The Difference Between Electric, Gas, and Propane Heaters

The Difference Between Electric, Gas, and Propane Heaters

HeatersIt’s not often you get to consider what kind of heating system to have in your home. Investing in new construction is a great opportunity to control the type of fuel your home uses. Rehabbing an older home is another chance to install the system of your choice. Also, when purchasing a home, it’s best to have a little knowledge about the different kinds of systems as you tour available options. Factors to consider include cost, efficiency, and impact on the environment.

For brevity, this article concentrates on more traditional systems, gas propane, oil and electric, as opposed to green energy systems such as solar panels or wind turbines.


Electric furnaces are easier to install than other systems because they don’t require any duct work. They are usually less expensive to purchase, although they cost more to operate, compared to oil and gas systems. An electric heater converts electricity into heat through a resistor, essentially a wire and ceramic coil. Depending on the square footage, electric fans or heat pumps may be needed.

This system is efficient because all the electrical energy is converted into heat energy, without any byproduct such as gas or smoke. Electricity is an environmentally friendly system, and economical as well, especially if you invest in energy-efficient appliances. The biggest drawback to these systems, of course, is the potential loss of heat due to power failure.


Forced-air gas systems use natural gas (methane) though a connection between your house and the grid on your street. When the air in the house cools to a specific temperature, a thermostat sends a low-voltage signal to the gas furnace. The machine opens a valve and the gas is delivered to the burners in the furnace. The heated air collects in a plenum and is forced through the house via a fan pushing the air through ductwork. This system needs a vent through a flue in the roof to allow the gases created by the combustion process to escape.

Natural gas is methane, a fossil fuel that is non-renewable. However there are technologies that manufacture methane from decomposing matter, like what’s found in landfills, and this gas is renewable. Additionally, natural gas gives off greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, which contribute to global warming.

Natural gas is less expensive to purchase and use than electricity. One benefit of a gas system is that a whole-house humidifier or air filter can be attached. Since the gas comes to your furnace through an underground pipe, there’s no need to arrange for delivery as with an oil system. And of course, during an electrical outage, the gas furnace will continue to work through the worst winter storm.



Propane is a manufactured gas that’s stored as a liquid in a tank, and then converts to a gas when it’s released. Houses using this system need to have a storage tank installed, and arrange for delivery of the propane gas to the main tank on a regular basis.

Propane fueled heaters work in the same way as methane gas heaters. In fact, gas heaters that rely on the gas grid can be retrofitted to use propane by a HVAC professional. The advantage to using propane over methane is that propane does not emit CO2 or greenhouse gases when it burns. Because propane is stored, it can be purchased ahead of the winter months at lower prices. Consider convenience, cost and reliability when looking for a propane delivery service.

The tank is the biggest disadvantage to propane heating. It needs to be filled on a regular basis. A leak will cause the gas to sink, and is flammable as it escapes. Finally, the tank itself could explode during a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado.


The oil fuel used in a home doesn’t look like the dark crude oil we see in the movies. It’s a clear, odorless liquid, and it’s not burned in the furnace like oil burns in an old-fashioned kerosene lamp. An oil furnace vaporizes the fuel in a sealed chamber of the furnace. Then, similar to a gas or propane heater, warm air collects in the plenum and is forced through ductwork to heat the house.

Similar to propane, oil needs a storage tank and delivery on a regular basis. Having your own independent source of fuel can be effective in rural or remote areas, or if your desire is to have a house that’s independent of power grids.

In general, oil is cheaper to use than either electric or gas. Many oil supply companies allow you to lock in your rate for a defined period of time, making budgeting easy, especially if you don’t need to heat your house throughout the entire year. Oil is surprisingly good for the environment in that it burns cleanly and completely, so it doesn’t create greenhouse gases. However, oil is a nonrenewable resource.

Compare the convenience of grid-delivered fuel to stored fuel, and the cost of heating your house depending on its configuration, age, and square footage before deciding on a system.