosts.

Another environmental consideration is if you live in an area prone to wildfires or earthquakes. Propane might not be as flammable as gasoline, but it will still explode if fire strikes. Areas affected by earthquakes require certain precautions when installing a propane tank.

Fewer professionals that know how to fix a propane generator

Another challenge for owners of propane generators is that the mechanics are complicated. This makes them more difficult to fix in emergency situations.

Though they tend to require fewer repairs, there are typically fewer mechanics trained to fix propane-powered generators compared to other types.

Propane generators have a shorter lifespan than some others

Propane-powered generators may not breakdown as often as their counterparts, but they also have a shorter overall life expectancy than diesel or gasoline generators. While you might save money on repair costs, it's possible you'll spend money sooner when it's time to replace the unit.

Fuel for propane generators has middle-of-the-road efficiency

When you choose a generator fuel source, pay close attention to how much fuel it uses to produce a certain amount of power. If a type of fuel can produce a lot of power without burning through a lot of itself, it's considered "energy dense."

Propane has about twice the energy density as natural gas, though propane also tends to be more expensive. So there's a trade-off.

Propane, however, is less energy dense than diesel or gasoline. This means you'll burn through more of it faster than those fuels. As we mentioned earlier, though, you can store propane for longer. You might pay more to power your home with propane, but you can keep as much as you need on-hand for emergencies. That peace of mind is important.

To determine the amount of energy you'll require, use AlltimePower's free Backup Power Calculator.

Next Steps

Now that you understand the pros and cons of a propane generator, learn about what generator is right for you on our AlltimePower blog.

When it's time to buy your back-up power source, we can help you find generator dealers in your area. Talking to multiple dealers will increase the likelihood they compete to get you the lowest cost on a generator plus installation.

And if you ever feel stuck, remember that you can always visit our website for a personalized assessment of your home power needs. We'll help you find the solution that is right for you.

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