just in case

We have a propane heater that served us well last year when the thermocouple on the water boiler of our radiator system needed to be replaced. This would also have been handy in 2010, when we returned to an ice-cold house after a holiday in Santa Fe, where we wed in 2000 and first lived. In addition to the heater, we have a camping stove that can burn either propane or butane. However, both of these devices thread onto 1-pound propane canisters. These small bottles are exceedingly wasteful, from an environmental standpoint because the steel containers should be disposed after just a single use, as well as from a financial standpoint because one is actually paying more for the container than for the fuel itself.

Fortunately, there is a solution: 1-lb propane cylinders that have been designed and manufactured specifically to be refilled, along with a kit to connect these bottles to 20-lb tanks, which are more widely available, being a typical size for RVs and BBQ grills.

Yesterday I bought the last remaining propane refill kit from a store down in Washington, PA. This morning I went on a quest for a new, filled 20-pound tank. Here is the result of my mission:

  • Home Depot has empty tanks inside the store but was out of propane. The customer service rep did not know when they would have more, and said the Sunoco across the street would have some.
  • The Sunoco attendant said they were out of propane too and had no recommendations.
  • The cashier at the Marathon gas station on the way home said that they did have propane but couldn’t help me because she was alone at the store. She gestured towards the beer distributor (I misheard her say “bear distributor”). Even though this is my neighborhood, I have to admit that I never knew there was a package store in the area. It just never registered because we are a teetotaling family.
  • The beer distributor said they no longer carry propane. He pointed me towards the two gas stations nearby — the Marathon where I had just been, and the Sunoco (different from the one I had already visited).
  • The Sunoco cashier said they didn’t carry propane and suggested the Home Depot. When I explained I had already been there, she moved her thumbs as though using a smart phone and suggested Googling propane.

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I had already tried Duck Duck Go, Google, and GasBuddy — none of them could help me find current prices for propane, whether a store has current stock, or even a clear map for where it is available. I guess search engine and app developers don’t use propane, or already know where to find it? Maybe they just go to gas stations near campgrounds, or to national chains like Wal-Mart, U-Haul, or Home Depot. It seems like a ripe opportunity for a developer to gather this information, especially because propane can obviously undergo temporary local shortages. Here in the US we do produce more than enough propane to meet our needs; this is a storage and distribution problem — and maybe a little predictive modeling could solve this issue.

Anyhow, because I don’t have a smartphone, when I returned home I called U-Haul, which is also close to our house. (I don’t want to travel far with a full tank of propane in our passenger car, out of an abundance of caution.) I called U-Haul with great reluctance, because years ago I had the most horrendous experience with U-Haul in Chicago and swore that I would never never never give them my business again. I learned that they do have it in stock, and the person on the phone sounded very knowledgeable and matter-of-fact about the pricing. So I’ll return to Home Depot to buy an empty tank, and go to Marathon or U-Haul to fill it up.

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Here are more widely relevant things I have learned recently about propane:

  • 20-pound tanks are DOT-approved and initially certified for 12 years. Because they meet stringent government standards, the brand is irrelevant. Government FTW.
  • New tanks are not purged and the air inside may contain moisture. There is some disagreement on the Internet about whether this must be done by a professional, how many cycles of purging are required, and whether this is necessary if the tank has been manufactured in the past six months.
  • There are three ways to get a full tank of propane: buy a pre-filled tank, exchange an empty one, or refill an existing one. The problem with exchanging an empty one is that you are receiving an indeterminate amount of fuel — there are discussions about whether overfilling the tanks might be a safety issue because gas could be vented in hot conditions, or whether underfilling the tanks is another way for propane companies to increase their profit margins.
  • In the United States, propane now comes primarily as a by-product of processing natural gas, not from refining petroleum.
  • Propane is measured in pounds instead of gallons. You can determine how much propane is in a tank by using a luggage scale and subtracting the tare weight, which is stamped on the handle. A typical volume capacity for a 20-pound tank is 4.7 gallons; that is, liquid propane has a density of 4.2 pounds per gallon.
  • Propane prices vary across the country. I imagine it must be relatively cheap here in western Pennsylvania, with our proximity to Marcellus Shale and nearby natural-gas processing plants. The person who answered the phone at U-Haul quoted me $3.25 per gallon, mentioning that it would cost about $15 if the tank is completely empty. That’s about 75 cents per pound.
  • Meanwhile, four 1-pound containers cost $12 plus tax at Wal-Mart last year (or $16 plus tax at Home Depot yesterday), corresponding to $3 per pound. Because the Flame King refill kit cost $50 plus tax (it was only $38 at Home Depot last year) and an empty 20-pound tank at Home Depot cost $35 plus tax, the break-even point for buying these items instead of individual 1-pounders is nearly 40 pounds. While I don’t know if we will use enough propane to make this outlay economically wise, I feel better knowing that we don’t have to deal with the safe disposal of single-use tanks, that we will produce less waste metal, and that we have greater flexibility in obtaining fuel for cooking and heating.

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We lived in Manhattan between Santa Fe and Pittsburgh, from 2003 to 2005, soon after 9/11. During that time, I carried various talismans in my pockets and backpack: a whistle to be heard in the midst of rubble, potassium iodide tablets to flood the thyroid if there were a dirty bomb or nuclear power plant accident, an N95 mask to protect against fine particulates, a pocket knife because sharp metal is one of the most important tools devised by humanity. I did not have a cell phone at all, even as they were becoming ubiquitous. I did carry my MetroCard and a swatch of the orange fabric used in Christo’s The Gates.

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How differently I prepared for dangers during the 80s and 90s whenever I visited the city of my birth! Back then I carried mugger money along with subway tokens.

Mugger money, potassium iodide, propane.

Just in case.

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