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What Is the Difference Between Propane and Butane?

Propane heaters come in a variety of sizes.
A propane tank.
Butane can be mixed with propane to form a product called LPG, which can be used for camping stoves.
Some aerosols use butane as a propellant.
Article Details
  • Originally Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Revised By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2014
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Propane and butane are two similar gases used for heating and other fuel applications. Although proponents of each gas hold theirs to be the superior, both have benefits and disadvantages. Butane burns more cleanly and provides more energy, but propane is a better choice for situations in which temperatures may drop below freezing. Ultimately, the gases are quite similar, and the choice between the two largely depends on the availability and intended use of the product.

Similarities

Both gases are derived from petroleum, either from oil or natural gas, but have different chemical structures. Each burns at similar temperatures and both release water and carbon dioxide as waste products. If the amount of oxygen available is limited when the gasses are being burned, they may also produce soot and carbon monoxide. In some cases, the gases may be used interchangeably, but people should always consult the manufacturer before attempting to substitute one for the other.

The fire and hazard risks of both gases are quite similar. In North America, the gases are represented in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA-704) classification system identically. The rating indicates high flammability, normal stability, a mild health hazard risk, and no special considerations such as an unusual reaction when mixed with water.

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Characteristics of Propane

Propane is used in North America as fuel for heating houses, and is also available in smaller portable tanks. Gas barbecues, camping stoves, and lanterns frequently can be used with propane fuel. Mixed with small amounts of other substances like butylene, propylene, and butane, it can be used as an automobile fuel known as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). The odorless gas will often have ethanethiol, which has a strong odor, added to it so any leaks can be more easily detected.

If the gas needs to be stored for a long time or in variable weather conditions, propane is usually a better choice than butane. It is relatively easy to liquify and compress, and has a boiling point of -44°F (-42°C), which means that it turns into a gas as soon as it comes out of the tank at any temperature above this. Propane can easily be stored outside in almost all environments, since temperatures below freezing don't affect how it is stored or used.

Characteristics of Butane

Butane, while not as easy to find in many places, is nonetheless a popular fuel for lighters, torches, and some camping stoves. Aerosols may also use the gas as a propellant. Although butane is generally less expensive than propane, it can be also be more difficult to use; because it is not as common, many devices are not designed to work with butane tanks.

This gas also has a boiling point right around freezing — 32°F (0°C) — so it does not work well at very low temperatures. Below its boiling point, butane stays a liquid, and there is no pressure change to force it out of its container. Butane is rarely used to heat homes or buildings in places where it gets very cold because it cannot be stored outside and still work effectively.

One of the advantages of butane is its improved fuel efficiency. If similar volumes of both substances are burned at temperatures above freezing, butane will provide about 12% more energy. This advantage makes butane a good choice for those trying to pack light, such as backpackers or campers. As long as access to an adequate supply is available, the energy efficiency and price advantage can make butane a better deal in many, but not all, circumstances.

Mixed Fuels

Propane and butane are often combined in mixed fuels, which provide some of the advantages of each. Such mixes are popular for camping stoves in particular. Because propane has a lower boiling point, it can be used to force the butane out of the container, even at temperatures at or below freezing. Pure propane needs a strong steel container to hold it under pressure; combining it with butane means that the pressure can be lower, and the container lighter, which is important for campers and backpackers.

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Discuss this Article

anon351749
Post 19

In the three pictures where it shows a lighter, tank, and aerosol can,

the cigarette lighter is not a butane or propane lighter. It is a Zippo brand lighter that uses kerosene, white gasoline or lamp oil.

anon346879
Post 17

We use 45kg bottles (we have 17 of them) to heat water and to cook with. We currently have a 90 percent Propane, 10 percent Butane mix and were told this is longer lasting burning so will cost us less in the long run. Is this correct? By looking at the information on your site, it doesn't appear that way.

Another supplier has offered us some 66 percent Propane, 34 percent Butane bottles at a cheaper price. Basically, I would like to know which is the best option for us price wise?

anon346764
Post 16

Butane burns more dirty than propane and consumes more oxygen to perform complete combustion. Propane burns cleaner, hotter and uses less atmospheric oxygen. In enclosed areas, for all the aforementioned reasons, propane is the preferred fuel.

anon305042
Post 13

We are camping in Spain with a motor home. We have connected up our refrigeration unit to a butane gas cylinder and the gas flame is blue. However, the odour from the unit is dreadful, despite my husband cleaning the unit on numerous occasions over a week of use. We are using a carbon monoxide alarm.

Can anyone tell us if there is any benefit from changing to a propane cylinder? Will this sort out the problem?

anon276426
Post 12

@anon40202 - you can burn butane in your propane tractor but, since butane has more energy, you may need to adjust idle settings, etc.

anon276425
Post 11

Wondering which is more energy/cost effective:

1)liquid camp fuel (white gas)

2)propane, or

3)butane?

anon193714
Post 10

I am buying an engine that was designed to run on propane, however I live in central america and all we have here is butane. will it still work?

anon146449
Post 8

can you use propane on a portable heater that uses calor gas?

anon71447
Post 6

Do they burn at the same temperature? (Is a butane torch hotter/cooler than a propane torch?)

anon66751
Post 5

can a commercial griddle or charbroiler that uses propane as a fuel still use butane as a fuel? is it going to work?

anon64293
Post 4

The camping fuel I purchase is a mix of propane and butane. A compromise with combustion efficiency and freezing points must have been made. Thanks for the post.

anon57481
Post 3

to no. 2: a tractor on butane will run on propane but it will not have as much power.

anon40202
Post 2

Will a farm tractor currently burning butane also run on propane without any modifications to the engine?

alramrod9009
Post 1

Why do butane and propane have the same uses but different sources of supply?

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