Fort Collins, Colo. – With coronavirus restrictions forcing bars and restaurants to sit outside in the winter, many are scrambling for an irregular supply of propane that fuels the space heaters they depend on more than ever to keep people comfortable in the cold.
It is one of many new – but crucial – headaches that accompany the setting up of tables and tents on sidewalks, streets, and patios to comply with public health restrictions.
Melinda Maddox, director of the Colorado Whiskey Tasting Room, said, “You’re in the middle of service, and you’ve got staff running around and saying, ‘We’re out of propane!’
Propane has long been a lifeline for people who live far from piping natural gas into their homes for heating, hot water and cooking. This winter’s 5-gallon (18 liter) propane tanks have proven a new necessity for urban businesses as well, especially in places like the Rocky Mountains, where the sun often sweeps the edge of the hail and people still enjoy gathering in patios when heaters are roaring.
Standard-sized tanks, which contain compressed liquid propane that turns into gas upon release, are readily available from gas stations, grocery stores, or home improvement stores. However lately this is not always the case as higher demand leads to erratic supplies at times.
“I spent a day driving for an hour around town. I literally headed north, south, east, and west – just did a loop around Fort Collins because every gas station I went to was out.” Said Maddox, who runs the tasting room of Reserve By Old Elk Distillery in Downtown Fort Collins, about 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of Denver, “That was disappointing.
Almost all states allow at least some indoor dining, but the rules nationwide are a mixture of local regulations. At Fort Collins, indoor seating in bars and restaurants is limited to 25% of normal capacity, so there is a strong incentive to seat customers outside despite the complications and costs.
The shortage of domestic propane tanks is not only caused by high demand, but also by epidemic-like household hoarding of toilet paper and other commodities. Tom Clark, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Propane Association, said a national tank supplier reported a 38% increase in sales this winter.
But Clark says the supply is out there, and that could mean searching a little more than usual. If there are 10 suppliers in the neighborhood, “Maybe 1 in 10 is out of stock. Sure, you can find propane exchange tanks if you look around,” Clark said.
Nancy Champley, the head of the tank manufacturer in Franklin, Tennessee, said she is paying workers overtime and boosting production in India to meet demand.
So far, the increase in demand for small-tank propane has not affected aggregate supply, demand and prices in the United States, which operate similarly to recent winters, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
But trying to find a steady supply of propane could cost the already stressful companies the time and money they lack in a pandemic.
Maddox said gas stations are better than home improvement stores to run propane tanks because you can park close to you, but stores that refill tanks are the best because they’re cheaper and not as complicated as trying to run every dry tank.
“The case there is taking longer,” said Maddox. “You just have to incorporate that into your day and say well, it’s going to take 40 minutes instead of 25.”
Across the street, Pour Brothers Community Tavern owners Kristi and Dave Wegmans refilled tanks for 18 fireplaces and fireplaces at a supplier on the edge of town after a nearby store stopped offering a refill service.
They discovered that propane tanks had a date of manufacture stamp. Propane stores will not refill tanks that are more than 12 years old unless they are re-certified in five-year increments.
“We’re learning more and more about propane,” said Dave Wegmans.
They have also gained insight into the market for space heaters, which doubled in price last fall due to high demand, and the outdoor furniture of the street parking garage that has turned into an outdoor patio for up to 44 people, Christy Wigmans said.
Their staff also had to quickly learn to hook up propane tanks and light heaters, needed in a place where temperatures can drop below zero (minus 18 degrees Celsius) in the winter.
Dave Wygmans said keeping clients comfortable has taken on a new dimension in the outdoors.
“Before it was only drinks and food, right? Now, we think the priority is drinks and food, but the customer might think that the priority is heat. So now we have to balance another priority that some customers might be interested in.”
“It’s almost like another service we provide, which is outside heat,” said Wigmans.
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