Propane and oil come from nonrenewable fossil fuels that take millions of years to form. Although propane and heating oil are not the most used heating fuels, they remain the most viable option in several parts of the country. Choosing between propane and heating oil can have a significant effect on home heating bills and the environment.
Propane has no natural colour or odour and does not naturally occur in nature, but as a byproduct of the production of natural gas, reports the U.S. Department of Energy. Producers store propane as a liquid, which then turns into gas when released. Heating oil is a petroleum product distilled from crude oil and delivered by pipelines or tankers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Propane does not have much widespread use in the United States, accounting for only about 2 per cent of energy production, reports the U.S. Department of Energy. On the other hand, about 13 per cent of all U.S. households use heating oil as their main source of heat, with the Northeast states using the most heating oil, reports the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Propane and heating oil are very efficient fuels, but propane edges out heating oil at 95 per cent efficiency in burners versus 85 per cent for heating oil, claims Home Construction Improvement. The price for a gallon of each fuel can vary widely depending on the region of the country, but propane tends to cost about 25 per cent less than heating oil. In 2009, heating oil averaged £2.60 per gallon, while propane averaged £1.90 per gallon.
Propane and heating oil prices generally follow the price of crude oil, but heating oil has several other factors that affect price. Most heating oil tanks do not have a large enough capacity to hold all of the fuel a house needs for winter, according to the U.S. EIA. This means that prices can spike frequently as homeowners purchase more fuel every couple of weeks.
In addition, refineries need to produce other petroleum products like gas in order to make more heating oil. During winter months where people use less gas, producers simply cannot sell enough other petroleum products to justify an increase in heating oil production.
Propane is one of the cleanest burning heating fuels around and produces almost no toxins, other than small amounts of carbon monoxide that still need venting, reports the U.S. EIA. Heating oil produces particulate matter and toxins that require heavy ventilation.
On the other hand, oil burners and heating oil are much more common in some areas of the country. Although newer houses are switching to natural gasses such as propane, older homes still contain oil burners. Switching to propane would likely require purchasing a new heating system.