What Is a Propane Air Conditioner?

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When the hot days roll in, air conditioning offers relief from the relentless heat, and also filters air for those who suffer from allergies. Most people are familiar with traditional electric or gas air conditioning units—either as central home or window mounted systems. However, a propane air conditioner may be something you've never heard of before. If this appliance is new to you and you'd like to learn about it, here's an introductory guide.

Propane AC Units

Propane air conditioners look a lot like other air conditioners, though they tend to be smaller are typically square in shape. Usually made of metal, they come in different shades, including tan, white, gray, and black. Slots on their sides allow for air circulation, powered by an internal fan.

In addition to window units for individual rooms, you can find portable propane units for camping and off-grid living. Propane air conditioners can also be used as central systems, just like typical electrical or natural gas models.

How Propane AC Works

Propane air conditioners work just like electric and natural gas AC units, except they use propane as a fuel source. They draw in air, cool it, and send it out through vents or ducts. Since propane is already widely used as a refrigerant in fridges and freezers, it makes sense that it would perform well in air conditioners too.

A man looks at an AC filter.

Why Propane?

If your home is already equipped with propane gas for other appliances, you’re well positioned to benefit from using it in your air conditioning system, too. It is much easier and less expensive to tap into an existing system than to convert from one type of fuel to another. If you do have another kind of system, though, you can still use portable or stationary units powered by propane canisters.

Propane is readily available in most places via a variety of delivery options, so it's usually easy to find. It works well with the other components required inside air conditioning units, and it's non-toxic, making it much more appealing than natural gas, which is also odorless but can be deadly.

Propane is a by-product of natural gas production and oil refining, and generally considered to be an environmentally friendly fuel. It has an ozone depletion rating of zero, which gives it high marks in the environmental realm. To maximize your contribution to green sustainability, make sure you’re using a refillable canister to avoid propane container waste.

a red propane container

Dangers

It’s critical that you only run propane on a propane system. Never substitute propane for natural gas or the other way around. Not only can this damage your air conditioning unit, it's a significant safety concern.

Propane is highly flammable, so working with a propane system requires different tactics than you would use for an electric air conditioning system. Before attempting any repairs or maintenance, know which energy source you’re working with.

As with any gas, propane systems carry the risk of potential leaks. Propane is heavier than air, so it naturally wants to sink. And because it is colorless and odorless, it can leak without any obvious signs. If propane does escape its container, it will settle in low areas and drift into enclosed spaces where it could easily ignite from a spark or flame. To guard against this, invest in a home gas detector and install it near your propane system.

Costs

As of this writing, propane air conditioners range in cost from around $170 for a small single unit to several thousand dollars for a larger or centralized system. Depending on the price of propane in your area, the monthly cost of running your system could be significantly lower than with other types of fuel, or it could be a little bit more than natural gas.