Propane Gas Fireplace Buyer's Guide
Should you get a propane fireplace or a natural gas fireplace? If the ease and efficiency of propane fireplaces appeal to you, you might now wonder whether propane is the best fuel option for your home. The good news is that almost every gas appliance can be set up to run on either liquid propane or natural gas.
While there are some important differences, both gases create similar flames. We'll compare liquid propane and natural gas so you can decide which one is the best fit. We'll also cover some basics of gas fireplaces and how to convert a fireplace from one gas fuel type to another.
Liquid Propane vs. Natural Gas
Both liquid propane and natural gas are odorless, colorless gases. To help detect any leaks, additives are mixed into the gas to give it a strong smell.
Both are environmentally safe fuels that create mostly carbon dioxide and water vapor when burned.
Propane is more heat efficient than natural gas and has more than twice the BTU rating per cubic foot. However, even with better efficiency, propane has some downsides.
Natural gas is the most common fuel used for residential heating. It is lighter than air, meaning that it will dissipate quickly in case of a leak. This makes it safer than propane, which is heavier than air and can create dangerous pools of gas if a leak or delayed appliance ignition occurs.
Natural gas is supplied by permanent gas lines while propane is purchased and stored in tanks. The tanks can either be small and portable, or you can have a large propane tank installed on your property. Almost all propane tanks are refillable.
Since natural gas comes from supply lines, you only pay for what you use. In contrast, you buy propane in advance and store it in the tanks.
Propane requires a higher pressure than natural gas. As a result, any faulty seals or joints are more likely to leak when using propane. Since propane tanks are often refilled, the wear and tear on fittings raises the risk for leaks.
For more information, check out our article on propane versus natural gas.
When to consider using propane?
- Rural farm town during sundown
If natural gas is a safer option with less risk for leaks, why would you consider using propane? First thing's first, propane is not an inherently dangerous option. If you take the right precautions, propane can function as a safe and reliable fuel source.
So where does using propane make sense? Propane gas is very portable. It's perfect for appliances like fire tables and grills that aren't permanent fixtures.
Also, some places do not have access to gas lines. Rural locations may not have the infrastructure for natural gas.
Even if you have gas lines to your home, you may find that they are not conveniently located. For example, consider a large home that has the kitchen on the south side and the master bedroom on the north side. It's possible that all the gas lines exist on the south side without any available near the bedroom. It isn't always appealing to tack the line along the outside of the house. On the other hand, trenching new gas lines or running them through the house is often very expensive. One solution is to install a propane tank near the bedroom to fuel the fireplace.
Can you convert the fuel for your Gas Fireplace?
The answer is usually yes, but make sure you convert all the necessary parts!
Direct vent and b-vent fireplaces often offer conversion kits. The conversion between fuel types is relatively simple since the components are easily removed.
The only exception is vent-free fireplaces. They can emit dangerous byproducts and fumes into the room if converted to a different fuel. Improper conversion of vent-free units is downright dangerous. Factories certify vent free fireplaces to burn only the designed fuel type. Many feature anti-tamper devices to discourage any fuel conversion.
Some manufacturers only create natural gas versions of their fireplace models. However, a separate (and usually low cost) propane conversion kit is often available. These kits include detailed instructions and are easy to install. Manufacturers also provide revision stickers to show when the unit has been converted.
While not as common, a handful of manufacturers offer their units as dual-fuel models. This means they have dual gas inputs leading to the gas valve (one labeled NG and the other LP), or they have a valve that switches for different fuels. The issue with these units is that they require duplicate parts and more complex designs.
How to Convert from Natural Gas to Propane
There are a few components that need to be converted if switching gas fuels. In the next section, we provide an outline of these components, along with some important installation reminders.
Pilot Light Assembly and Pilot Orifice
- Lit pilot on gas fireplace
A pilot light is a small blue flame fueled by a tiny stream of gas. Its purpose is to light the main flow of gas when you switch the appliance on. It is either always burning (millivolt pilot) or lights only when needed to ignite the main burner (intermittent pilot).
The pilot orifice is a small metal piece within the pilot assembly. It looks like a thimble with a small hole in the end for the gas to pass through. It regulates the amount of gas supplied to the pilot flame. Because the BTU rating of natural gas is lower than propane, the hole in the orifice is larger for natural gas.
Switching out the gas orifice when converting is important. Without the right sized orifice, the pilot flame may be large and sooty, or the flame may be too small to light the main burner.
Main Burner Orifice
- Oxygen depletion sensor on vent free gas fireplace orifice
The main burner orifice is similar to the pilot orifice, but it is used with the gas lines that supply the main burner. Its job is to regulate the supply of gas to the main burner. Some burners rely on a single orifice, while others have multiple orifices.
Gas Valve or Gas Valve Regulator
The gas valve is the heart of the fireplace. It controls the flow of gas to both the pilot assembly and the main burner. Within the valve is a regulator. Some regulators are factory set and cannot be adjusted to control flame height. Propane gas requires nearly twice the pressure to flow properly from the burner and pilot assembly. If using propane, make sure you use the correct regulator.
Control Chip or Control Board
Control chips or control boards are for intermittent pilot or electronic ignition fireplaces. Since propane gas does not disperse as well, you need to wait longer between ignition attempts in order to allow more time for the gas to disperse. The manufacturer will offer two different versions of the control chip or board depending on whether you intend to use propane or natural gas. Sometimes a fuel conversion chip that changes the behavior of the control board/module is all that is necessary to convert between fuels.
Some propane fireplaces require adjusting the venting system. This is rare, but it is crucial to check that all the right venting is in place to prevent a dangerous explosion.
Propane gas pools if unlit, so in the case of a failure to light, you need a venting system that can clear out the gas. When installing or converting a fireplace to propane fuel, check to make sure you have a safe venting configuration.
For a longer discussion of venting options, here is an article on finding the right venting.
- Kingsman - With origins in the wood-burning side of the hearth industry, the founder of Kingsman fireplaces turned the focus to gas burning appliances soon after, recognizing the benefits of these clean-burning fuels. Now manufacturing advanced gas-burning fireplaces for over 35 years, Kingsman models offer a wide range of customization options and offer the high unit to unit build consistency, making for a quality lineup that installs easily.
- Fireplace Xtrordinair - A premium line of the Travis Industries group of companies, Fireplace X offers an impressive range of gas fireplace models. They are worth serious consideration for anyone looking for large viewing areas and unique door and faceplate overlays.
- Empire - This long-running manufacturer of gas fireplaces has origins in the sheet metal industry and has been owned and managed by the same family since its founding. Empire produces lower cost, but simple and reliable models. Their units evolve slowly and their relative simplicity means they tend to outlast other brands.
- Valor - With an easy to understand product line and a tendency toward minimalistic and clean styling, Valor is a serious contender in the propane fireplace market. They offer traditional, linear, and freestanding models, with a decent number of customization options for each.
Why are Gas Fireplaces marketed by fuel type?
Factories often specify their parts and models by fuel type. This allows them to start with a basic model and then add an "N" or "P" to the end of the model number to show whether it is for natural gas or propane.
For example, the Empire Tahoe Deluxe - Model DVD36FP31 is a base model. Propane versions of this fireplace are marked DVD36FP31P. Natural gas models will be sold as DVD36FP31N. All of the parts for conversions will be marked in the same way.
The tag that comes adhered to the unit shows the gas type. There are also manuals and build stickers to indicate the type of gas that the unit was built for. When ordering a fireplace, always check that you received the right fuel type before installing it.
Properly Store Your Propane Tanks
- Large propane tank
Always store propane tanks upright to protect the valves. Also, keeping the tank in a dry place up off the ground helps prevent rust.
Do not store tanks inside, since this could be a major hazard in case of a fire. If a tank is completely empty, you can store it inside. Avoid storing empty or full tanks any place where the temperature could reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Propane tanks are more resistant to cold, so storing the tanks during the winter should not be a problem.
Inspect your tanks frequently for any leaks. You can use a leak detection solution or mix soap and water. Work in a well-ventilated area and apply the solution all around the valves, regulators, and welded seams. Any bubbles that form indicate a leak. If you notice a leak, immediately remove small tanks far from combustible materials. Contact your local fire department for help with leaks on larger tanks.
Depending on the size and installation of your tank, you will need to get it inspected at certain intervals. Take note of how often your tank needs to be inspected and put it on the calendar. Inspections help prevent safety hazards and keep your tank operating smoothly.
How much propane do I need?
- Small rusted propane tanks
Finally, you might be wondering how big of a propane tank to buy. Our NFI Certified Technicians are more than happy to help with any questions about your specific tank needs. In the meantime, here are two general rules of thumb:
- If your appliance is rated at 55,000 BTUs or higher, we recommend a 40-pound or larger liquid propane tank.
- If the appliance is rated at less than 55,000 BTUs, you can use a 20-pound liquid propane tank.
These sizes should allow for at least two hours of continuous operation. Keep in mind that propane tanks are only filled to 80% capacity, so a 20-pound tank only holds about five gallons.
Manufacturers often list the recommended tank size for appliances designed to run on propane.
Undersized tanks may cause the system and regulator to freeze up if the appliance demands more fuel than the tank can supply. Some recommend pouring lukewarm water over the tank to unfreeze it, but this can damage the regulators and seals. Unless it is an emergency, it is best to wait for it to thaw out on its own.
- Mother and young son in front of a fireplace
Natural gas may be a common fueling option for most people, but propane allows you to install a fireplace even in places without gas lines. It also provides a portable fuel solution for any appliance that is mobile.
Conversions between natural gas and propane gas are usually simple and involve switching a few key parts. Don't try to convert a vent-free unit. Even with vented units, check to make sure you have adequate venting if switching from natural gas to propane.
Be sure to follow all the proper instructions for a complete conversion so that your fireplace will operate safely and effectively. For more information about gas fireplaces including style options, venting, and maintenance, visit our gas fireplaces page.
If you have questions about propane gas fireplaces or conversions, contact our team of NFI Certified Specialists. We're always happy to help!
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