In builder Richard Laughlin’s central Texas market, propane is vital to delivering the modern comforts that thrill clients — and the historical touches that set his homes apart.
When award-winning homebuilder Richard Laughlin works with a customer whose current home is heated with natural gas, he shares a homespun anecdote to explain why they’ll probably want propane gas heating in their new home as well.
“I always remember my grandma,” he says. “She grew up with space heaters. We put a heat pump in her house, and she said that was the coldest damn heater she ever had!”
Underlying the tale is an important truth, says Laughlin, president of Laughlin Homes and Restoration in central Texas. “I don’t want to have an unhappy customer. If they’re used to gas, they need to stay with gas.” And in Laughlin’s Fredericksburg, Texas, location, where there’s no natural gas main, pleasing his customers means Laughlin builds about 90 percent of his homes with propane.
A homebuilder since 1984, Laughlin began to develop his business as a design/build firm in the 1990s. Fredericksburg is a small but broad market of about 12,000 people, and his projects can range from a quick kitchen remodel to a luxury $2 million home.
Because he does design/build, Laughlin says he can have a conversation with his customers about propane very early in a project. He explains to homeowners that propane is generally the most efficient energy choice for a home’s space heating and water heating.
“Where we can get it in the budget, we’re doing a lot of hybrid systems, where we’re doing heat pumps with gas backup,” he says. “It makes the best of both worlds. In our climate, we were 25 degrees this morning, and we’re already at 60 this afternoon. For a conventional heat pump, it’s either running like crazy or you’re switching over to electric heat in the middle of the night. With the gas backup, it switches over automatically. As soon as it warms up, it goes back to the efficiency of the heat pump.” (To compare heating costs for propane with alternatives in your region, use our interactive Comparative Heating Map.)
Propane also fuels the on-demand water heaters that Laughlin installs in about 95 percent of his projects. “Because of our limestone foundation, we have a lot of mineral in our water. The electric on-demand water heaters will not hold up in our water conditions.” Texas also has a state rebate program for on-demand water heaters that further shortens the payback period for the more-efficient heaters.
Propane tankless water heaters are a particularly efficient choice for vacation homes such as the award-winning Squaw Creek Ranch home that Laughlin recently restored. An out-of-town family bought the ranch and restored the 1860s-era limestone pioneer homestead as a weekend getaway.
Because the owners use the home only on weekends, heating the water on demand is a more efficient option than keeping a traditional tank-type water heater running year-round. Plus, Laughlin adds, the space-saving tankless water heaters were easy to fit into a converted sleeping loft that became a mechanical room.
Beyond the water heaters, Laughlin used propane to deliver many of the other amenities the buyers wanted as he updated the home with modern mechanical equipment and conveniences. He added a gas furnace, for instance, and upgraded the crude kitchen with a new gas range. The project won a Grand Award in Remodeling magazine’s 2012 Design Awards in the Historically Sensitive Renovation, $150,000-$300,000 category.
Like many of Laughlin’s projects, the Squaw Creek Ranch home also has a propane-fueled outdoor fireplace. “We’re doing a lot more of the outdoor firepits out of gas,” Laughlin says. “We get these drought conditions here in Texas, and they’ll put in a burn ban, where you can’t have an open fire with wood. But you’re still allowed to burn your gas logs in the outdoor firepits. You still get to have the ambience without the risk of catching the whole pasture on fire.”
Another popular Texas amenity is propane outdoor lighting, Laughlin says. Wall sconces or free-standing entrance lights lend an authentic look in the historical town. “It gives a really nice ambient light and goes with the glow of the town,” he says.
Laughlin’s focus on delivering client-pleasing projects has kept his business steady in recent years. His firm completed 28 projects for $5.5 million in sales in 2012, and he has nine projects currently in the works.
“A lot of the success is because we do try to stay focused on customer satisfaction,” Laughlin says. “And [propane] gas has really given us a good avenue to keep our customers happy.”