Buyers of propane mad that tanks aren't full

Grill jockeys who use gas are familiar with the 20-pound propane tanks that fuel their fires. But the tanks they buy may be only three-fourths full, depending on where they're purchased.

Last summer two of the nation's leading sellers of pre-filled grill tanks — Blue Rhino and AmeriGas — reduced the amount of propane in their tanks from 17 pounds to just 15 pounds. Company officials said the change allowed their tanks' retail price to remain the same at a time when propane prices had spiked. Although propane prices have dropped significantly, the firms haven't increased the amount of propane in their tanks.

Meanwhile several local tank refillers say they have continued to put the maximum safe amount of propane in their customers' tanks: about 18 to 19 pounds.

Because Blue Rhino and AmeriGas have changed tank labels to say "15 lbs" they're complying with weights and measures laws, regulators at the Georgia Department of Agriculture said. But some consumers — who assumed that the uniformly sized metal tanks would be filled to legal capacity — are crying foul at what they consider sneaky shortchanging.

Last month a frustrated Joseph Viggiano of Marietta complained to state regulators about what he considered short-weighted AmeriGas propane tanks at the Publix on Sandy Plains Road, records show.

"I said: You're cheating me," Viggiano recalled of his conversation with a store manager.

Viggiano had gone so far as to take his bathroom scale to the store that day, weighing tanks to see which one had the most propane after returning a tank he had taken home and found to be "very short." While acknowledging the limits of his scale, Viggiano said his informal survey found wide variations in how much the tanks on display weighed.

A state inspector, who later weighed five tanks at that Publix in response to Viggiano's complaint, found no violations because they were labeled as containing 15 pounds. Although there were variations, the inspector found they each contained at least that much.

Yet Viggiano's point is more basic: "I'm giving you full money. I want a full tank." And none were full.

A full barbecue tank can contain as much as 19.7 pounds of propane, experts say, though the amount can vary from 17 to 19 pounds depending on variations in the wall thickness of the cylinder, the design of the valve on the tank's overfill prevention device, naturally occurring impurities in the propane and the temperature, which can cause propane to expand. All grill tanks are equipped with an overfill prevention device to protect against the fire danger posed by adding too much propane.

Most consumers are unaware that the major tank exchange firms have reduced the propane in their containers, local propane sellers said.

"The public just never saw this coming. And who looks at the label of propane tanks to see how many pounds it contains?" asked Don Martin, whose Roswell-based firm markets a device called the Original Grill Gauge, which helps barbecuers know when their tank is running low.

Using one of the devices, Spotlight weighed a Blue Rhino tank bought at a Lowe's in Atlanta. The tank registered less than three-fourths full.

Martin said his company, which has sold more than 50,000 of the grill gauges, started receiving calls last fall from customers questioning the device's accuracy when newly purchased propane tanks didn't register as full. The problem, Martin said, is with underfilled tanks. The gauges, which were developed in collaboration with Georgia Tech engineers, are calibrated to register full when the tank contains 18.5 pounds of propane.

Bill Katz, an AmeriGas vice president, said the company's canisters have been labeled as containing 15 pounds of propane since last August.

"Unfortunately, some consumers feel they were not sufficiently informed and that's a serious concern to us," Katz said in an e-mail last week.

The company is offering a $2.50 rebate to its cylinder exchange customers at amerigas.com, he said, and is in the process of changing its sales displays to make the amount of propane in its tanks more visible.

Home Depot, which uses AmeriGas as its tank exchange provider, will have the new signage in place at Atlanta-area stores by the big grilling holiday of July Fourth, said Jean Niemi, a spokeswoman for the retailer.

No date has been set yet for the new displays to appear at Publix stores, another major AmeriGas retailer, said Brenda Reid, a spokeswoman for the supermarket chain.

Still, for consumers who are cost-conscious, Reid said the information is already available if consumers read the tanks.

Jim Saladin, a spokesman for Blue Rhino, said he was unable to discuss issues surrounding the amount of propane in the firm's tanks because of pending litigation. Earlier this month the Kansas City-based law firm Stueve Siegel Hanson filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Kansas against Ferrellgas Partners, which owns Blue Rhino. The suit, which seeks class-action status, was filed on behalf of a California man who claims the propane firm shortchanged consumers.

Saladin said the lawsuit's claims are without merit.

While tank exchange has grown in popularity, consumers can still take their tanks to firms that will fill them to a safe, full capacity. In many cases, an AJC survey found, consumers can save money — and grill longer on a single tank — by refilling instead of exchanging.

Firms offering refills range from propane specialty companies, to hardware stores to most U-Haul locations.

"We refill it right in front of the customer and we charge only by the gallon," said Bob Wesson, a U-Haul vice president.

While a grill tank holds a little more than 4 gallons of propane, Wesson said most customers only need 2 or 3 gallons to top off their tanks. If they took their tank to an exchange, they'd be giving away that remaining propane, he said.

Propane sold at U-Haul locations is purchased regionally and prices can vary, so it's worth calling around. Spotlight was quoted prices Tuesday ranging from $2.44 to $4.66 per gallon.

Not all tank-exchange sellers underfill their cylinders. Suburban Cylinder Express is generally able to fill its tanks with about 19 pounds of propane, said field operations manager David Hall. And the company provides the convenience of home delivery in metro Atlanta within a day's notice for $24.95 for both tank exchange and delivery. "You don't have to be home," notes Hall. And the firm will even disconnect the empty tank from the grill and reconnect the new one, he said.

The price, including delivery, works out to about $1.31 per pound of propane — about what consumers pay for the propane they get at tank exchanges at Lowe's and Home Depot.

The bottom line: consumers need to scrutinize what's in their propane tanks and shop around in the same way they do any other consumer product.

Meanwhile, the price spike last summer, which AmeriGas officials say prompted them to reduce the amount of propane in their tanks, is over. According to residential propane pricing information from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the price has dropped steadily since then. As of March, the most recent federal data available, the price had fallen below levels last seen in the fall of 2007.

Katz, the AmeriGas official, said that because the company locks in its wholesale prices it's impossible to provide real-time price reductions to consumers. But he added: "Assuming the wholesale cost of propane stays at its current level, our costs and our prices can be expected to decrease over time."

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How we got this story

To compare propane prices, the AJC called several propane exchangers and refillers in the Atlanta area. The reporter also visited propane exchange locations and examined signage disclosing how much propane was in the tanks being sold. The newspaper used the Georgia Open Records Act to obtain from the Department of Agriculture any complaints filed by consumers about short-weight propane tanks. Only one had been filed in the past year.

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What you get for your money

Experts say the amount of propane in a full grill tank can range from about 17 to 19 pounds. But the two leading propane tank exchange firms — Blue Rhino and AmeriGas — put 15 pounds of propane in their cylinders, which their labels reflect. Consumers may get a better deal by having their tank refilled at a propane filling station, experts said. Here's how some local propane options compare.

Firm Type Price Amount of propane
Blue Rhino (Lowe's) Tank exchange $18.77 (1) 15 lbs
AmeriGas (Home Depot) Tank exchange $19.97 (2) 15 lbs
AmeriGas (Publix) Tank exchange $17.99 15 lbs
U-Haul Refill $2.55/gal.* Empty tank takes about 4.3 gallons
Georgia Gas Distributors (Atlanta) Refill $15.33 Full tank (about 17-18 lbs)**
Corbin Gas Co. (Jonesboro) Refill $14 Full tank (about 17-18 lbs)**
Suburban Cylinder Express (metro Atlanta) Home delivery $24.95 Full tank (about 19 lbs)***

* Median price at eight local U-Haul locations surveyed Tuesday

** Price of filling tank until it is full, weight varies based on temperature. Price includes tax.

*** Firm says fills average a little over 19 pounds. Includes home delivery of full tank and removal of empty.

(1) Price quoted at checkout register at Edgewood shopping center in Atlanta on June 21.

(2) Price quoted at checkout register at Midtown Atlanta store on June 21.

Source: AJC research

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Tips for safe gas grilling

Store propane outside: Never store a tank — whether empty or full — inside a building, and that includes garages and sheds. "It should always be placed outside, away from an ignition source, in an upright position," said Stuart Flatow, vice president for safety and training at the Propane Education & Research Council. Heat from the summer sun in Georgia isn't a problem, he said.

Don't store an extra tank under the grill. If there's a leak, it's right next to an ignition source.

Transport it safely: Keep the tank upright, take it directly home and put it outside. A milk crate can help keep a tank from tipping over during transport.

Open the lid: When lighting the grill, make sure the lid is open. Once the gas is burning, the lid can be closed.

Don't smoke around a gas grill. And certainly don't put charcoal or accelerant into a gas grill, said Flatow.

Check connections: Pour soapy water on hose connections to check for leaks. Bubbles are a sign of a problem.

Turn off the grill and close the propane cylinder's valve when done grilling.

If you smell gas, more than a whiff now and then, it could be a sign of a leak. Call the fire department, said Flatow.

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Where to complain

Georgia Department of Agriculture: To report cylinders you believe contain less propane than the amount stated on the label, as well as other weights and measures issues, call: 404-656-3645.

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Got a tip?

Do you suspect government waste, a consumer rip-off or a threat to public safety? Tell us what you want investigated. E-mail spotlight@ajc.com or call 404-526-5041.