Two of the most popular options of fireplaces are natural gas and propane fireplaces, but what’s the difference, and which is the best? I did some research to find out more.
Natural gas and propane fireplaces are both gas fireplaces that are much more efficient and user-friendly than the wood-burning alternative. Natural gas is a popular choice because it is cheaper and typically safer than propane. However, propane is much more environmentally friendly and efficient with its heat output.
Read on to learn more about these fuel-based fireplaces. This article will detail the differences between natural gas and propane fireplaces, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each option.
What’s the Difference Between Natural Gas and Propane Fireplaces?
Before discussing the pros and cons of natural gas and propane fireplaces, it is best to describe each fuel option separately so you can better determine which suits your home and lifestyle.
Here are the main differences between natural gas and propane fuel in terms of their composition, production, and accessibility. We’ll also discuss how these different fuels affect the overall design of their respective burner systems.
1. Composition and Creation
The simplest difference between these two fireplace fuels lies in their overall composition as well as how they are processed to be an accessible source of fuel.
Propane, also known as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), is a clean-burning alternative fuel that takes the form of a gas at standard temperatures and pressure but is more commonly compressed into a liquid to fuel appliances.
To be an accessible source of fuel, propane goes through a form of processing where it is separated from other natural gas components and subject to petroleum refining before it is sold to propane companies for distribution.
Natural gas is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas mixture that consists of multiple gases, including:
- Methane (70-90%)
- Varying amounts of other higher alkanes (ex. ethane, propane, and butane)
- Up to 8% CO2
- Small percentages of nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide, or helium
To acquire natural gas, geologists will use seismic surveys on land and in the ocean to find locations where companies can drill natural gas and oil wells. Sometimes, it can be found in large cracks and spaces between overlying rock layers or within natural gas-bearing formations.
2. Burner Systems
Since natural gas and propane are two different types of gases, they each will require their own burner systems.
One attributing factor to differing systems is that liquid propane is heavier than air, so it must be closed tightly with a valve. Otherwise, the gas might pool inside the fireplace and eventually flow into the room. Not only is this a severe fire hazard, but inhaling LPG vapors can also be a health risk and cause:
- Irritation in the nose and throat
- Loss of consciousness.
To ensure this isn’t possible, each system is built with a safety pilot that keeps the valves closed and prevents dangerous and life-threatening leakage of fuel into the home.
This mineral is poured into the burner pan to help the heavier propane gas spread more efficiently across the burner. The material is also aesthetically pleasing and efficient as it is incombustible, highly absorbent, and non-reactive.
Alternatively, natural gas is lighter than air, so its burner system differs because the valve is left slightly open rather than tightly shut. This allows most of the gas to flow up and out the chimney rather than flowing into the room and risking the inhabitant’s safety and health. This system does not require a safety pilot like the propane system.
The burner pan material also differs here. Instead of vermiculite, natural gas burner pans in vented natural gas log sets are often covered in silica sand. This allows the gas to disperse more evenly and effectively throughout the sand before ignition for maximum results.
3. Fuel Source
Arguably the most significant difference when installing a natural gas or propane fireplace is their fuel source, meaning where the gases are stored.
In the case of propane, this fuel is compressed into a liquid form, often referred to as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), which is then stored in tanks of varying sizes.
Typically, these tanks are portable and can be acquired from a wide range of locations, including gas stations, hardware stores, and fuel companies, depending on the size you require for your fireplace or other appliances. Remember that this tank will need to be replenished when it is low and potentially replaced over time.
As opposed to the liquified version of propane fuel, natural gas remains in its gaseous state at all times. This calls for a different form of storage where the gas is delivered by underground fuel mains or gas lines connected to your home through pipes.
This line is also connected to a meter installed outside your home, which measures the amount of natural gas used for payment purposes.
Is Propane More Dangerous Than Natural Gas?
Fireplaces can be significant hazards in any home, and so, safety is paramount in deciding whether to choose propane or natural gas for your new house-warming installation. If you’re looking for the fuel source with the least amount of risk, you’ll want to opt for a natural gas fireplace over a propane fireplace.
Dangers to the Home
As we touched on briefly before, propane is heavier than air as opposed to natural gas that is lighter than air. When propane seeps into a room, it will sink to the ground and dissipate slowly.
This significantly increases the risk of explosions and fire in addition to the physical effects it can have on a person. Conversely, natural gas will rise and scatter quickly when released, which means it is far less likely to cause an explosion or unwanted fire in your home.
Dangers to the Environment
However, danger does not need to strictly involve a home’s inhabitants. If you are concerned about the dangers these fuels pose to the environment, then you’ll want to choose propane over natural gas. Propane is an extremely common fuel source in America, partially because it does not contain toxins harmful to the environment.
On the other hand, natural gas is considered a greenhouse gas and can be exceptionally damaging to the environment, particularly due to its high percentage of methane.
The notable amounts of CO2 in this fuel can also damage and pollute the atmosphere. Methane and carbon have a profound effect on climate change, and studies have shown that global methane emissions alone have spiked dramatically since 2002.
Although some would label natural gas as a “clean energy alternative,” compared to other harmful fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, due to its clean-burning reducing harmful emissions, it by no means eliminates these emissions completely.
Pros and Cons of Natural Gas and Propane Fireplaces
At the end of the day, the best way to determine if a natural gas or propane fireplace is the better choice would be to compare them side-by-side. There’s always a bit of “give and take” in these situations, so be sure to choose the option that best suits your needs and lifestyle.
Below is a table that includes some of the most important comparisons between a natural gas and propane fireplace, including cost, safety, average lifespan, and more. Continue after the table for a more in-depth pro/con discussion of each factor.
|Natural Gas Fireplace||Propane Fireplace|
|Cost to install||Average $4,500(can range from $4,000-$10,000 depending on the mantle, logs, and vented vs. ventless)||Average $4,500(can range from $4,000-$10,000 depending on the mantle, logs, and vented vs. ventless)|
|Cost to run (average monthly cost)||$15.00 per 1,000 cubic feet$0.40/hour to operate. If used three times/week for an hour/use, the monthly average cost is $4.80. (Ultimately dependent on fireplace model and frequency of use.)||$15.00 can purchase about one million BTUs, equivalent to 11.20 gallons of propane.$1.31/hour to operate. If used 3 times/week for an hour/use, the monthly average cost is $15.72. (Ultimately dependent on fireplace model and frequency of use.)|
|Which is safer for health?||X|
|Which is safer for fire hazards?||X|
|Which has better heat output?||X|
|Which is easier to install?||X|
|What’s the average lifespan?||15-25 years||15-25 years (but the propane tank will need routine replacement depending on size and frequency of use)|
|What is the environmental rating?||3rd most environmentally friendly fireplace behind electric and propane.||2nd most environmentally friendly fireplace behind electric.|
Cost to Install
Installation cost is probably one of the most important factors for determining what type of fireplace you want to purchase. Luckily, since propane and natural gas fireplaces are both gas fireplaces, they have relatively the same cost that will average around $4,500.
To break down the cost, some sources state that about $2,000 of this is for the basic materials package, and then the remaining $2,500 is for the installation. Other sources will break the cost down further, as indicated below.
- $600 for the firebox installation
- $750 for the vent pipe
- $2,750 for the full installation and finishing work
- between $150 and $800 for the gas line
Yes, the specific costs for each will differ since they require slightly different systems, by overall they are relatively the same and will fall within the range of $4,000-$10,000, depending on the size of the fireplace, the style of the mantle of logs, and how much piping or the size of your propane tank is required.
Ultimately, this could very well depend on the layout of your home and your gas lines. If a professional discovers it would take a significant amount of piping to connect your gas main to your potential fireplace, it might be cheaper to opt for a propane fireplace instead.
Cost to Run (Average Monthly Cost)
It can be difficult to depict a clear average monthly cost to run both of these gas fireplace options since each model and frequency of use in a household is different. However, we can more or less calculate the relative cost using the Btu cost per hour for both propane and natural gas fireplaces.
According to Anderson Fireplace, “Operating a furnace for one hour at 75,000 -100,000 Btu cost a homeowner $1.12 – $1.49 based on last month’s national average natural gas rate.
By comparison, a natural gas fireplace running at 30,000 Btu per hour cost only 45 cents. For the equivalent in a gas insert or gas fireplace, a large could use about 40,000 BTU/hour and in this case, would cost about $0.40/hour to operate for natural gas and about $1.31/hour for propane.”
You can already tell based on these numbers that propane is going to cost a fair amount more than natural gas.
However, for the sake of finding a monthly cost, we’ll use these figures and speculate that during the cold winter months, the average household uses their fireplace three times a week for an hour per use. This would put a natural gas fireplace’s monthly average cost at $4.80 and a propane fireplace at $15.72.
In addition to its initial cost of use, propane fireplaces can also increase your monthly cost if it needs to be refilled or replaced. Therefore, we can conclude that a natural gas fireplace is the cheaper and more economically friendly option of the two.
Which is Safer?
We’ve touched on this subject pretty thoroughly already, but here we’ll just reiterate what we have discussed and touched on a few new points regarding how safe these fireplaces are in terms of health and potential fire hazards. For the simple answer, natural gas fireplaces tend to be safer overall than propane.
Although we previously detailed propane gas’s effects on human health, natural gas and propane are equally dangerous in their potential to cause death by carbon monoxide poisoning.
However, it is more difficult for your home to be filled with this dangerous gas and others since natural gas is much lighter than propane and can dissipate quicker. Regardless, there is no risk-free option here, but the risks are decreased with natural gas.
Again, we have touched on this point before, but to reiterate, propane is much more dangerous than natural gas when it comes to being a fire hazard or the potential cause of explosions. However, both of these gases are highly flammable, so you should have safety precautions in place when using either a natural gas or propane fireplace.
Which Has a Better Heat Output?
When installing a new fireplace, you want one with the highest efficiency in heat output, so it heats a room quickly and doesn’t have to be left on for extended periods. When it comes to which fireplace has a better heat output, the answer is propane with over twice the energy of natural gas.
According to the heating oil company Meenan,
One cubic foot of propane = 2,516 BTUs compared to one cubic foot of natural gas = 1,030 BTUs. In one hour, a 100,000 BTU natural gas furnace burns around 97 cubic feet while a propane furnace burns only 40 cubic feet in an hourMeenan
This is important to consider for your overall cost. As a fuel source, propane is inherently more expensive than natural gas. However, you might find yourself using your propane fireplace less because it is much more efficient at heating a room than a propane fireplace would. This means you use less fuel overall, which means propane might be cheaper in the end.
Which is Easier to Install?
This question can be very circumstantial, which would effectively alter the answer. If you install a fireplace insert rather than an entirely new feature, then the easiest and cheapest option is to use whatever system was previously in place. If you already have a gas line to accommodate a natural gas fireplace, you’ll want to choose this over a propane system.
Since about 48% of homes in the United States, particularly in the South, use natural gas, installing a natural gas fireplace will be the best choice for most homeowners. It is typically easier to connect your natural gas fireplace to your gas main or install a new line which is often an easy and cost-efficient process.
However, if your home doesn’t have natural gas, it is most likely easier to install a propane system as long as you have the room somewhere inside or outside of your home for the propane tank.
What’s the Average Lifespan of Each?
Again, the answer to this is dependent on a series of factors, including:
- Size of the fireplace
- Size of the tank (if using propane)
- Frequency of use
- Quality of components
- Condition of pipes (if using natural gas)
Ultimately, most gas fireplaces, regardless of if they are propane or natural gas, will have a lifespan ranging from 15-25 years.
Although the entire system might last this long, a propane fireplace will require more maintenance when it comes to its tanks. If you have a smaller tank attached to your fireplace, you’re going to need to replace this more often, especially if it is located outdoors and exposed to the elements.
Since natural gas fireplaces are connected to your gas main, you won’t have to do any extra maintenance for the fireplace unless something happens to your pipes or the gas main, which would be a different issue entirely.
What is the Environmental Rating of Each?
If you’re looking for an environmentally friendly gas fireplace, then both propane and natural gas are decent options. Compared to other types of fireplaces, such as wood-burning, EPA-certified wood stoves, or oil furnaces, they are much more economically friendly, with only 1/6 pound of annual pollution. Apart from electric fireplaces that have zero annual pollution, gas is the best option.
In terms of comparing natural gas fireplaces to propane fireplaces, you will want to opt for propane if you want to limit your pollution and environmental pollutants as much as possible.
We touched on this point previously, but the reasoning behind this choice is that natural gas contains high amounts of methane and is considered a greenhouse gas that can significantly damage the natural atmosphere.
How to Tell If Your Fireplace Is Propane or Natural Gas
It is vital to know whether your fireplace is propane or natural gas so you can properly maintain and accommodate it. There are several simple ways you can determine this.
1. Check the Serial Tag
Every fireplace or fireplace insert is marked with a rating plate that will depict the equipment’s model number and serial number. For gas fireplaces, like propane and natural gas, you will most likely find this plate in the control compartment area located either under the smoke shield or on the firebox side column.
You can find the information regarding what gas type is used for your fireplace on the serial tag. If you see the abbreviation NG, then it is a natural gas system, and if you see the abbreviation LP, then it is a liquid propane system.
2. Assess the Fireplace’s Features
You might be able to ascertain what type of fuel the fireplace uses by assessing its components. For instance, a propane-fueled fireplace will use vermiculite in the pan, which often looks like tan or black pebbles or small rocks. Conversely, a natural gas-fueled fireplace will have silica sand in the pan, which is much finer than vermiculite.
3. Search for a Tank
A propane fireplace will have a tank located somewhere on the property that supplies the fireplace with liquid propane fuel. You can briefly search inside your home for a tank, perhaps in the basement, but it is far more likely to be installed outdoors due to safety regulations for this equipment.
Should you find a connected propane tank somewhere on your property, it is likely connected to your fireplace. However, you don’t want just to assume that is its purpose. Therefore, you can confirm with a professional before tampering with the tank or your fireplace.
Can You Use Propane in a Natural Gas Fireplace?
Propane and natural gas function a bit differently in a fireplace, and so, they require their own pieces of equipment, as we briefly discussed previously. A propane system must be closed tightly with a valve and requires a safety pilot to ensure it is never left open.
Conversely, a natural gas fireplace does not require a safety pilot because the valve is left slightly open on its burner system.
The differences in burner orifices, burner systems, and how these fuels burn as they support a flame means that you cannot use the gasses interchangeably for a system. Not only is it likely to be a safety risk, but it is also highly unlikely they will burn efficiently when used on the opposing system.
Can You Convert Gas Fireplaces?
The majority of natural gas fireplaces can be converted to propane as long as the system can handle the pressure difference. Propane systems tend to run at a higher pressure than natural gas systems because of how the gas burns, so there is a chance your fireplace can’t be converted due to this.
You can also convert a propane fireplace to a natural gas fireplace if you prefer. Conversions are typically accomplished with a conversion kit with the appropriate fittings, flow regulator parts, gaskets, and other components necessary for a successful conversion.
You can potentially convert your fireplace yourself, but we recommend hiring a professional for this process, particularly if you decide to switch from natural gas to propane since this gas has a higher health, fire, and explosion risk. You’ll want to be sure the system is converted properly for everyone’s safety.
Additionally, if you hire a professional, they will typically replace the serial tag and rating plate on your system, so it indicates the change in gas type for future owners.
If you’re still deciding between a propane or natural gas fireplace, know that either of these options will be much cheaper to install and more environmentally friendly than a wood-burning fireplace.
They are also vastly more convenient and can heat your room with the flick of a switch. Which choice best suits you and your home might come down to your home’s layout and what systems are already in place.
Overall, when you weigh the pros and cons of these choices, the natural gas fireplace is probably the best option. Most homes already run on natural gas, so it will be easier to install. It is also cheaper than propane and has significantly reduced risks for your health and your home’s safety.