Ruby’s Inn is a small town resort. But it plays host to many people. And notably, it has deployed an innovative technology that is changing the face of commercial operations: a tankless water heater fueled by propane.
The Bryce Canyon City, Utah-based destination has 19 buildings. That includes three hotels, 700 rooms, and a recreational vehicle park. On top of that, Ruby’s does 19 tons of laundry each day and feeds its customers at three restaurants. Even though the town has just 195 full-time residents, it embraces 4,000 visitors a year.
The challenge: with so many guests and so much demand, the infrastructure became overwhelmed. Hot water was a scarce commodity. Reliability became a problem too. So if a boiler went down, customers complained. And that potentially led to lost business. It created headaches, hassles, and high utility bills. That prompted Ruby’s to turn to tankless propane water heaters.
“What appealed to Ruby’s Inn were the features and benefits, the efficiency and, what was most important to them: reliability,” says Brian Watts, senior commercial business manager Rinnai, which designed the system for the resort. Tankless water heaters offer built-in redundancy. When a boiler breaks down, you are 100% of out of water. But if you have 6 to 10 tankless water heaters, when something happens to one unit, the others will do the job.”
The tankless water heaters run at total capacity. When boilers are used, it is about 60%. That efficiency creates enormous energy savings, which provides a quick return on the initial investment. Rinnai says that using propane saves $6,000 per month compared to the boilers, not including the maintenance costs that are avoided. Moreover, customer complaints have vanished while company employees don’t have to inspect boilers.
Because Ruby’s is remote and gas lines are not available, it can’t use natural gas to fuel the tanks. Propane cylinders holding as much as 48,000 gallons of fuel are powering the complex.
“The only other option here is electricity, which is much more expensive than propane,” says Ron Harris of Ruby’s Inn. “Natural gas isn’t even close to us. We’ve tried solar, but it is not an option for the kind of demand we have. We go through 425,000 gallons of propane per year.”
Let’s harken back to Winter Storm Uri a year ago: millions lost heat, and power and 246 died as a result. The infrastructure failed, including the natural gas supplies and the pipelines to support it. At the same time, the state never winterized the wind turbines, and they froze up.
But many businesses survived using propane tanks — a cleaner power source than diesel fuel. Propane generators, for example, are backing up 90% of all cell phone towers. It is dense, readily accessible, and easy to transport. To be clear, it’s not a “just-in-time” fuel source that kicks on when the electricity goes out. It is stored in everything from 20-pound canisters to large tanks that run appliances or home-based generators for sustained periods. And when businesses run out, it can be delivered by truck.
“Electricity is a fundamental resource, and when it’s not available, propane can reliably and safely fill the gap,” says Propane Education & Research Council Chief Executive Tucker Perkins. “Propane-powered generators can keep the lights on when the grid goes down, making them an excellent solution for ensuring resiliency.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, extreme weather events have increased, on average, by 4.4% in the United States over the last 40 years. More than 300 weather events have hit this country since 1980, costing $1 billion each in damages.
Resilience matters. It’s about saving lives. And it’s about staying in business. Billions are lost each year due to outages. And the propane industry says that propane is not just used for lighting, heating, and cooking. It’s also used for critical infrastructure — things like fire and police, emergency shelters, and hospitals. To that end, propane suppliers and solar developers are partnering to build microgrids that work in tandem with onsite generation and battery storage.
For instance, in Truckee, California, a field station can cut ties with the electric grid during wildfire season and receive power from a microgrid powered by a propane generator, solar panels, and a battery. Meanwhile, in Turtle Bay Resort in Oahu, Hawaii, resort owners use propane to fire up hot water tanks. The facility got rid of its 40-year-old boilers and replaced them with on-demand propane water heaters. Intellihot is the vendor that uses modular tankless heaters.
Whether it is Ruby’s Inn, Turtle Bay, or the state of Texas, blackouts and natural gas shortages are commonplace — mainly in the context of extreme weather events. No doubt, sustainability is a goal. But reliability is paramount — and the reason propane is getting the attention it deserves.