Mary Carnevalini is part of the 96 percent of Connecticut propane gas customers who are at the mercy of their propane suppliers because they don’t own their own tanks but instead rent them from the dealers.
While propane gas can be a great alternative to heating oil and electricity if natural gas lines are unavailable, Carnevalini and the estimated 200,000 other propane customers in Connecticut have learned or are learning that it’s easier to figure out how a nuclear plant works than whether or how much they are being ripped off. Propane is used as fuel for stoves, water heaters, furnaces and other equipment. Carnevalini uses propane to heat a swimming pool.
Heating oil companies will quote you a price 24/7. Any firm that sells in your area will deliver to you. Comparison shopping is easy. Everyone owns their own tanks and anyone can fill them.
Propane gas is the least transparent energy business in the country. Companies normally don’t list their prices, they frequently won’t give you a quote over the phone, and they all have different prices with different add-on charges, making comparisons impossible.
The biggest weapon propane gas companies have is a set of rules adopted in Connecticut and every state in the union that require the home or business owner to purchase the gas from the company that owns the tank at their home or business. The suppliers convinced the states to adopt the rule by claiming that the liability for filling a tank not owned by the dealer would be too great. So then why aren’t the four percent who own their tanks seeing those tanks explode every day?
And propane gas companies do their best to discourage people from buying their own tanks by falsely claiming that their insurance will increase and that it’s less dangerous to rent than to buy your tank.
Many also refuse to sell the tanks that customers have been renting from them, or charge what a new tank would cost.
Carnevalini, of Winsted, contacted me earlier in the month asking me what she should do about her propane supplier, Arrow Gas, which has offices in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The company – which in Connecticut operates from Waterbury and Windsor Locks, tacked on an extra annual charge of $100 for her swimming pool propane tank because she did not use the minimum amount that the company requires. She said she complained to Arrow but the company would not bend.
I sent her complaint to state Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell Jr., who agrees with my views about the propane business, and he turned it over to James Turner, supervisor of the Food & Standards division, who convinced Arrow to drop the charge, though Turner said he didn’t think they had to because Arrow followed state rules by claiming to have sent Carnevalini its “fee disclosure pamphlet.”
Arrow officials have not returned my phone call requesting comments, and I am not sure the company could have made its fee stick.
First of all Carnevalini never had a written contract with the company and she said she did not receive the fee disclosure pamphlet until this month. While the letter she received stating the firm will waive the fee states as long as she uses one tank of propane gas every year. The pamphlet it sent her does not specify how much gas is the minimum required. You can see the documents at www.ctwatchdog.com <http://www.ctwatchdog.com> .
“It gets more confusing,” she said. If she waits to call the company after using the full tank she gets an extra charge because Arrow has to do extra work when a tank is empty. Normally firms require that 20 percent be kept in tanks as a minimum.
Second, the minimum order is 50 gallons for her 100 gallon tank, and even if she only needs 40, she says Arrow charges her for 50.
Despite all this, Connecticut consumer officials told her that Arrow’s prices were cheaper than other companies charge small users. Arrow only charged her $2.54 a gallon while some other propane gas companies are charging as much as $7 a gallon for small users.
Farrell has instituted rules requiring that propane companies be more up-front about their charges and provide customers with bill-of-rights statements. However, for those who rent their tanks, the propane companies still hold guns to customers’ heads.
My suggestion: Before buying any equipment that requires propane, check the real costs. If possible, buy your own tank and then shop around.
To get an idea on the level of propane costs, and for other tips from Consumer Protection, check out http://www.ct.gov/dcp/cwp/view.asp?a=1621&q=274434
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