Hybrid Systems With Propane Deliver Exceptional (and Efficient) Outdoor Living

The backyard barbecue has become a staple of modern American suburban culture, but the concept today extends far beyond the grill. The popular term is "outdoor living," for which new homes are designed to accommodate greater access to multiple outdoor areas and those spaces are finished and furnished to serve multiple needs and desires.

According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA), the "leisure lifestyle" industry has grown to become a $6.2 billion business and one of the most attractive aspects of a new home. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that a third of the $150 billion spent annually on home-improvement projects goes toward outdoor living areas. That's no surprise: Imagine a typical outdoor-living setting in a custom home in Orlando, in which a telescoping sliding glass patio door creates a 14-foot clear opening between the family room and a covered outdoor area that features a casual dining set, a built-in propane grill, a flat-screen television, and a propane-fueled fireplace — all within a few feet of a dramatic, disappearing-edge pool.

In addition to more complex designs and myriad products, builders and contractors are relying on a combination of energy sources to meet demand while addressing resource efficiency and safety. Increasingly, so-called hybrid energy systems for outdoor living areas combine easily available propane and solar electric and solar thermal systems as the primary energy sources for these spaces; grid-supplied electricity — if possible, offset by solar collectors — is in most cases used to supply energy to outdoor living accessories, such as ceiling fans or rotisseries.

Such strategies enable builders and homeowners to take full advantage of available fuel sources as well as the benefits of outdoor living products, including:

  • Outdoor Grills. The HPBA reports that more than 10 million gas- or propane-fueled barbecue grills were shipped for domestic consumption in 2007, the peak of their demand. That's a nearly 30 percent increase since 1998 and by far the most — 63 percent — among all cooking grill types. In addition to their increasing functionality, from traditional slotted surfaces to burner elements and warming drawers, propane barbecues allow greater cooking control and require only a self-powered (piezoelectric) lighter to produce the ignition flame.
  • Fireplaces. The outdoor fireplace is a staple within today's outdoor living spaces, and propane provides the look, safety, reliability, and even warmth that homeowners desire and demand. At the peak of their demand in 2005, HPBA reports that more than three million fireplaces — the overwhelming majority gas- or propane-fueled — were shipped for U.S. consumption, a 36 percent increase from 1998. The smokeless benefits of propane fireplaces are also essential to their enjoyment and efficiency.
  • Pools. What outdoor space is complete without a swimming pool? Recently, the decreasing cost and greater reliability of solar thermal collectors has made those systems a viable option for heating pool water among other domestic uses. When the collectors can't generate enough heat, a propane pool heater kicks in to make up the difference and achieve the desired temperature. The result is not only an optimum swimming experience, but also an efficient combination of multiple energy resources.
  • Lighting and Space Heating. Outdoor lighting, especially the nostalgic charm of propane-lit lamps, is becoming a popular element for an outdoor living experience, as is the use of stand-alone, propane radiant heaters. The ability to extend the use of an outdoor space well into the night, not to mention their security, energy efficiency, and aesthetic benefits, makes outdoor lighting and heating must-haves to achieve the ultimate leisure lifestyle.

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