Propane space heating bounces back

January 1, 2018 By    

Photo: Innovative Hearth Products

Space heating, sometimes referred to as zone heating, was a big factor in increasing propane use in the early years of our industry. Space heaters were often the sole source of heat for smaller homes and cabins. Zone heating, aimed at heating parts of a residence only when occupied, was used to complement the home’s central heating system.

A propane room heater, wall furnace or direct vent heater was often the space heater of choice for heating cold spots that an old furnace, boiler system or wood stove couldn’t cover very well. “Heat the space you are in and dial down the rest of the house” became the sales pitch that offered comfort and made economic sense to consumers.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, space heater sales flattened due to rising oil prices and portable kerosene heaters that could be moved from room to room. Millions of this inexpensive alternative were sold despite issues with emissions and safety.

The portable electric box heater also became popular for space heating. Fancy marketing features like quartz infrared, oil filled or copper heating elements disguised the fact that these heaters were not very effective at curing cold spots and, in most cases, cost more to operate than other alternatives. Money-back guarantees brought a flood of returns.

Wood-burning stoves and fireplace inserts also made a strong comeback during this period. Consumers with access to wood put up with the challenges and inconveniences of wood heating in their search for an affordable way to heat their homes.

As oil prices began to fall in the mid-1980s, consumers began to turn to re-engineered vent-free gas space heaters for a cleaner burning and safer alternative to kerosene. The invention of the oxygen depletion sensor and its incorporation into small vent-free room heaters made propane space heating in older homes a cleaner-burning choice for consumers, while still offering maximum efficiency.

Vent-free heaters didn’t have the portability of kerosene heaters, but they were easy to operate and eliminated the chance of fuel spills and other safety concerns. Consumers concerned about the byproducts of combustion could always be upsold to a standard vented gas space heater.

Space heater sales were strong through the 1980s until the condensing forced-air gas furnace was introduced in the early 1990s and a heating efficiency of 90 percent AFUE or higher became the new benchmark of the home heating market.

Vented gas space heater sales began to suffer as consumers sought more efficient ways to heat the cold spots in their homes. Manufacturer consolidation started to take place and those remaining sought ways to make vented space heaters more efficient. Product development was on the rebound. Some manufacturers also turned to manufacturing gas hearth products to supplement their space heater sales.

Gas logs, fireplace inserts, hearth stoves and other unique gas versions of traditional wood-burning hearth equipment became a popular compromise for consumers seeking efficient ways to cure cold spots and include the ambiance of a real fire. Even the outdoor living concept became reality because of the advancements of the space heating industry and the “propane can do that” attitude.

The propane space heating market, as it has evolved over the decades, is now stronger than ever, even though a relatively small percentage of propane retailers are taking advantage of the opportunity. If your interest is in maintaining and growing the residential sector of your propane business, you need to give consideration to selling, installing and servicing propane space heating products.

There are several things you can do to get started small or go big. Talk with equipment distributors servicing your area to see what space heating products and services they offer. If you are part of a benchmarking group, talk with your peers about how to get started.

You can also attend the National Propane Gas Association Propane Expo, being held next year in Atlanta from April 6-8. There will be several educational sessions focused on selling “propane burner tip” products to grow gallons.

The future of propane space heating is bright. Consumers can choose from the widest array of clean, efficient and attractive propane space heating products available. Will they be able to choose them from you?

Tom Jaenicke is vice president of propane marketing services at Warm Thoughts Communications. He can be reached at or 810-252-7855.

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