FULL DISCLOSURE: This topic is not an easy one to understand. Some of this article is paraphrased from other sources but cited as needed. It is also the product of much research and not inherent knowledge.
When one thinks of propane vs. electric in regards to a tiny house they are more than likely thinking either of heat source or cooking fuel. While these are the primary uses of propane there are a lot more factors of consideration that should go into the decision to use propane or electric energy.
To understand the difference between propane and electricity, one must first know that propane is a primary energy source and electricity is a secondary energy source. Energy from propane is used directly whereas energy from electricity is used after the electricity is generated from a primary energy source such as natural gas or petroleum. In other words, electricity is subsequently generated through the expenditure of another source of energy. Usable amounts of electricity do not occur naturally whereas usable amounts of propane do. 1
Propane gas is measured and distributed in gallons, pounds and cubic feet and while the measurable units of propane sold are measured in volumes, the usable energy is measured in BTU’s (British Thermal Unit). Electricity is measured in kilowatts and is delivered in kilowatts. Both propane appliances and electric appliances are labeled in ‘per hour’ efficiency ratings for energy consumption measurement. Propane appliances are listed as BTU/hr rating while electric appliances are listed as kWh (Kilowatt Hours). Here is the energy content broken down:
- 1 Gallon of Propane = 27 kWh (Kilowatt Hours) of electricity. In essence, this means that one gallon of propane contains the same amount of usable energy as 27 Kilowatt Hours. CASE IN POINT: A 100-watt light bulb left on for a full day will consume 2.4 kWh. If propane were to power the same light bulb (hypothetically, of course, as there are no propane-powered light bulbs) for 24 hours, it would use .09 gallons of propane.
If one gallon of propane is equal to 27 kWh of electricity, then we can compare the costs of these fuels directly by looking at the price per unit (propane gallons or kilowatt-hours) and finding the price difference. Take a look at your electric bill and multiply the price per kWh by 27. The resulting number will be a dollar figure that will be either greater than or less than the price of a gallon of propane. For example, if you are paying 12¢ per kWh, the electrical cost comparison to a gallon of propane will be $3.24 (.12 x 27 = 3.24). Electricity is cheaper than propane if propane is selling for $3.24 per gallon and propane is cheaper than electricity if it is selling for less than $3.24 per gallon. 1
Air quality, emissions, and the environment are all hot topics right now. They under increased scrutiny. It is now considered common knowledge that the burning of fossil fuel contributes to air pollution. However, it is also fairly well know that the burning of propane in appliances is cleaner and produces environmentally friendly emissions.
Remember, electricity is a secondary energy source, generated by the use of a primary energy source. Therefore, it is not accurate to say that electricity is the most environmentally friendly fuel available. In the United States, 49% of all electricity is produced by the burning of coal. That is hardly environmentally friendly.
Fuel costs vary widely by region and sector (industrial, residential, etc) for both propane and electricity. Historically, propane has been considered a better value and more cost-effective when compared to electricity. It is also more environmentally friendly because of being a primary energy source and one that burns cleaner.
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