Propane, and propane acessories for backup power.
December 23, 2008 1:19 PM   Subscribe

After the recent issues with running a gas generator for emergency power backup, I was going to make the plunge and purchase a propane generator. The question is, should I plan on having a couple propane appliances installed as well?

So I'm up here in Central Massachusetts in an area with no Natural Gas service, so if I want gas powered backup, I'm going LP. The generator size I want that would serve me well is 7KW, with a consumption rate of around 1 gallon an hour. After last week's ice storm and no power for several days I know I want a couple days of run time, which means no less than 96 gallons, so a 120 gallon tank looks to be the size I need (80% capacity). Anything smaller, and I would probably run out before I could get a truck to deliver when everyone is running low. If I stick with removable storage (like the really big bottles you can bring to the refilling stations) I would need several at a time, and be at the mercy of whether the stores were in stock during an emergency, have to lift and move them, deal with getting back and forth, etc.

However, extended periods without power are rare (once every few years) so I generally wouldn't use that much propane from year to year if I just run the generator. I'm assuming I'd have a hard time getting a service contract with a provider if I'm not using at least one tank worth of gas a year. I guess I could always just shut the power to the house down and run the generator, but that seems like an expensive way to get electricty.

Would a propane gas kitchen stove be enough to help me make sure I use enough each year to help justify the installation of a 120 gallon tank? My water heater and main heating system is already heating oil, so there's no advantage to converting those to propane. I'm in the process of replacing my kitchen, and need a new stove, so a switch to LP now for that wouldn't be exceptionally painful.

Alternatively, has anyone heard of someone installing a diesel generator and feeding it from the home heating oil tank?
posted by inthe80s to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In addition to a propane kitchen stove, you can also find propane refrigerators and propane clothes dryers. Perhaps your local propane supplier is also an appliance seller. They would be glad for more of your money.
posted by mkb at 1:42 PM on December 23, 2008

Response by poster: The big issue I had with gas is that gas isn't stable for more than a few months and gums up carburetors. They're a poor means of emergency backup. I spent a day cleaning it out and making it run again. Propane generators run themselves periodically and have instant on/switch over. Not to mention the noise is much less.

An LP tank still needs routine service, you want them to come out yearly and inspect the fittings, plus with the vapor you end up losing some volume steadily over time. So if you fill it, and let it sit for a year, it's going to have less at the end of the year even with zero use.

I was just discussing it with someone in the office, and he mentioned a gas dryer. Which would probably be an ideal pairing. Electric dryers are awful for energy usage compared to gas, and it's in the basement so it would be easy to install. Not to mention they are cheaper to purchase than electric dryers (and mine's getting up there in years). It would get used a lot and help insure that I run a tank worth every year.

So I think I ended up answering my own question.
posted by inthe80s at 1:49 PM on December 23, 2008

Best answer: Family of mine has a propane-fired pool heater with a 120 gal (or thereabouts) tank, and I don't think they have any sort of minimum purchase arrangement with the gas company. They have had years where for whatever reason they haven't used the heater much, and thus didn't buy a tank of gas, and the company never came around trying to repo the tank. I do think they get a call about once a year asking if they want a delivery, though. (They live out in the boonies so the company never attempts a delivery without calling first; perhaps if they didn't the company would come by periodically and try topping it off, like the heating oil people do.) I suspect there's some sort of 'tank rental' that gets charged regardless of the number of fills per year.

I would go talk to a couple of propane suppliers and see what arrangements they'll make with you. Propane generators are not that uncommon an item these days, and even if you don't have a power outage, you won't use zero fuel. (You'll probably need to "exercise" it periodically to move the oil around and keep the parts from getting stuck; some systems with automatic start and cutover do this automatically on a timer.) You'll probably want them to come by at least once or twice a year to top the tank off, just so it's always nearly full, depending on how often the manufacturer recommends exercising it.

Anyway, I would just shop around, not mentioning that having other appliances connected is even an option, and see what the local services say. Paying some sort of fixed rental fee for the tank and getting your fills "a la carte" might be preferable towards getting into a contract that's designed for people with propane furnaces, where they basically know in advance how much they'll use each year. (However, I would caution you against buying a tank yourself; they need to be taken in and re-certified every few years, so you are almost certainly better-off renting one. At least this has been what I've always heard.)

All that said ... having a gas rangetop is really great. I miss having one and have seriously considered getting a propane tank just for that purpose alone.

The diesel option seems fairly interesting; I've never seen that done though. (Many places I've been to have heating oil tanks right next to diesel tanks for generators.) Seems like it ought to be possible, assuming you could get fuel that meets the generator's requirements (esp. sulfur levels) delivered.

There's an interesting thread about the differences between "diesel" bought for over-the-road use and #2 home heating oil here. The OP in that thread mentions that s/he has customers running generators on #2 home heating oil, so apparently it isn't unheard of. You might want to be careful about the gel point of the fuel you're buying if the generator would be outside in a cold environment, though. What surprised me is that saying "#2 home heating oil" is actually a much more precise specification than "road diesel fuel," which can vary dramatically from location to location and from season to season.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:00 PM on December 23, 2008

Were you unable to get gas from a local gas station?
How likely is it that this type of event will happen again?

I'm in Maine, lost power a couple of times recently, at most 40 hours. Do you need to run a generator for everything in your house or to keep food safe, a light or 2, and running an oil furnace?

I have a wood stove that kept the pipes safe, and the living room cozy, 1 oil lamp (I need at least a 2nd; 1 was lost in the recent move, or absconded with by my kid - most likely) for reading, and the stuff in the fridge went out to the shed, in a cooler. There was *plenty* of ice. If I had a generator, I'd have used it for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to run the heat & fridge. My wood stove was designed to cook on, so I had 1 big burner.

It's nice to cook on a gas stove, so it's a good idea. Only the burners will work in a power outage, but a cast iron pan, with a low flame under it, acts as a radiator, and you can cook nice hot meals. I had a gas stove at the old house, partly because it's nicer to cook on, partly for emergencies.

The Red Cross has a good site for emergency preparedness. The prices for survival gear are often high, but camping gear may be more reasonable.

If you set up a generator, make sure it's hooked in correctly, so as not to electrocute a line repair person trying to reconnect electricity.
posted by theora55 at 2:31 PM on December 23, 2008

So I think I ended up answering my own question.

Yes, good choice. Cooking with gas is much nicer than using electric (especially so during a week without electricity.) And gas dryers are much better all round than electric ones.
posted by anadem at 7:56 PM on December 23, 2008

Response by poster: Family of mine has a propane-fired pool heater with a 120 gal (or thereabouts) tank, and I don't think they have any sort of minimum purchase arrangement with the gas company. They have had years where for whatever reason they haven't used the heater much, and thus didn't buy a tank of gas, and the company never came around trying to repo the tank.

That's kind of what I wanted to hear. I know there's a couple companies locally (I pass one everyday to work) and wanted to know if that was a normal type of situation before even calling them. I kind of knew about the rental part on the tanks, when I was a kid we had propane for the water heater and when we went passive solar (ugh, never again) the company was out the next day to reclaim their tanks.

Were you unable to get gas from a local gas station?
How likely is it that this type of event will happen again?

Wood stove isn't an option, no where to place one in my house that will meet Mass. building codes and still permit me to use the rest of a room for something other than the stove (had to remove one about 8 years ago, or I couldn't get homeowners insurance). It's the reason I invested in the generator panel I have now. I did my calculations, and a 7KW generator will run the well, the furnace, the fridge and a few other small devices and lights which is plenty. A wood stove won't provide more than heat, so in my mind, it's not really a solution worth pursuing. Despite a large supply of dead wood in my backyard, I really don't want the bother of cutting/stacking/burning wood. I did it for many years, and I don't miss it.

Most recent outage was about 4 days, a friend of mine 30 minutes north is now almost two weeks into his outage. The contractor working on my house lives one town over and he was out a solid week. These kinds of outages are probably 1 in a 20 year type outage. Worst is usually no more than two days every couple of years. Still long enough when they happen that I want a solution that is permanent and near fool proof.

I was able to get gasoline during the outage, but like I said, I don't want to deal with the maintenance headaches of a gas generator again. The cost difference is about 3 times more for a propane one, but it's more reliable in the long run. Getting LP fuel might be tougher to source (I know the welding supply place I visited right after the storm mentioned that his phone wouldn't stop ringing with people looking for fuel), which is why I want to make sure I wouldn't need it for a few days at a bare minimum. When I researched generators, I found that gas generators like the ones contractors use on job sites are almost never used for home backup. In hurricane country it seems to be either diesel or propane.
posted by inthe80s at 9:00 PM on December 23, 2008

If you had put Sta-bil in the gas, you wouldn't have had those problems. I do that with my generator, which runs maybe once or twice a year, and it works out fine.
posted by rfs at 9:10 PM on December 23, 2008

You say you already use oil for the furnace. Why not a Diesel generator? The oil in the tank is essentially diesel. Although it is probably against the law of man and God to use it for your car I can't see any problem using it to power a home generator...aside from the fumes.
posted by Gungho at 6:57 AM on December 24, 2008

Response by poster: Sta-bil isn't all that it's cracked up to be. I've seen a couple horror stories about it, so I tend to steer clear of it. Usually I run the carb dry and drain the tank rather than use it. I happened to have not done it this last time hence the issues.

Home heating oil is fine for generators (the tax issue is strictly for highway usage), the bigger problem is with keeping the line from getting too cold and gel effects. They're loud unless you spend a lot to get a water cooled one. If it weren't for the issues with cold weather and unknowns of whether home heating oil would be more/less immune to those problems, I'd probably use it.
posted by inthe80s at 7:31 AM on December 24, 2008

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