Are Propane Heaters Safe Indoors?

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Propane heaters are, by far, the most popular fossil fuel heaters. They are found nearly everywhere, whether in the home, garage, among anglers, and even among campers. They are incredibly versatile, capable of providing useful heat in the most unconventional of situations.

A major draw of the heaters is the availability and heating potential of propane. Propane is readily available throughout the country, arguably more available than natural gas.

It’s also cheaper than natural gas. Above all, propane is a clean-burning fuel with minimal combustion byproducts, making it attractive even among the most ardent climate change crusaders.

However, like all heaters that burn fossil fuels, propane heaters aren’t entirely safe. Burns and carbon monoxide, in particular, are ever-present dangers.

How can you use a propane heater safely without exposing anyone or even your home risk? Read on to find out.

What is a Propane Heater?

Let’s begin with a brief overview of propane tanks, especially how they work. A propane heater is any heating appliance that uses propane gas as the primary source of fuel. Propane itself is a hydrocarbon, similar to natural gas and even kerosene.

The following are a few other facts you may want to know about propane heaters and propane heating in general;

  • Propane is a liquefied form of petroleum. Indeed, it’s sometimes referred to as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
  • Over 12.5 million households use propane in the US. As a heating source, that’s only bettered by electricity.
  • Propane gas is colorless, odorless, and pretty much nontoxic. As with natural gas, though, an identifiable odor (hydrogen sulfide) is added so the gas can be readily detected.
  • Propane is about thrice as cheap as electricity for heating. Also, you’re likely to recover your investment faster if using a propane heater compared to an electric heater.
  • Propane heaters vary significantly in size. While some are as small as one gallon, some propane tanks are 1,000 gallons or more.
  • Virtually anything in the home that can run on electricity can also run on propane, including the lights above you and your entertainment system.

As a hydrocarbon, propane contains several other compounds. Two such compounds are butane and propylene.

Igniting a propane heater is easy. Traditionally, you’d need a box of matches. Some heaters still implement this manual approach. However, most modern models now use the so-called piezoelectric ignition igniter.

Essentially, a material, often quartz, with the property to develop an electric potential when pressure is applied is housed in a mechanism that allows a spring-loaded hammer to strike. The strike of the hammer generates a spark that ignites the heater.

Two other critical features of the propane heater are the element and pilot. The element, usually porcelain, helps spread the flame out and distribute the heat from the unit.

Meanwhile, the pilot is a small flame that burns continuously to be ready to light the main burner. A pilot light reduces the effort required to light the main burner. Though it burns almost always, it uses very little fuel.

Propane heaters come in many styles and designs. In terms of operation, there are radiant models and convective models. A popular category of convective propane heaters is the blue-flame type. Propane heaters can also be free-standing, table-top models, or wall-mounted. The units can also be vented or unvented.

Finally, propane heaters traditionally feature easy-access control features for flame and heat adjustment. A thermostat, built-in or installed separately, helps regulate indoor temperatures by telling the heater to stop or continue running depending on whether the set temperature has been reached. Some units also feature timers and knob controls.

Benefits of Propane Heaters

Now that you know the basics of propane heaters let’s get to the benefits. Why are propane heaters so popular? There are multiple reasons;

It’s a High-Energy Alternative

Propane has a higher octane rating than gasoline and delivers more consistent heating than electric heaters.

While a standard electric heater keeps the home at around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about body temperature, propane heaters will keep your home at 130 degrees or higher. They also warm up the room faster.

It’s an Excellent Choice for Emergencies

Every location and even individual homes experience blackouts from time to time. When this happens, the propane heater becomes an invaluable solution.

A single gallon of propane can produce up to 91,800 BTU of heating power, equivalent to 27,000-kilowatt-hours of electric heat.

It’s a Safe Energy Pick

Fossil fuel heaters aren’t usually very safe. Though many of them have been optimized for safe indoor use, a few safety risks persist.

Propane heaters aren’t completely safe, as we’ll see shortly. But, they are inherently safer than other fossil fuel heaters.

For one, the propane tank is 20x more puncture-resistant than gasoline, ethanol, and methanol tanks. Secondly, if there’s a propane leak, you’ll quickly tell by the rotten-egg smell.

Propane is an Affordable Fuel

Though more expensive than natural gas, propane produces a lot more heat than a similar quantity of natural gas. This makes propane cheaper in the grand scheme.

You also get more heat in your home while at it. Remember that propane is also about 50% less expensive than electricity while guaranteeing more warmth.

Dangers of Propane Heaters

How can you tell that something is wrong with your propane system or the tank itself? The following are a few signs to look out for;

  • The smell of rotten eggs: If you smell rotten eggs, there’s likely a propane leak. The good news is that the smell is so strong you cannot just ignore it.
  • Rust in or on the tank: The propane tank must never rust. Rust not only weakens the propane tank but can also interfere with the odor of propane, making it more difficult to detect when there’s a leak.
  • Damage piping: Nearly all propane systems comprise a piping/tubing system that connects the tank to the burner/stove. The tubing must be in good shape at all times. Otherwise, leaks can occur. If it’s cracked or torn, replace it immediately.
  • Dings or dents on the tank: A dent or ding on the propane tank may not always mean the tank isn’t fit for use. However, the problem is that it’s impossible to tell how the dent/ding may have impacted the structural integrity of the tank. To avoid any accidents, consider a replacement tank.

Safety Tips When Using a Propane Heater

Throughout your ownership and use of the propane system, you must also learn to use it safely. The following are standard safety tips;

  • Always read the owner’s manual: This should be the first thing you do before installing the heater. The manual will tell you basic safety use practices.  
  • Keep the tank clean and clear of clutter: The propane heater requires plenty of clearance, at least three feet on all sides.
  • Install carbon monoxide sensors: A carbon monoxide sensor detects the presence of dangerous CO levels in the home and sounds an alarm.
  • Pay attention to the pilot light: A pilot that goes off repeatedly could be a sign of trouble. You want to call an HVAC professional right away.
  • Establish a regular delivery schedule: Regular delivery helps for two reasons. First, the delivery guy will inspect your heating system for issues. Secondly, keeping the tank full protects it from rust and other forms of damage.
  • Schedule regular maintenance: Every propane heating system requires a professional checkup at least once before the heating season and throughout the year in case of any trouble.

Propane Heaters FAQ

  • How Much Do Propane Heaters Cost? US residential propane prices are currently at $1.855, at least 4.48% lower than a year ago.
  • Can you leave a propane heater on overnight? Never leave a propane heater running overnight. The risk of fire and CO poisoning is just too much.
  • Do propane heaters give off carbon dioxide? Yes, propane heaters give off carbon monoxide (CO), even if in minor traces. The risk of CO is greater in poorly ventilated spaces.
  • Do you need ventilation when using a propane heater? Yes. Propane heaters require a reliable supply of fresh air (read oxygen) for a healthy combustion process.
  • How can I tell if I have a propane leak in my house? Yes. If there’s a propane leak, you’ll notice the smell of a rotten egg.
  • What happens if you smell propane? If you detect the rotten egg smell, shut off the propane heater right away and open the windows and doors. If the smell won go away after half an hour, it’s time to call an HVAC professional.
  • Is the rotten egg bad for my health? Well, it signals a potential propane leak. Propane leaks can cause fires. So, the smell is a risk for your life, not just your health. Otherwise, the smell alone isn’t harmful to your health. It is usually detected at very low levels, well below the levels that can cause health effects.

Wrap Up

Propane heaters are a popular choice among consumers as they may excellent secondary and emergency heaters. A portable propane heater is also the versatile heating solution you want for use in unconventional spaces such as the basement and the barn.

As you shop around, just remember that propane heaters aren’t 100% safe – no heater is. Therefore, safe use is a must.

For indoor heating, buy an indoor-rated propane heater and safely use it, always keeping sufficient clearance and ensuring plenty of ventilation.

Above all, you must install a carbon monoxide sensor and regularly check to ensure the sensor is working optimally.