A housing complex for low-income seniors must keep costs low to serve its residents. That can be a challenge when an old and inefficient heating system drives up energy bills.

It’s a scenario with which Marianne Jackson is well familiar. Jackson is the executive director of the Gibson Center for Senior Services, helping seniors in Carroll County, New Hampshire remain active and independent. Its affiliated property, Silver Lake Senior Housing, provides much-needed shelter for low- or very low-income individuals 62 years and older.

“It’s hard to keep a 50-year-old building operating efficiently,” Jackson says.

It’s especially hard when the building’s 20-year-old oil-fueled boiler system repeatedly gives out. The frequency of emergency calls led her to explore solutions. That’s when Eastern Propane & Oil proposed switching the facility to a cleaner-burning fuel, propane, along with high-efficiency equipment. Not only would this solve immediate energy needs, but an oil-to-propane conversion would also help the senior housing complex transition to renewable energy later. Money saved from operational expenses can be applied to a solar panel system.

“We said now is the time to look at the future,” says Josh Sandahl, operations manager at Eastern Propane in Rochester, New Hampshire.

But first, they’d need to ditch the oil.

Here are five reasons Silver Lake Senior Housing made the switch:

1. Propane burns cleaner: Propane combustion is cleaner than oil, resulting in lower CO2 emissions, a fact key to the project’s funding. As a nonprofit with an affordable-housing mission, it was not an option for the Gibson Center for Senior Services to raise rents to afford the fuel conversion, Jackson says. “I had to fundraise,” she says. Jackson secured the funds within six weeks by approaching donors who shared her environmental concerns.

2. Propane is nontoxic: The property sits along the scenic Silver Lake in Madison. Two 2,000-gallon oil tanks, while secure in underground concrete bunkers, presented an environmental hazard. “Thankfully, there were diligent records and monthly inspections,” Sandahl says. While there were no leaks, it’s better to be safe, he adds. A local environmental remediation service removed the oil tanks and Eastern installed two 1,000-gallon propane tanks. In the unlikely event that the propane tanks ever leaked, propane would not compromise the environment. Unlike oil, propane cannot contaminate soil and groundwater.

3. Propane heating equipment is more efficient: This conversion involved removing four oil boilers, which had an efficiency rating of around 85 percent and installing two Energy Star-labeled Viessman Vitocrossal 300 models that boast an annual fuel utilization efficiency (AFUE) of 95 percent. “They were able to do what four boilers did,” Sandahl says. The new propane system provides both space and domestic hot water heating for the entire complex.

4. Propane tends to be cheaper: While fuel costs fluctuate, propane is generally cheaper per Btu compared to oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Combine this with greater efficiency gained with modern heating equipment, and propane is the clear winner. And with propane, users can fill up their tanks prior to possible seasonal spikes. Jackson estimates her organization will save around $12,000 in fuel costs annually.

5. Propane can be a step toward renewable energy: With propane as its primary fuel source, Silver Lake Senior Housing can now funnel cost savings into a capital reserve account for a large solar panel system. Propane will remain to fuel the boilers and a backup generator. Jackson says that’s the long-term goal for the property, which will further lower costs and maintain affordable rent for seniors in need of housing.

It's been about a year since the complex’s propane conversion, and it’s proven to be a worthwhile investment. Ken Kaslow, administrative director for Gibson Center for Senior Services, reports that the system is “less finicky” and that there are “no more clogged oil supply lines, and fewer breakdowns – as in none.”

Subscribe to Build With Propane to stay current on the latest propane technologies that are making buildings more efficient and resilient.