When you’re sitting around a cozy living room with your family, you’re probably not giving a lot of thought to how the propane that’s heating your home got there in the first place. You know propane is an affordable and reliable source of heat. You likely also know that it’s a fossil fuel, like natural gas or oil. But how much do you really know about the complex process through which it becomes a usable source of heat? The answers may surprise you.
Propane is obtained in two ways. It is one of the three heavy petrochemicals removed from natural gas to prepare it for transportation via a pipeline. It is also a byproduct of oil refining that is produced in the manufacture of heating oil, petroleum and other products.
One interesting consequence of this is that propane isn’t manufactured on its own — as a result, when domestic supply runs low, it is necessary to import it from elsewhere. Currently, natural gas and oil refining produce enough propane to meet around 90% of our annual fuel needs. The rest is imported from Canada, Mexico or further abroad.
The first step in getting propane ready for sale is to isolate it from other petrochemicals, creating a pure form that will liquefy properly. Because propane occurs as a gas in normal atmospheric conditions, liquefaction is achieved through pressurization. To be usable, commercial propane is required to have a maximum vapor pressure of 200 psig at 100°F (38°C).
Propane is naturally odorless so, to make it easier to detect leaks, a special chemical known as an odorant is added at this point. This is why propane has the characteristic “rotten egg” smell that many associate with it.
Propane Delivery and Distribution
Once propane is refined to the required grade, it is stored in large underground tanks and brought to market via specially pressurized trucks and rail cars. Propane gas companies such as Foster Fuels purchase propane in large quantities and deliver it to directly homes and businesses. These companies will typically perform their own quality control and blend in additives to enhance the properties of the fuel for various applications.
When propane finally reaches your home, it has traveled far and has undergone considerable refining. Though the supply chain is complex, the end result is a highly reliable fuel that is easy to use, trouble-free, safe and clean-burning.