Creating a Happy, Colorful, Handmade Home & life on the shores of lake superior

October 24, 2014

Getting a New Propane Furnace - What to Expect

When Hubs and I first viewed the lakehouse, we were a little concerned about the electric forced air.  "Isn't that going to be pricey?" we murmured, mesmerized by the view and barely able to think straight.  Our realtor asked the homeowner for past electric bills which, despite being "pretty low," never materialized.  We weren't really that concerned, because we decided that if it proved too pricey, we were willing to convert to propane heat.  Our realtor, home inspector, and family friends who had made the switch to propane heat all guessed around $2000.  Two thousand?  Crikey.  But it seemed manageable and so the sale moved forward.

By the time we moved into the lakehouse, it was the belly of winter and so we hunkered down and tried to keep warm.  $800 monthly electric bills chilled us to the bone more than the blizzards - we almost broke $900.  The worst part was that it wasn't even that warm, despite those crazy heating costs.  Some days we could only get the house up to sixteen degrees Celsius (60 Fahrenheit).  We supplemented a little with our wood burning fireplace but all of our wood was buried...somewhere on the property (we couldn't remember where because when we finally moved in everything was blanketed in huge snow drifts)...and so we rationed the wood supply.  For some reason, just ordering more wood didn't cross our minds.  I guess our brains were numbed from the cold.  I took to wearing boots indoors and forced Szuka to cuddle me.

Gratuitous winter photo, shared on Instagram only 6 months ago!!
By spring, we had decided definitively that our furnace needed to go, not only to save on our heating bills, but also to actually heat the house!  We started calling around for estimates and, to our chagrin, were quoted $5000-7000!!  Yep.  Many more thousands than we thought - and had saved up for.  Luckily, the older gentleman who had installed Hubby's Dad's system was not retiring as we had all thought and so he also came by to give us a quote.  His estimate was much lower - only (only!) $4900, including taxes and after rebates.  And so we set about spending $5000 on the least fun thing ever.  Ta da:

Our new furnace is a Coleman, 80,000 BTU.  It's a modulating gas furnace, with variable speed blower, which means that it varies the heat output with fewer starts and stops and is more efficient than a furnace that just cycles on and off.  We were originally quoted a furnace with 70,000 BTU but ended up forking over the extra $100 for this larger one, just in case.  It gets really windy lakeside, and that gorgeous wall of windows in the living room definitely lets a lot of heat escape (even if they are double pain argon filled).  A lot of our hot air also gets trapped in the 13 foot tall peak of the living room ceiling, but the ceiling fan helps push some of that air down.  Suffice to say, although it's solidly built, well insulated and fairly new, this house was not built with heat retention in mind - it was someone's summer home, after all. 

The installation process was swift and seamless.  The clunky old furnace was removed and the new one installed in its place - it's half the size - in one day, with a few adjustments made the next day.  While the furnace installer completed the installation, the propane service arrived with our shiny new tank.  It's an eyesore, to be sure, but there were many, many regulations as to where it could go and in the end, this was the only spot - nice and visible from the driveway.  At least it doesn't hamper the view!  When we originally called the propane company to get the details, set up an appointment, create an account, etc., we were told they'd dig the trench from the tank to the house (for a fee, of course) but during the house call we were informed that they only dig a trench if they might lose a customer.  Long story short, Hubs dug a 25 foot, 16" deep trench and also leveled the area where the tank was to be placed.  

Once the tank was set in place, the line was laid in and connected to our house (where an unsightly main gas valve mounted on the gas regulator now resides - I guess I'll be planting some shrubs next year).

Hubby filled in the trench and flipped back the sod.  Thanks to gusting winds and falling leaves, you can't even see where the trench was dug. 

This new system comes with some responsibilities.  As a reader astutely pointed out, we'll need a propane detector.  In the event of a fire (please, universe, no), we should try to turn off the propane via an exterior valve.  We also need to monitor our propane levels and at 30% arrange a delivery.  We'll likely have to fill the tank twice annually and if it needs a refill in the winter, we need to clear a path through the snow (goody). 

Happily, though, we have heat.  The lakehouse is toasty, which I hope will also be true in the dead of winter.  With our new system, we also added a Nest thermostat, which so far we're very pleased with.  It seems very responsive and we love that we can leave the house cool while we're gone and before we head home, turn up the heat from our cell phones so we arrive to a warm home, which we didn't waste money heating in our absence.  I'd like to test the Nest thermostat a little more and then provide a more thorough review of it and our three Next smoke detectors.

Will the propane save us money?  Only time will tell definitively, but from our calculations we should.  As I mentioned, our electricity bills throughout the winter were $800 but the non-heating portion of that was about $200, so our heating costs were really more like $600.  Now our worst monthly heating bills should ring in at around $300 per month.  It will take awhile to recoup the cost of our new furnace but, given that our old one was either failing or not the appropriate size/capacity, it just made sense to switch now. 

I have to admit that although Hubs and I didn't enjoy writing two colossal cheques to the furnace installer and propane delivery service, we're not even as bummed about it as we thought we'd be.  Yes, I can think of a million things I'd have rather spent the money on (another European vacation, our upcoming bathroom reno, a new washer and dryer in aqua, beefy truck bumpers, all the pyrex in the world) - and it would have been nice to negotiate a better price when we bought the house given this expense, but I forgot how lovely it is to have a warm house.  It's fabulous!  I wouldn't trade it for anything.  We absolutely love our lakeside life and plan to be in this house for a good long time.  Making this investment in our home feels good, and feeling warm feels even better. 

Some Things We Learned in the Process:
  • Don't rely on hearsay quotes! I wish we'd called around for quotes around the time we bought the lakehouse - not only to possibly negotiate a better price, but also just so we would have had a more realistic number in mind and could have saved up more money for this monster purchase.
  • Don't wait until it's cold! We had to go a day without a furnace during the conversion and with our wood-burning fireplace we were okay but overnight we were a bit chilly.  It would have been better to do this in the spring or summer.
  • Find out what your responsibility is.  It turned out we needed to coordinate everything and be a middle man between the furnace installer, energy company, and the propane delivery, on top of our trench-digging and ground leveling duties.
  • Find out ahead of time where the tank can/should go so you have time to prepare the area.  It only took a couple of days, but knowing ahead of time let us schedule the digging on non-rainy days.
  • Contact the electric/energy company for a line locate.  Ours came out and marked the lines so we knew where not to dig.  As a bonus, they even marked the lines from the house to the garage which isn't even their responsibility, so we were really appreciative that they located those too.
  • Look into available rebates and ask your furnace installer if he/she knows of any additional offers.
  • Ask about referral bonuses.  Our propane company gave a bonus to us and my father-in-law because he "referred" us to their service.  A little cash back never hurts (we were going to go with this propane company anyway - shhh, don't tell them).
  • Be wary of companies unwilling to do a site visit.  The company selling you a furnace and install should see your home, current furnace, chat about your needs/etc., before providing a quote.  One company refused to meet us or see the home, and we immediately removed them from our list.  They were also the highest quote, so they may have also been intending to sell us more furnace than we needed. 
  • Ask for an itemized estimate so you can see the breakdown of materials/labor/etc.
  • Find out the specifics of the equipment - the furnace, the thermostat, etc. - because you might want to make substitutions.  Our furnace installer doesn't use Nest products but we really wanted to try that thermostat so we purchased and installed it ourselves.  We also chose a larger furnace than he recommended, just to be safe, but we discussed all of these decisions with him because he's the expert.  Here's a good guide to calculating BTU's required.

Hopefully this will be even the teensiest bit helpful to anyone converting from electric to propane forced air, or just shopping for a new furnace.  At the very least, if you've got a really big, really boring purchase to make (or you just made one), know that you're not alone!   


  1. We use the same company for our propane "pig" at camp (up the Armstrong Highway).

    We have found that getting fill ups sometimes takes a bit longer than they may indicate.

    I think it may have a lot to do with the area we are in (up the Armstrong Highway) but when they fill us they also fill 4 other camps on our side of the lake - making it worthwhile.

    Anyway - just a bit of advanced warning - try to figure out how much propane you use in a month to time your deliveries keeping in mind that although winter fill ups are a pain (having to shovel) you don't want to wait until the ground thaws as road conditions are a big factor to when they can do deliveries.

    There are a lot of creative solutions out there for hiding the tank itself. Check out the Rock On covers ( I imagine they are expensive but it’s a pretty cool idea.

    1. Thanks so much for the tips regarding wait times and road conditions. I will definitely keep my eye on usage so I can plan accordingly, knowing now that their service might take longer than they indicate. And I'm going to check out that website. Although, if I'm being honest, that part of the house is a mess anyway, with these weird tin shack, piles of palettes and just lots of junk still leftover from the former owner.

  2. Ah, the joys of home ownership. Jenn and Joe had to put a $10,000 air conditioning unit (plus several hundred more in blown-in attic insulation) in the main house over the summer, so they feel your pain. It was a necessity though The old unit was from the 1980s, and it went out every summer...usually when it was 105 degrees outside. The added comfort and long term savings are worth the expense in the long run though.

    1. Ouch! That's a lot of money. But I can't imagine Texas without AC!! I melted and when was I there? Spring? Winter, lol? You're so right about the comfort being worth it. Pretty home purchases are far more fun, but decidedly less fun if you're freezing or boiling!

  3. When I lived in northern Saskatchewan I had propane heating and I loved it. It did an awesome job at keeping my poorly insulted house toasty warm, even in the dead of winter. The only issue was getting propane. Because we were fairly remote, they would only come out three times yearly on scheduled dates.

    1. That is so good to know!! I'm very hopeful that we'll be warm. I am definitely leery now of propane delivery and will be sure to give myself ample leeway. You're not the first person to report delivery difficulty. So thanks for the warning!!

  4. ACK $6000 in one day... I feel your pain. We spent that and then some when replacing our furnace and hot water tank last fall. It is SUCH a big (and boring) purchase... but like you said the comfort of a warm home trumps. It is SO nice to be cozy in your home not bundled up and bitter from being so cold. I'm interested to hear more once you've had time to test out the Nest more - we're thinking of getting one!

    1. Well, I'm happy I didn't have to replace both at one time - what a chore!! I'll definitely share a post on the Nest units. It's just about done "learning our schedule" so I'm thinking in the next couple of weeks I should have some thoughts. So far, so good!


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