Not all retreats come with propane already installed. When it comes time to add propane to your retreat (or upgrade the existing equipment), what should you plan for?

Reasons to Add Propane

Many properties with retreat potential may have been started by a builder with an on-grid mentality, and the existing house relies heavily on electricity. Adding propane can be a costly step, so do it?

  1. Short term off-grid capability. If the power grid goes down, anything running on propane can keep going so long as the fuel supply lasts. It’s not a long term energy solution like solar or hydroelectric, but depending on the size of your fuel supply it can hold you over in the short and medium term crises.
  2. Optional immunity to seasonal power outages. Paired with a backup generator which uses liquid propane, you could safely ignore common power outages. If your retreat is out at the edges of the grid, winter weather can do its work on miles and miles of remote power lines. If a winter storm causes power outages, you’re more likely to be affected and more likely to be at the bottom of the repair priority list. They’ll be fixing high population areas first. Without backup power, outages as long as seven days could be normal for your retreat location, and solar isn’t going to provide much in the dark of winter. But a propane supply paired with a backup generator can make you power-outage immune. It’s not a TEOTWAWKI solution, but it will make normal retreat life up until then more comfortable.
  3. Multiple energy and heat sources. Never put all your eggs in one basket. If your house is solely electric on the grid, then any grid downtime means your retreat loses a lot of capability. If you have electric and woodstove, that’s great. But will that woodstove dry your clothes, cook your food, and heat your water? Some woodstoves are better suited for these secondary purposes than others. If you’re retrofitting an existing property to be more self-sufficient, odds are the existing woodstove is not ideal for much more than heating a large room. Even if you are fortunate enough to already have excellent wood-burning options in addition to the power grid, three energy source choices are better than two.

Planning the Installation

Most of you are probably aware of the choice between above-ground and below-ground tanks. But there’s a few other hurdles you might not find out about until you start calling contractors and vendors.

First, do you lease or buy the tank and equipment? Leasing is far cheaper; the tradeoff is that you can only buy fuel from the company leasing the tank to you – you cannot shop around for fuel.

The problem with leasing, for most survival-minded folks, is that the company will only lease a tank appropriately sized for your current uses. A mere 120 gallon tank (or 250, if you’re lucky) does not provide a stockpile that will carry you through a fuel shortage. National pipeline explosion causing fuel shortages and sky-high prices? Yeah, you’ll be suffering through that as well, when your little tank is exhausted and awaiting the next routine refill.

A good visual comparison of typical tank sizes.

Buying requires much more investment up front (probably several thousand dollars), but puts you in charge of your self-sufficiency plans. Want 2000 gallons of propane on site at the retreat? If you’ve got the money, they’ve got the gear, so you can stockpile as much as you can afford.

Second, where do you put the tank on your property? This is going to depend on what type of tank you’re buying, and whether you’re doing everything in one shot or plan further upgrades in the future. Propane tank placement is guided by NFPA 58, which a propane company will be rigidly following to avoid risk of lawsuits.

Quick guide to tank placement.

For above-ground tanks, 500 gal or smaller must be 10 feet from any structure or ignition source or property line. That’s closer than you think, which gives you more placement options. But at 1000 gallons, the tank must be 25 feet from any structure or ignition source, and 10 feet from any property line. This could severely limit your placement options, depending on the lay of your land. But pay attention to “note 2.” If the 1000 gallon tank is all by itself, then it can be placed at the 10 foot limit rather than 25.

If you plan to add future tanks, keep in mind the challenges of connecting them. They need to be at the same elevation, otherwise the liquid inside will shift to the lower tank and risk overfill. On a hot day, there will be more pressure inside the tank, which is why the propane company only fills tanks 80% full. More than that, and a hot summer day might see the emergency relief valve start venting propane into the open.

Third, the propane company is going to do little to no digging. They’ll expect to show up, drop an above-ground tank on a mostly level spot or a below-ground tank into an existing hole, and then lay pipelines in open trenches (typically 18 inches deep). This all needs to be ready to go before the propane company arrives. Fortunately, in rural areas you have pretty good tool rental options to speed this up.

Like a chainsaw, but for cutting dirt.

For a larger below-ground tank, you’ll likely need an excavator.

Fourth, if you’re planning a barrier around your above ground tank (to prevent it being a target of opportunity or a call to thieves during a crisis) keep in mind that if a fire were in the area, you want a path for a firefighter team to pull the tank away from the house. So don’t totally surround the tank. Just cover the vulnerable and visible sides.

The Chicken or the Egg

Most propane companies which supply fuel will not do piping inside the house. This will mean coordinating the tank and fuel delivery with a contractor who can install the piping inside the house. Getting a backup generator to run on LP? You’ll be aligning the schedules of the generator electrician and the propane delivery.

Why is this so hard? Sadly, our out-of-control legal liability system frequently blames stupid consumer choices on the vendors and suppliers. Does your snow blower have a warning that says “Not for use on roof”? Does your cruise control specify that the driver must remain at the wheel? Guess what court costs compelled them to add those common sense warnings.

When it comes to the propane installation, you’ll often be stuck with a “which comes first, the chicken or egg” scenario. The propane company will deliver a tank with up to 5% fuel already in it. They’ll run piping to the outdoor regulator locations and set up the regulators. And if there’s nothing downstream of the regulators, they’ll then lock the tank to prevent any fuel being used, even if you bought the equipment outright.

Meanwhile, a generator technician will want fuel supply to do a test run and verify his work, as he should. You can’t test the generator without fuel available, and the fuel won’t be turned on until there’s a functioning generator to use it. The only way this works out is if the propane technician and generator electrician can be present at the same time and both ready when the generator is ready for its test run.

This isn’t as problematic with the house piping at first. The contractor who installs the house pipe will likely test for leaks using pressurized air in the lines. But the propane company won’t even connect to the house until a certified inspector has given the house piping a green light (lest something go wrong and the propane company be held liable for having hooked up your fuel). So get the house piping done, then have the propane technician hook up to the house, and you’re good to go, right? Not so fast. The propane company still might refuse to turn on the fuel supply until there are functioning appliances hooked in and ready to go. Some propane companies might be willing to hookup and verify simple appliances in the house (dryer or stove). But if propane is totally new to the house, you don’t already have those. Depending on schedule conflicts, you might be spending some time (days or weeks) with electrical appliances removed and propane appliances waiting for hookup.

Even if you get every schedule perfectly aligned (appliance delivery, propane delivery, contractor work) what happens when the propane can’t make it due to an emergency call? Or one of the contractors quits his job? Or the appliances are delayed in shipment? Realigning schedules will either result in certain workers having to make multiple visits (which you might be paying for) or project delays of weeks or months depending on how busy your area is.

Final Point

If you don’t have propane at your retreat, adding it definitely gives you greater peace of mind with the short term stockpile and the greater variety of options to withstand local or regional disasters. But to call the shots and have everything done to your design is going to require a lot more time and money up front. Even if you’ve got the cash, propane vendors may be difficult to work with simply due to their need to minimize liability. Make sure to plan for extra expenses in case multiple visits are needed, and lots of extra time depending on how booked up the vendors and contractors in your area are.

But once its all done, your retreat will have much greater reliability.