General contractor Mark Patterson is building townhouse condominiums in two developments in the Kennebunk, Maine, area. At both sites, he says, community propane systems have allowed him to meet customers’ demands for a desirable fuel source at a reasonable price – an achievement that couldn’t have happened with any other energy source.
At Chamberlain Commons, where Patterson’s Sanford, Maine-headquartered PATCO Construction serves as a builder, and at PATCO-developed Agatha James Condominium, the homes’ space and water heating (and in certain cases, fireplaces, ranges, and clothes dryers) are fueled by buried propane tanks with metered lines to each unit. With no access to natural gas lines in the area, it’s a no-brainer that the propane systems give his homes a marketing advantage over homes that run on heating oil or just electricity, Patterson says.
Chamberlain Commons and Agatha James are just two examples of how builders can provide desirable and energy-efficient gas amenities through community-wide propane. Developers around the country who do not have reasonable access to natural gas mains are making a similar choice, says Harris Baker, vice president of business development for Alliant Gas, an Irving, Texas-based firm that installs and operates central propane systems. Central propane systems can serve a community as small as a dozen units and as basic as a manufactured home park, up to a high-end, master-planned community with thousands of units and shared gas lamps, swimming pool heaters, and park barbecues running on propane.
Cost is one reason builders might use propane instead of energy sources such as heating oil or electricity, and it’s the No. 1 reason builders in Maine have switched from heating oil to propane, Patterson says. “The price of installing an oil-fired system continues to climb,” he explains. Oil-based heating systems must be serviced annually at a cost of up to $175, compared with minimal, semi-annual maintenance for gas-fueled systems. Propane furnaces are more efficient as well, he says, with average efficiencies of about 92 percent versus around 87 percent for heating oil systems. Maine’s above-average electricity rates can also make an all-electric home too expensive to run.
Propane systems provide comfort and convenience advantages as well. The homes at Agatha James are built on slabs, instead of over full basements. So with no space to run a heating oil system, the homes use hot water baseboard heat provided by propane-fueled, on-demand boilers the size of a suitcase. “It’s much more efficient as far as space is concerned to have propane-fueled units,” he says. Plus, he adds, “Maine people do not like hot air heat. They like radiant heat,” like the baseboard units.
Propane ranges and fireplaces are also popular options, he says, and wouldn’t be possible without propane tanks. Indeed, access to propane gives Patterson the option of building his homes to the Propane Energy Pod model, an energy package that uses propane for space heating, water heating, cooking, fireplaces, and clothes drying to maximize a home’s energy efficiency, performance, and comfort.
With safety rules dictating where builders can place aboveground tanks, using large, buried community tanks instead of individual tanks for each home was the most cost-effective option for both communities, Patterson says.
Community systems can be paid for and owned by the developer or the propane retailer, but in the typical setup, the propane company will pay for, install, and own the propane infrastructure, and it will charge the builder a nominal connection fee for each home to recover the costs of installation. With a metered system, customers pay for only the propane they use, similar to any other utility. For builders and developers like Patterson, the process is worry-free.
“All aspects of the system are the propane company’s responsibility,” Baker says. The systems are governed by local, state, and federal safety rules. Homeowners are charged a fair-market price that, in some cases, can be lower than the amount an individual customer would pay.
Community propane systems can also function as temporary solutions to hold the place for future natural gas lines, says Jeremy Glaisher, partner at JG Energy Solutions, in Steamboat Springs, Colo., which is involved in designing and constructing propane bulk storage and distribution systems. “When development is going at a pretty good pace, sometimes development is outstripping the growth of the natural gas main,” he says. “If you have a significant development that’s beyond the main, but the main is expected to be there in several years, there’s an opportunity for a short-term propane system that can be converted to natural gas when the natural gas gets there.”
To learn more about how underground propane tanks may be appropriate for your next project, download and view our fact sheet on buildwithpropane.com. Or check out the following courses at the Propane Training Academy to continue your learning from your home, office, or on the road.
Community Propane Systems: Environmental and Economic Advantages (Available in on-demand webinar or printable PDF)