Propane is much newer than other popular fuels in existence. Gasoline was first harnessed as a fuel source with the invention of the automobile in 1892. Natural gas was first used to light houses and streets as early as 1785. Homeowners didn’t start using propane, or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) until the 1910s. Even as a new energy source, it quickly took off as a favorite fuel for everything from blowtorches to stoves. Learn how propane was discovered and how it has been used through the decades in both homes and industrial settings.
The History of Propane
It’s challenging to give an exact date for propane’s beginnings because several individuals are credited with discovering this versatile fuel source. Surprisingly, propane was synthesized in a lab before it was discovered as a naturally occurring substance. In the 1850s and ’60s, the French chemist Pierre-Eugene-Marcellin Berthelot synthesized propane among other notable organic compounds, including methane, acetylene and benzene. Although he created the compound, he did not realize its potential as a fuel source.
In 1867, industrial chemist Dr. Edmund Ronalds discovered propane as a naturally occurring substance while dissolving Pennsylvania crude oil. It wasn’t until years later that explosives expert and chemist Walter Snelling confirmed propane as a volatile substance in crude oil in 1910. He discovered it while investigating the vapors leaking from a Ford Model T gasoline tank. He filled a glass container with the gasoline, and the cork popped out, indicating a volatile vapor inside.
Snelling soon discovered propane’s potential as a fuel source and began marketing LPG in 1912. The year also marked the first person to switch their home to propane fuel. Its primary use was as a fuel source for cutting metals. In 1918, the first LPG-fueled pumpless blowtorch arrived. Propane fuel sales grew tremendously through the 1920s as new applications came on the scene. In 1927, the first gas-powered domestic cooking appliances went into development.
The 1932 Los Angeles Olympics powered all the cooking and water heating appliances in the Olympic Village using propane. The following year, an odorant was added to this naturally odorless substance. The rotten egg smell used to this day makes it easier to detect propane gas leaks.
Through the years, propane continued to gain popularity and climb in sales as homeowners began equipping their homes with LPG to fuel water heaters, clothes dryers and grills. The 1990 Clean Air Act approved propane as an alternative clean fuel source. Two years later, the Energy Policy Act of 1992 reconfirmed propane’s status as an alternative fuel source.
Today, the propane industry has matured. In 2020, the U.S. propane market was worth an estimated $34.2 billion.
Where Does Propane Come From?
Propane can be synthesized in a lab and extracted from crude oil and natural gas. Where does the propane used in homes come from today? Fuel manufacturers can extract it in two ways. One method involves separating it from crude oil at oil refineries using a distillation tower. As crude oil goes through the stabilization phase of refinement, the heavier hydrocarbons sink to the bottom. The lighter hydrocarbons, including propane and butane, rise to the top, where they’re easily removed.
Propane can also be extracted from refrigerated natural gas, alongside butane and ethane, at processing plants. When processing natural gas, it’s critical to remove propane, butane and ethane to prevent condensation in natural gas pipelines.
Extracted propane is then given an odorant to make it easy to detect tank leaks. After being separated, gaseous propane must be liquified. For the substance to liquefy correctly, it must be separated from other chemicals like ethane and then pressurized at the correct temperature. Liquefied propane is stored in cylinders and tanks. When you use LPG, the liquid is released into the air and turns back into its gaseous state.
Uses of Propane
Since the first propane sale to a home in 1912, scientists have discovered hundreds of propane fuel uses. It has many applications in and around the home and in many commercial settings:
If you’re considering propane for your home, you might be surprised just how many uses it has in residential settings. You can use propane to fuel many home appliances, including:
- Grills: One of the most popular propane applications is to power backyard grills and portable camp stoves. Propane grills are easier to start than charcoal grills, and they supply your burners with fuel through a small tank of LPG fuel.
- Water heaters: Propane can fuel tankless water heaters and pool heaters. It’s often more economical than electricity.
- Generators: While permanent residential generators can use many fuel types, propane is one of the most popular.
- Furnaces: Propane is one option you could use to heat your home. It costs less than electricity and burns cleaner than oil.
- Cooking ranges: Most cooks prefer propane stoves over electric models. An adjustable open flame gives the most precision over the cooking temperature.
- Clothes dryers: Propane clothes dryers are popular because they’re hotter and more efficient than electric models. They also create less static, which is better for your laundry.
- Fireplaces: Propane is an easy way to start an even-burning, mess-free fire in your living room fireplace. Since propane produces plenty of heat, it will also provide more comfort compared to a wood fire.
Industrial and Commercial Applications
While most people think about propane uses in their home, it has many uses across industries, such as:
- Agriculture: Propane powers much of the equipment used for crops and livestock. One of the most common applications is to power crop dryers for hay, tobacco, corn and shelled peanuts. Propane can also heat greenhouses and animal enclosures, and power irrigation pumps.
- Manufacturing and warehousing: Since propane is clean-burning and efficient, many warehouses and factories use it to power their forklifts. They also use the fuel for industrial generators.
- Refrigeration: Propane is often used as a refrigerant gas for refrigerators.
- Hospitality: Most restaurants, hotels and other commercial kitchens rely on propane-fueled industrial cooking equipment. With better temperature control, chefs can achieve consistent quality when cooking meals in large quantities.
- Transportation: While you can find a few domestic cars that run on propane, propane power is more common in commercial fleets. Everything from school buses to police vehicles may run on propane.
Benefits of Propane
Propane is very versatile around the house, which is a benefit itself. Besides the convenience of being able to run many appliances on one fuel tank, LPG offers advantages such as:
1. It’s Efficient
Most homeowners make the switch to propane because it’s a fuel-efficient way to heat your home or power your appliances. LPG provides more energy and heat than the same volume of natural gas. While an electric water heater takes an hour to heat up fully, a propane tank can heat up in as little as 20 minutes.
2. It Never Expires
While diesel and gasoline degrade over time, propane retains its potency no matter how long it’s stored. That means you can keep a large propane tank on your property without worrying about how fast you need to use it. You can fill your tank up in the spring or summer, and it will still be good by the time you need it to heat your home.
While propane itself does not degrade, it’s important to note that the storage tank can expire because it must remain under pressure to keep the propane in its liquid state. A tank with a capacity of 100 gallons or less will expire after 12 years from its manufactured date. After that, it may be inspected and requalified. If it’s in good condition, it can last for another five years. Larger propane tanks for home or commercial use can last even longer. Through the tank’s entire useful life, the fuel inside will never expire.
3. It’s Clean
Most homeowners are happy to learn that propane is clean burning and an excellent way to preserve the environment. With a low carbon content, it produces minimal emissions and is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. It also won’t contaminate your groundwater or soil.
4. It’s Reliable
While a power outage could leave you without heat, LPG-heated homes remain warm and toasty as long as the tank doesn’t get too low. You’ll also be able to use a propane stove, so you can continue cooking through a blackout. If you have a propane-powered generator, you can even power your whole home without worry.
Order Propane From Foster Fuels
Considering making the switch to propane? Learn more about the propane-powered home and what it can do for you. Once you’ve switched to propane, we’d be happy to serve as your trusted propane provider.
We’re a local, family-owned business you can trust. As a company with over 100 years in the business, our knowledgeable team can answer all your questions about propane and other fuels. We also provide the option for auto-fill service, so you don’t have to remember when your tank needs a refill. Reach out to chat more about propane and whether it’s right for you, or order fuel delivery service today.