By Bryan Cordill
Facility executives seeking ways to maximize efficiency and reduce operational costs are turning to alternative energy sources, like propane. The propane industry provides energy to nearly one million commercial customers, according to data from the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).
High-efficiency propane systems offer key benefits to commercial buildings of all kinds, including low-cost operation, reduced emissions, and superior performance. Water heating is often the first adoption of propane in a building during retrofits or during new construction off the gas mains.
Propane-fueled water heating fit the bill for Ruby’s Inn, a top-rated lodging and attraction destination near Bryce Canyon National Park, UT. The inn is now home to the largest commercial water heating retrofit by manufacturer Rinnai, after removing five 199,000-Btu storage tank water heaters and installing 175 high-efficiency tankless water heaters throughout the resort. The upgrade helped Ruby’s Inn lower operational costs, increase customer satisfaction, and save up to 7,000 gallons of propane per month. That adds up to about $6,000 in monthly savings.
Because of these results, Ruby’s Inn incorporated an additional system two years after its tankless retrofit. The resort replaced two outdated boilers in the main lodge with two new 3.5 million-Btu propane boilers. The new system heats the pool and the spa and provides space heating in the main lodge. Since installing the boilers, the resort has saved 13,000 gallons of propane per month.
Propane can power nearly all of a building’s major energy systems, and there are several expansion opportunities for operations already using this fuel source, like Ruby’s Inn. Here are four opportunities for facility management to consider for propane.
Propane-powered furnaces and boilers can provide efficient and comfortable space heating to a variety of commercial building types. Propane furnaces offer great flexibility in both the type and capacity of the equipment. These systems have zoned heating capabilities, capacities from 44,000 to more than one million Btu per hour, and efficiency levels of 80% to 98.5%. A critical feature of propane furnaces is their ability to condition different zones of a building. This allows the use of multiple smaller furnaces to meet the heating needs of just one part of a building. In a restaurant, for example, a rooftop furnace can quickly and cost-effectively heat a restaurant, and it can serve two different zones for the kitchen and seating area. Additionally, newer units have multiple stages and microprocessors to reduce energy costs, as well as variable airflow to meet diverse heating loads.
Propane boilers can serve both space heating and hot water applications, too. With capacities up to 8,660,000 Btu/h, their space heating capacities can support many applications. These boilers can also provide high volumes of hot water for domestic consumption as well as related applications like laundry, often with the same boiler unit that provides space heating.
Combined Heat And Power
Combined heat and power (CHP) systems improve energy efficiency and decrease utility bills for businesses. These systems use a propane-fueled engine, a heat exchanger, and a generator to create electricity that powers the building. Simultaneously, the heat from the unit is captured by the heat exchanger and used to channel thermal energy to applications like space heating, water heating, and dehumidification, to name a few. Using both the electrical and thermal output of the propane CHP system achieves system efficiencies as high as 75%. Typical stand-alone electric generation, on the other hand, is only 30% to 50% efficient.
These systems are most effective in buildings with significant and steady thermal demands, which could include heavy domestic hot-water needs like hotels, hospitals, and car washes, for example. CHP systems can be a great fit for retrofits to existing water heating equipment. Additionally, these systems are ideal if on-site power generation is an increasing priority, as most CHP systems can be used for standby power during grid-based power outages.
Power outages can take a toll on commercial buildings of all kinds. According to a Power Outage Impact Research report by B2B International, relocating a single patient from a healthcare facility costs roughly $2,000; a manufacturing firm paid more than $250,000 in lost wages and overtime after a one-day power outage; and a Washington grocery store lost nearly its entire inventory — more than $100,000 worth of food — after a multi-day power outage.
Propane-powered generators can offer resilience, security, and peace of mind — something every business is seeking right now. With propane backup power, businesses can avoid the financial losses, emotional stress, and damage to a business’ reputation that a power outage can cause. Available in a variety of capacities, propane generators can power small businesses to hospitals and large manufacturing facilities. Propane offers key benefits over other energy options. For example, it doesn’t degrade over time like diesel or gasoline and can handle all of a business’s energy needs for days, unlike wind- or solar-powered systems. Permanently installed and supplied by an aboveground or underground tank, propane standby generators start automatically, usually less than 10 seconds after a main-power interruption.
During the pandemic, businesses are doing their best to continue operating by, among other things, expanding operations outdoors when possible. Mandates on indoor gatherings are pushing businesses to make the most of their outdoor spaces. Propane can provide businesses with the portability and flexibility they need to quickly adapt their outdoor spaces to meet changing needs.
Adding propane-powered outdoor amenities can increase the usable footprint of a business — and the seasonality, too. Adding patio heating, for example, can turn a patio into a year-round amenity in many parts of the country. Propane’s versatility extends to a wide variety of outdoor applications including fireplaces and fire pits, flame lighting, pool and spa heaters, and patio heaters.
Whether seeking better performance or increased efficiency and reduced utility bills, propane-powered technologies can provide a reliable solution for facility managers of all kinds. Beyond the applications outlined above, propane can power cooking equipment and clothes dryers, too. Facility managers can also reach out to a local propane supplier to determine if switching to this fuel source is the right decision for their facility.
Cordill is director of residential and commercial business development for the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). To learn more about the choices for commercial buildings, visit Propane.com/Commercial-Buildings-and-Construction.