Sorry this news arrives too late for National Barbecue Month (May), National Great Outdoors Month (June) or National Hot Dog Month (July), but it's just in time for National Picnic Month (August):
Apparently, that rotten-egg smell isn't the only manufactured stink arising from your gas grill. You know that 20-pound propane tank that dangles beneath your barbecue grill like a shiny, white goiter? Well, it seems that some propane dealers no longer fill 20-lb. tanks with 20 pounds worth of propane. Instead, many consumers mistakenly assume they're getting 20 pounds of gas when they're only getting 15.
WTF? Is this like lumberyards selling "two-by-fours" that are actually only 1.5 inches by 3.5 inches? Are consumers confusing pounds of weight with pounds of pressure? Or is this just another case of, "Since you can't see it, just trust us that's it's all in there?"
Actually, none of the above, though the last explanation comes closest.
These days, the Hank Hill grillers of this world get their propane tanks refilled in one of two ways: Either they visit their local hardware store or liquefied petroleum (LP) gas filling station, or else they swap out their empties with a "full" tank at any of the dozens of white-caged tank exchange outlets scattered throughout Vermont. By far, the most common swap shops are owned by Blue Rhino (found at such local retailers as Lowe's, Walmart, Champlain Farms and Price Chopper) and Amerigas (found at Home Depot, Simon's, Maplefields, etc).
Recently, a Seven Days reader called to complain that Vermont's propane consumers are getting shorted. (We 7D staffers field all varieties of phone calls that might otherwise go to a consumer protection agency, social worker, attorney or mental health professional. So, to the articulate-sounding gentleman who called me several months ago from inside the Vermont State Hospital: I'm sorry, but there was nothing I could do about the Army snipers you believe are tracking your every move from the rooftops above Church Street.)
To look into it — the gas tanks, not the gunmen — I called Henry Marckres, consumer protection section chief at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. They're the folks who make sure that when you pay for a half-pound of baby swiss at the deli counter, you're not getting shortchanged by a slice or two. In fact, their field inspectors spot-check everything from the gauges on gasoline pumps to the grades of Vermont maple syrup.
According to Marckres, weights and measures inspectors cannot spot-check individual LP tanks swapped out from those ubiquitous white cages. Instead, they check the tanker trucks that deliver propane to private homes, as well as the remote filling stations used by consumers and dealers, and make sure those scales are all up to snuff.
Marckres admits it's hard for consumers to know whether they're getting ripped off. If they can figure out the "tear tare weight" of the tank, i.e., what the tank weighs when it's empty, then they can weigh it when it's full and subtract the difference.
Currently, the state doesn't post online which dealers have gotten caught with their thumbs on the scale, primarily because the agency is in the process of switching over to a new computer system. However, Marckres does say that fewer than 2 percent of dealers' pumps are out of whack one way or the other.
"We don't find that many problems with fill stations in Vermont," he adds. "Most of the time, it's almost a balance between them giving away product and them shorting someone."
So, is there any truth to the claim that Blue Rhino and Amerigas are selling consumers short? Yes, but not according to state inspectors. That info comes straight from the FAQ section of Blue Rhino's own website. The company's long list of frequently asked questions includes such queries as: "I can hear a banging or clanging sound when I move my tank, What's up?" "Can I store my tank in direct sunlight?" And, "Is it true that some people are exchanging tanks after filling them with anhydrous ammonia for use in methamphetamine production?" Yes, I've often wondered about that last one myself.
Near the bottom of the list is the question, "How much propane does Blue Rhino put in its tanks?" Answer: "Inflationary pressures, including the volatile costs of steel, diesel fuel and propane, have had a significant impact on the cylinder exchange industry. In 2008, to help control these rising costs, Blue Rhino followed the example of other consumer products companies with a product content change. We reduced the amount of propane in our tanks from 17 pounds to 15 pounds."
So, that 20-lb. tank that once contained only 17 pounds of propane? Actually, now you're only getting 15 pounds.
So, what are Vermont consumers paying to swap out an empty tank with one that's only three-quarters full? For an Amerigas tank swapped out at the Williston Home Depot: $17.82. For a Blue Rhino tank swapped out at the South Burlington: $18.47.
In contrast, what does a Vermont consumer pay for a 100 percent full, i.e., a 20 lb. tank filled to 20 lbs.? At Burlington Propane on Riverside Avenue: $16. At Biben's Ace Hardware in Colchester? $15.99.
So, are Vermont propane consumers getting bamboozled? Short answer: Yes, but not illegally so. They're just not reading the fine print.