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Published: Wednesday, 12/19/2007

Propane users scramble to pay

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Propane, going into a tank on Navarre Avenue, has been found to be the second most costly home heating fuel. Propane, going into a tank on Navarre Avenue, has been found to be the second most costly home heating fuel.
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When Al and Brenda Lehenbauer built their home in a rural area outside Grand Rapids less than 10 years ago, they faced the same limited heating choices as others who opt to live out in the country.

"At the time, we looked at a geothermal system versus propane," Mr. Lehenbauer recalled yesterday. "We [chose propane] because we couldn't predict the future, and propane was 70 or 80 cents a gallon back then."

But those days are gone. Now he and his wife pay a minimum of $1,100 to fill their 500-gallon liquid propane tank, which they usually must do at least twice during the winter months.

It's a price that he and countless others who chose propane as a reliable and relatively cheap rural heating source are struggling to pay as the cost of liquid propane continues to climb.

According to a report last month by the National Energy Assistance Director's Association, the average cost of heating a home with propane this winter was expected to be 30 percent more than last winter. Propane remained the second-most-expensive home heating option, behind only heating oil, according to the report.

Locally, an unscientific survey of prices for delivered liquid propane found existing customers can pay $2.20 a gallon to almost $3.50.

The price of propane roughly tracks the price of crude oil. Nationally, the cost to heat with propane is approximately 80 percent more than with natural gas, according to the national energy trade group.

Jim McVicker, vice president of operations for the family-owned Reliance Propane-Fuel Oil Co. Inc., said the climbing price of propane is worrisome for customers.

"Last year, we were at $1.85 per gallon for home heat; this year, we're at $2.20," he said. "What we try to do is work any way we can with our customers.

"We give them phone numbers for [heating assistance and public assistance programs], and we offer them a 10 or 12-month budget plan, if that makes it easier for them."

His company also offers lower prices during the summer, and it offers a capped price for a fee during the summer.

For his part, Mr. Lehenbauer said he may look at alternatives.

"At some point, if propane keeps heading in that direction, I'll have to consider putting in one of those geothermal systems and heating with electricity," Mr. Lehenbauer said.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at:

lvellequette@theblade.com

or 419-724-6091.



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