Winter storm leaves some local residents without heat

Propane trucks like this were scrambling last week to make deliveries to customers who ran out of propane and were without heat.

Propane outages occurred last week

By LESLEE BASSMAN, Four Points News

Some propane customers in Four Points felt the sting of 18-degree air temperature recorded in the Austin area Jan. 17, as reported by the National Weather Service, and were without heat during the near record-setting cold snap.

Numerous Four Points-area propane providers—including nearby Sharp Propane, 4711 Doss Rd. and Absolute Propane, 15100 Debba Dr. — reported their Will Call customers were requesting emergency deliveries of the fuel.

“We’ve got a good percentage of our customers on a system whereby we monitor their usage and we make deliveries automatically, (called) Keep Full customers,” said Scott Brockelmeyer, vice president of marketing and media relations for Ferrellgas, the Kansas City-based parent company of local affiliate Sharp Propane. “Will Call is the other type of customer who says, ‘we prefer to contact (our propane provider) to schedule a delivery.’”

Will Call customers have the responsibility to check their propane tanks and ensure they have enough fuel to get them through a cold weather event, Absolute Propane operations manager Mitch Roberts said, adding that most of his emergency deliveries Jan. 17 stemmed from Will Call customers or patrons of other propane companies that could not get a delivery out.

“A small percentage of maybe five to 10 percent were (customers) from other vendors who needed someone who could bring them gas today,” he said on Jan. 17.

Although, as of Jan. 17, Roberts said he was not aware of any propane customers still needing gas, staffers of other propane companies, including Direct Propane, said they were still aiming to help propane users in need.

Direct Propane, a service that also delivers propane to the Four Points area, had 11 drivers on the road for 11-hour and 12-hour shifts Jan. 17, “to get everything taken care of” because the company did not make deliveries Jan. 16 due to icy road conditions, said Kaylyn Meyer, administrative assistant.

Meyer said the issue was not a lack of propane for her company but a matter of getting the fuel to customers.

“I don’t think anybody was prepared for as cold as it’s been and, of course, we missed an entire day being able to do anything due to the ice,” she said.

Forecasting fuel issues

Meyer, Roberts and Michael Singleton, general manager for Sharp Propane operations in Central Texas, said they would like to see their Will Call customers be proactive when checking their propane tank levels, especially during the winter season and when a storm is anticipated.

For Roberts, the “perfect customer” is the Keep Full patron since his company takes care of all of this customer’s tank refills.

“The customers who call us who are low (in propane) and they have a smaller tank and may need bigger tanks are the ones who sometimes have problems getting gas on time,” Roberts said.

Singleton agrees, with most of his customers on a Keep Full system that tracks their propane utilization.

“If you’re speaking about a Will Call customer, they have to call us,” said Singleton, who is also a 13-year resident of Steiner Ranch. “I would just say for them to monitor the weather. If they know that weather’s coming, they need to check their tank percentages and make sure they let the propane provider know (that percentage) so we can get to them and prevent them from running out of gas.”

He said adding a spa or heated swimming pool can place an unanticipated draw from a customer’s propane tank balance.

“For example, if over the holidays or during the off-season, someone installs a swimming pool and they add a heater to it, or a Jacuzzi, we need to know that because we have to update our system to compensate for that additional appliance or pool being added,” Singleton said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t know and that’s a potential risk of them running out of gas.”

However, propane companies can prepare, in advance, for weather emergencies, with Direct Propane “bumping up” their Keep Full customers with sooner-than-normal deliveries before the Jan. 16 weather event to ensure they were not going to run out of gas, Meyer said.

Brockelmeyer said Sharp Propane staff “absolutely knew this storm was coming” and topped off the propane tanks of its Keep Full customers while attempting to reach out to its Will Call patrons.

Roberts said Absolute Propane prepares for a weather event by making sure his trucking company has the capacity to supply the extra propane and ordered double loads of gas before this storm. He said his trucks worked on Jan. 16 but had to call them back around 1 p.m. that day for dangerous conditions, resuming deliveries at 6:30 a.m. Jan. 17.

Who gets emergency gas refills first?

We need to assess the situation regarding the priority of gas refills during an emergency, Singleton said.

“We rely on the customer to provide critical information we need to make the decision to appropriate people and resources in a situation,” he said. “There are customers who obviously have higher needs. The customer is our partner. We need them to communicate to us.”

Priority for propane deliveries in devastating situations such as Hurricane Harvey goes to hospitals, first responders, elderly customers and patrons with children, he said. However, the issue may be exacerbated by propane consumers who are merely low on fuel and not necessarily out of gas, he said.

“Some people have 20-30 percent in their tank and they call in that they are out of gas,” Singleton said. “This makes a problem for a lot of our customers who really are suffering. If they say they are out of gas, we’re going to them. We have had multiple instances where we have sent drivers to locations and there’s anywhere from 30 percent to 20 percent to 10 percent in their tank. What that does is that takes (propane delivery drivers) off their scheduled routes, which then delays them to get to customers who may be on the lower end of their percentages.”

Sharp Propane and Absolute Propane both charge a fee to Will Call customers who run out of gas and request a refill but not for Keep Full customers.

Absolute Propane prioritizes its Keep Full customers whose tanks are managed by the company’s staffers, followed by Will Call customers, Roberts said.

During the mid-January winter storm, Direct Propane weighed how much gas was left in a customer’s tank when planning its emergency deliveries.

“As far as general delivery—without people being out of gas—it’s a matter of if (the customer) could make it to the next day or not,” Meyer said. “If they could make it to tomorrow, then it’s going to be tomorrow. We are that busy. If they can’t, then we’re going to find time. Everyone who was low enough to be in danger of running out (Jan. 17) was taken care of before we went home.”

By law, a propane company can fill the tank of the customer of another propane company only if the tank is owned by the homeowner and not leased to a propane company, Roberts said. If the tank is leased to a propane company, only that company can refill the tank even if a customer eyes another propane delivery truck on his or her block, he said.

But there may be extenuating circumstances in certain situations.

“If someone calls me and says they are out of gas, generally, because it is the law, we respect that with other propane companies so we don’t (refill their tank),” Roberts said. “In some emergency situations where there may be infants or elderly people in the house, we may consider taking care of that customer just to get them through the night. It is a balance; each situation is different.”

What is propane?

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, propane is liquefied petroleum gas and can be used to power automobiles as an alternative fuel or as a heating or cooking source.

Stored under pressure inside a tank, the liquid propane vaporizes as the pressure is released and converts into gas.

About 2 percent of the energy used in the United States is propane.