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Sustained cold crimps propane supply for some

Sustained cold crimps propane supply for some

Homeowners finding delays getting refills
Sustained cold crimps propane supply for some
A propane flame inside of a gas boiler furnace.
Photographer: Shutterstock

Some Capital Region residents who heat their homes with propane are finding worrisome delays in getting fuel deliveries.

An industry group is warning customers to schedule propane deliveries at least two weeks in advance, and to be patient if they try to do it by telephone. 

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It’s a matter of increased demand more than reduced supply, the New York Propane Gas Association said. Companies are being asked to make more deliveries with the same number of trucks and drivers at a time when deliveries take longer due to accumulated snow and icy roads.

“Certain areas of our region may experience delays in getting propane deliveries,” the association said, “however, more propane is on its way to the Northeast. What customers are feeling are the results of a strained transportation and infrastructure system, and historically low temperatures.”

In the Capital Region, Ferrellgas is at the center of social media discussion, with many commenters critical of delayed response to phone calls and inability to schedule quick deliveries.

In a prepared response, the Missouri-based company said:

“Ferrellgas is working around the clock to make sure our customers receive their propane deliveries. This is a situation that is not unique to Ferrellgas or to propane consumers in New York state. Many propane consumers were caught off guard by how quickly these extreme cold temperatures arrived in the region.”

The company, whose Capital Region location is in Johnstown, recommended that customers who are not on its automatic delivery program -- those who schedule their own deliveries — keep track of their supply and call for a delivery when their tanks are down to about 30 percent full. Customers can avoid a potentially long wait on the phone by requesting delivery online instead, the company said.

Propane is not widely used to heat homes in New York state. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that bottled and tank gas heated 239,000 of the 7.21 million New York households as of 2013. This compared with 4.04 million heated with utility-supplied gas, 1.89 million heated with oil or kerosene, 749,000 heated with electricity and 149,000 heated with wood. (Coal, solar and “other” each tallied much lower numbers.)

But for the minority of New Yorkers who do heat with propane, watching the tank gauge and the thermometer slip down to zero at the same time can be unnerving.

Shane Sweet, executive director of the New York Propane Gas Association, said he’s not heard of any propane shortage but he’s very aware of the compounding delays that can develop in weather like this. More propane being burned means more resupply runs with the 10,000-gallon tanker trucks to the pipeline terminal in Selkirk and more local deliveries with smaller trucks. Snow and ice on roads means slower driving. Snow and ice on and around customers’ tanks slows down the delivery process.

“It’s what we have to deal with every year,” Sweet said.

The difference this year is the severe and sustained cold, he said. A meteorologist who works for the association counted more than 300 records broken so far in this young winter across the Northeast.

Beyond all that, though, mistakes are made.

“Some of it is obviously human error, someone forgot to order a load,” Sweet said.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration on Dec. 30 relaxed regulations on fuel truck drivers in New York and numerous other states affected by the cold, allowing them to drive more hours than normally allowed, and help get oil or gas to people who need it.

Meanwhile, federal data show that the supply of propane on hand nationwide as of Dec. 29 was 19.2 percent lower than a year earlier. State data show that the average price in the Capital Region on Jan. 1 was 10-percent higher than a year earlier.

Prices are also higher this year for heating oil: $2.91 a gallon on Jan. 1 in the Capital Region, on average, compared with $2.54 a year earlier, according to state data — a 14.5 percent jump.

National Grid indicates that the price for natural gas it supplied in December 2017 was much higher than December 2016: 34.4 cents per therm vs. 28.8 cents. But it’s a bit lower in January 2018 than in January 2017: 36.5 cents vs. 37.3 cents.

National Grid doesn’t control the price of natural gas or take a profit from its sale, but when the price jumps, the utility will delay the cost to consumers, pushing the higher charges back until warmer weather returns.

“If the commodity prices spike, we do have mechanisms built in to spread that cost out over several months,” spokesman Nate Stone said.

The other side of the customer’s gas bill is unchanged, he added. “It’s not affecting delivery prices at all.”

This is the worst cold snap National Grid has seen in upstate New York in three years, Stone said, but so far, there has been no increased impact on the infrastructure by which gas is delivered.

Stone offered homeowners a safety tip to avoid creating a potentially serious problem: Don’t shovel or blow snow where it will block exhaust vents. Potentially deadly carbon monoxide fumes can back up into the house if the vent is blocked.

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