Choosing a heater for your home is not as straightforward as it used to be. There are far more options available nowadays. But, the increased choice gives you the chance to choose a heater tailored to your specific needs.

Let us take a look at whether a LPG gas heater is the right choice for you.

What exactly is LPG?

Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is a type of fuel that has been converted into a liquid and sold in cylinders and bottles. In Australia and the United States, LPG is almost always just one gas, propane. In other countries, including New Zealand, LPG is created by mixing propane and butane.

Propane and butane come from a family of highly flammable hydrocarbon gases. As their name suggests, they are a mixture of hydrogen and carbon atoms. P​ropane is made up of three carbon and eight hydrogen atoms (C3H8) per molecule. Butane is made up of four carbon and ten hydrogen atoms (C4H10) in a molecule. This gives them slightly different properties. Companies usually find such hydrocarbon gases alongside each other. Other hydrocarbons include methane (natural gas), ethane and isobutane.

LPG is sometimes also called autogas and is used to power vehicles. Suppliers say that Australia has one of the best LPG infrastructures in the world. But, they also lament the fact that support for LPG powered vehicles has dipped considerably in recent years. Australian suppliers of LPG include PlusGas, Elgas, Origin, Supagas and Kleenheat. There are smaller suppliers per state or territory too.

How is a LPG gas heater different to a natural gas heater?

There are key differences between a LPG and natural gas heater aside from the fuel used to run them. This relates to how the heater works, in addition to its environmental impact. A LPG heater uses a different fuel to create heat in comparison to a natural gas heater. Natural gas is another word for methane, a colourless and highly flammable greenhouse gas. A LPG heater will use propane in most cases for heater fuel.

LPG heaters can be portable, since LPG is sold in cylinders and bottles of all sizes. These can range from small six kilogram bottles to 90 kilogram cylinders for home use. Even larger cylinder sizes over 100 kilograms are available usually. This makes LPG heaters ideal for outdoor patio heaters as well as indoor heaters. LPG is also frequently used as fuel for heating during outdoor activities, such as camping.

In contrast, natural gas needs specialist equipment to convert it from a liquid to a gas. Therefore, it cannot be sold in portable cylinders and must be piped to homes through dedicated connections. That means natural gas cannot be sold in small cylinders or bottles. Also, it means that natural gas heaters cannot be portable and are usually attached to a gas source in the house. 

Environmental impact

It is important to consider the environmental impact of LPG vs natural gas heaters. Methane is the main component of natural gas and is a highly dangerous greenhouse gas. Scientists estimate that methane is around 90 times worse than carbon dioxide in trapping heat over a 20 year period. Methane emissions are a common problem when being extracted from coal mines or oil fields. Damage caused by methane emissions from newly proposed coal mines worldwide could be equal to all of America’s coal power stations combined, some say.

In contrast, LPG does not warm up the atmosphere if released. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that it has a global warming potential of zero. In other words, propane gas does not cause global warming, unlike carbon dioxide and methane. It simply dissipates without any trace. This makes LPG much more sustainable and environmentally friendly as a fuel. But, it is worth noting that LPG still produces carbon dioxide when it is burned as it is still a fossil fuel. Therefore, it is not an entirely clean source of energy.

Photo by Julian Hochgesang 

What are the benefits of LPG gas heaters over other gas heaters?

LPG has more than double the energy content of natural gas. In other words, it generates far more heat than natural gas with the same amount of gas being burnt. LPG energy content is 93.2 megajoules per cubic metre, while natural gas has 38.7 megajoules per cubic metre of energy. This makes LPG more efficient for heating than natural gas.

The other advantage is that LPG is a widely available and portable fuel. As a result, it can be used in lots of different contexts, from cooking food in your kitchen to heating you up during a camping trip in the woods. Natural gas can only be transported in large special containers. It also needs special equipment to turn the liquid back into gas form. LPG cylinders range from four to nine kilograms for small-scale use, 45 to 210 kilograms for home use, and there are even bigger tankers for industrial use. 

Disadvantages of LPG gas heaters

What makes LPG advantageous in some contexts can also cause problems. LPG is a portable fuel that is not delivered through a mains pipe. This means that you could potentially run out of fuel while waiting for a delivery. That said, numerous Australian companies can deliver LPG bottles to households. You can also buy a system that will automatically notify your supplier if it is running out.

Moreover, if you use a large tank at home that needs to be refilled by your supplier, switching suppliers can be a hassle too. It could mean installing a new tank, which can cost extra.

Photo by Dan LeFebvre 

Is LPG gas suitable for an indoor heater?

There are two ways that you can use LPG to provide indoor heating. Firstly, you can have a ‘wet’ heating system where a central LPG-fired boiler heats up the water. This provides central heating through radiators and hot water in your home. Not all central heating boilers can use LPG. In Australia, central heating boilers usually use natural gas. Boilers designed for natural gas can also be converted to use LPG in some cases. The second way is to use LPG for portable indoor heaters. They usually come with assembly instructions and can be assembled at home. In contrast, electric heaters have to arrive fully assembled or may need a qualified electrician to install them.

Natural gas or electric heaters are usually cheaper to run than a LPG based heater. The price of gas and electricity is usually lower than that of LPG. But, this excludes the fixed costs of having electricity and natural gas distributed to your home. That balances out the cost.

In the end, it depends on your needs. If you want a portable and relatively inexpensive indoor heater, LPG may be your best option. Natural gas heaters may work out cheaper if you have a mains gas supply and do not need a portable heater. On the other hand, if you have solar panels and prefer an electric option, electric heaters would be cheaper and more environmentally friendly. We suggest electric heaters as the preferred option. Failing that, a LPG heater would be preferable. Electric and LPG heaters are not only cheaper, but far more environmentally sustainable than natural gas heaters.