Aches and propane

Every winter, it seems, Rappnet email forum participants revisit the same well-worn topic: complaints about the propane supplier Amerigas.

Melissa Harris, who lives near Sperryville, kicked off this year’s round in early January, complaining the company charged her for igniting a pilot light, when in reality they hadn’t done so.

Over the next couple of days, roughly 40 posts poured into the email list-serve, which has some 800 members in and around Rappahannock County. They came from more than a dozen respondents, piling on a litany of complaints ranging from erratic pricing policies to excessive fees to unwanted deliveries.

Actually, as it turns out, rather than single complaint over an allegedly erroneous charge, Harris could have piled on quite a litany all by herself.

A few days before, according to Harris, she came home from work and found her propane tank empty. “We have six children, it was 7 at night, and it was freezing,” recalls Harris. “So, I called Amerigas and told them that my heat wouldn’t kick on.”

According to Harris, she asked if they could come that night, and the company readily consented — with certain provisions: Harris would have to pay an emergency delivery fee, and if the pilot had gone out, pay to have it relit. Also, she would have to buy at least a half a tank of gas, in her case 250 gallons, and pay for the purchase up front on her credit card. If she agreed to their terms, a delivery driver would call back with a price.

As it turned out, she said, the company delivered only 200 gallons, although she had paid for 250. And, as mentioned earlier, she was billed for lighting the pilot light, even though she said it didn’t happen. Most important, she discovered the price Amerigas charged its other customers that day was only $2.49 — about half of what she had been forced to pay.

Harris’s bank insisted Amerigas reverse the charge. Although she she says she has yet to receive an accurate invoice, it appears that ultimately she’ll end up paying the normal rate.

“The driver would have entered the price for the invoice, and it sounds like they got it wrong,” explains Amerigas spokesperson Bill Katz. “But when we learned about it, we eventually got it right for her.”

Harris is still incensed. “If I were a senior citizen on a fixed income, and wasn’t in a position to be able to put it on a card that night, I would have had to do without,” she says. “It’s completely egregious, and if this happened to me, it’s happening elsewhere.”

Amerigas competitor Todd Holtzman of Holtzman Propane in Mt. Jackson says unexpectedly running out of gas is not uncommon, and is one of the reasons that suppliers encourage customers to be on an automatic delivery plan.

“Often, people’s lives are really busy, and if you’re a will-call customer, you might forget to check your gauge,” says Holtzman. “If you go out one morning and discover your tank is empty, you may have to pay for an emergency delivery.”

Like Amerigas, Holtzman charges a significant fee for rush deliveries, although his includes lighting the pilot. However, there is no bump in cost. “We would be double dipping if we also increased the price per gallon,” says Holtzman.

Still, many customers opt for will-call status. While there are payment options available to ease the pain for those on a tight budget, it can be nonetheless daunting to discover an unexpected bill hanging on your door, without the opportunity to discuss in advance the cost and timing of the expenditure.

For customers who do go this route, it’s important they check their tank regularly, requesting deliveries well in advance of when they expect to need them. To be safe, suppliers recommend calling when the gauge reaches 30 percent.

“Gauges aren’t always accurate, because gases expand and contract depending on the temperature,” points out Virginia Propane Gas Association (VAPGA) outreach coordinator Dennis Cruise. “In my experience, the margin of error is about 6 percent. So, if customers rely on that gauge too heavily, it’s really easy to run out.”

To avoid more unpleasantness with Amerigas in the future, Harris has decided it’s time she owned her own tank. Again, Holtzman says her choice isn’t all that unusual. About 25 percent of his customers do this, and since they’re investing in the equipment and he doesn’t have to, like other suppliers he even offers them a discount.

Tank owners have the distinct advantage of being able to shop around for the best price, which can vary greatly from supplier to supplier. This can allow for significant savings.

Still, there are drawbacks as well. If something goes wrong, they’re on the hook for the repair. And, each company filling the tank is required to have an inspection on file, which can add up if a customer uses multiple suppliers.

The bigger expense, of course, is the up-front cost of buying the tank itself. Depending on the size, and whether it’s new or used, the investment could be as much as a few thousand dollars.

The other big consideration, especially for customers setting up new service, is to read contracts carefully and thoroughly before signing them, and to ask lots of questions about prices and policies.

“Unlike electric and natural gas companies, propane marketers aren’t utilities, in the same sense of being regulated by the State Corporation Commission,” explains VAPGA executive director Mary Howell. “That means that you have a choice of providers, but it also means that prices aren’t regulated. So, it’s important to spend some time, and not be in a hurry when you’re trying to figure out who’s going to be the best provider.”

Sandra Cartwright-Brown says she recently learned about contractual requirements the hard way, as well as about Amerigas’s customer service attitude and ability to stay on top of customer requests.

This is what happened, she recalls: She stopped by their Culpeper office last August, asked to be changed to will-call status, and was told it would be no problem. So, she was dismayed when the company made an unrequested delivery in October. When she visited the office again a few weeks later, she was told the driver must not have been informed of the change. And she was told she’d have to fill out a new contract, something nobody had mentioned in August.

Reassured her request was taken care of, Cartwright-Brown, co-owner of Slate Mills’ Conyers House Bed & Breakfast, says she took the papers home to read and sign. The very next day, before she could return the document, she says Amerigas made another unexpected delivery.

“I don’t think we took advantage of her as a customer, because obviously we made delivery of a product she going to use,” says Katz. Still, “we should have told her (about the contract) right away, and I regret that.”

Whether she’ll be able to make good use of that unwanted propane or not, Cartwright-Brown is still angry. She’s purchased her used tank — admittedly ancient, but still, she hopes, in good shape — from Amerigas for $200. And in the future, she plans to buy her propane from another supplier.

“I encourage everyone to shop around and ask questions,” says VAPGA’s Cruise. “After all, propane is propane, no different than any other consumer product. The marketer is the difference. I believe strongly in free market competition, and the best provider will win.”

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1 Comment

  1. Between 2005 and 2008, AmeriGas let my 1000 gallon tank run dry eight times. Each time they insisted it was a regrettable oversight. Finally, I realized it was more than that — that they were, in fact, simply indifferent to the consequences of my house running out of gas — and switched to another supplier. AmeriGas then forced me to pay $1500 for the tank (as was its right). Four months later, AmeriGas managed to get a truck onto the property and fill the tank again — even though they were no longer authorized to do so. Rather than argue with such people, I paid the bill and made sure they couldn’t get onto the property again.

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