4 Questions to Ask When 
Shopping for a Propane Supplier

by William H. Black

   Shopping for a propane marketer to provide you with service can be a challenging task. The propane ads in the yellow pages all say basically the same thing. How do you determine which supplier will give you the best value for your buck. 

  William H. Black Price per gallon is the most common yardstick customers use to compare different suppliers, but this does little to give you an accurate picture of the marketer. In any given region the price per gallon for propane will only vary a matter of pennies from marketer to marketer. 

   Starting a long term relationship with a propane marketer based solely on a 17 cents difference is not very logical considering that propane prices fluctuate, and generally you are starting out at an introductory rate anyway.    Right now it may be a deal, but is it a "deal" when your marketer lets you run out of gas in the middle of a cold snap and won't bring any till next week? Sometimes despite best efforts customers might run out of gas, but the question is how your propane marketer handles the incident that makes the difference. You may be asking yourself, "Besides price, what should I use to compare propane marketers?" The following are some key things to consider when shopping for a propane provider.

   1. Do you offer automatic delivery? Propane marketers either have some sort of delivery schedule to keep the customer from running out of gas, or a "wait for call" system where you do the work of keeping up with whether you need gas or not, and hope you don't run out. Some marketers let you decide if you want automatic delivery or be a wait for call customer. If you are serious about getting the best value, then you would probably be happier with a a marketer that provides automatic delivery.

  2. Do you charge tank rent? The fact is that if any gas company wants to provide their customers the best service, they will have to constantly put out big bucks in new equipment and employee training. In order to ensure these costs will be covered, most companies charge some sort of rent, charge, or fee for service to the customer. Most gas customers use a tank provided by the gas company, and charging tank rent is one way of covering the cost of service. There is an old "oil industry mentality" of selling propane tanks like oil tanks, and some customers feel as though they are in control when they own the tank, because they think they can buy gas from whoever, whenever. No gas company will drop everything to bring you gas if you own your own tank unless you pay a hefty premium. Owning your own gas tank seems like a good idea at first, but time usually reveals some terrible drawbacks.

   There are many upkeep concerns with a propane tank, and those concerns are better left to gas technicians. It is a HUGE hassle if you ever have something go wrong with a propane tank and have to dispose of it.  Don't let a propane marketer pass their responsibility of tank maintenance on to you by letting them sell you a tank.

  3. Do you have a minimum usage requirement? Another way marketers cover cost of service is by asking you to purchase a certain amount of gas or pay a small fee per gallon that you were short of the minimum requirement. A second part to that question would be is there an alternative to the minimum usage requirement? Some companies will lett you downsize to smaller tank that would help you more easily meet the minimum. Minimum usage charges are another opportunity for someone to try to sell you a propane tank, and once again I caution you against bringing this misery upon yourself. I personally had to dispose of over 50 propane tanks last year, and it's easier to sell a punch in the nose than get rid of a propane tank, so let the gas company provide the tank for you. 

   If the marketer you speak with doesn't have a minimum usage charge, tank rent, or some sort of delivery or administrative fee, and has the cheapest gas in town, ask if you can expect service after hours in the event you run out of gas or have an emergency. My experienced guess is you'll find yourself left in the cold.

   4. What payment options are available to me? Some gas companies require you to fill out a credit application before they will set up service with you, but you can get quality propane service without filling out a credit application with other marketers. What types of credit cards will the marketer honor? Will they provide the same level of service for cash on delivery customers as credit customers? 

     There is nothing particularly wrong with a propane marketer that does any of the things listed above. These are all pretty basic industry practices. The key is choosing a company that provides you the most flexibility, and whose services best suit your needs. 

    Choosing a propane marketer based on price is not the way to get the best value for your dollar. Unlike filling your own car at a gasoline station, propane service is a long term relationship that directly affects your quality of life. Don't cheat yourself. BB