Expense Report – Heating Update

My, what a big padlock you have. My quest to control my heating costs continues with a bizarre twist. The good news is that the bad news is leading me to good news.

For those who are tuning in late, two months ago I got a propane bill for almost four dollars a gallon, $3.989, about double what the competitors are charging. Calls to the local Amerigas office resulted in a partial reduction, something I’ve done before. I shouldn’t have to do that, said so, and they connected me to the person who controls many of the offices in the region. There was little he could do, but he did offer a $50 credit. Fifty dollars is appreciated, but the prospect of thousand dollar or more fuel bills meant I had to investigate other solutions. That’s the short version. The long version is in the prior blog post, Expense Report – Heating.

I thank all of the contractors, suppliers, and folks in general who helped me work through the options. There can only be one supplier that benefits, but they all treated me with respect and enthusiasm.

Finding a new supplier or system would seem to be a simple thing, but simple things have to weave around complex work lives and schedules to the extent that it took two months to do the research, have the conversations, and meet some folks.

The simple answer was to keep the same kind of heating system and change suppliers. My house is heated by a radiant floor hot water system. The water does’t care which propane provider I use.

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The more complicated answer is in the details. If I’m going to switch suppliers, how does the old tank and its fuel get replaced with a new tank and fuel, and get hooked up to the existing system? Who gets told what and when, and when does the work get done and in which order? The various suppliers handle this regularly, but I don’t. It probably took me more time to ask them about it than it does for them to do the work.

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At the same time those conversations were happening, I was also talking to various contractors referred by Puget Sound Energy about the prospect of going all-electric. Why use propane for anything? In my simplistic vision, replace the propane furnace with an electric furnace and only worry about electricity making it down the line rather than fuel being pumped from the ground, refined, shipped, and delivered?

That was too simplistic, and an example of people not listening. A new furnace and hot water tank would cost thousands of dollars, a nice possibility if I won the lottery jackpot. Instead, every contractor focused on one thing: replacing the propane furnace with a heat pump. Modern heat pumps are much more efficient, cheaper to operate, and relatively quiet. Several of my friends have enjoyed switching to them. They have a one-time cost between $2,000 and $5,000, which is expensive until compared to the recurring roulette cost of my existing propane situation. An interesting possibility.

Unfortunately, replacing the furnace with a heat pump wouldn’t remove the propane system. Something has to heat my hot water and at least two contractors dissuaded me from considering it. So much for all-electric.

Early in the process, I called my original propane supplier (Amerigas) and asked them about delivery options. They suggested I consider switching from automatic delivery (where they guess at when I’ll need it, which they did well) to Will Call (where I call when the tank is empty enough.) All of their competitors suggested I do the same thing, switch to Will Call. So I did.

Switching to Will Call seems like the sort of thing that would be a simple phone call. Nope. Amerigas told me to fill out a form and get it to them by the end of the week to avoid getting another refill sooner than I wanted. I dutifully thanked them on Monday, got the form, filled it out, expedited its delivery on Tuesday, waited a day on Wednesday, and called them on Thursday to make sure they got it by Friday. Otherwise, I’d drive it to them before the deadline. They got it. That was good. Whew.

Within an hour or two, I saw their delivery truck heading into my neighborhood as I was driving out for a long day of work. If I was more paranoid I would’ve turned around to see if they were going to top it off at some high rate, anyway; but, I had appointments scheduled through 9pm.

Getting home after dark I checked my door to see if they’d dropped off an invoice the way they typically did. Nope. Get in. Unpack from the day. Turn up the little electric heater. And then, satisfy my curiosity with a trip to the tank. Good. They didn’t fill it. Weird. There was now a padlock on the tank. No note. No explanation. No warning. Just a padlock on the tank. What’s that all about?

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It was too late to call, and the next work day was busy, so I had to wait before hearing their explanation.

I called and asked if the padlock was theirs. Why padlock it? They wanted to prevent me from filling the tank from another supplier. This is standard procedure, evidently, for people who switch to Will Call. Think about it quick and it kind of makes sense. There must be someone who’d do such a thing. Think about it longer and realize that Will Call shouldn’t make any difference. It would be possible to fill from another source even if it was on automatic delivery. Maybe they only do that with Will Calls because Will Calls are more likely to switch suppliers. In which case, how many of their customers are going through the same process? I don’t know. I do know that their logic wasn’t consistent – the kind of consistency I recommend to my clients, but they aren’t one of my clients, so there was no need for me to correct them.

I’m glad for competition. Amerigas’ high prices inspired me to look for alternatives. Too many times, their policies seemed to be company-centric instead of customer-centric. They take care of themselves. I get to take care of myself. Fortunately for me, their competitors convinced me they were customer-centric, too.

The tank is about 50% full. After about 20% to 40% of the tank’s fuel is spent I’ll switch suppliers. VanderYacht Propane managed to convince me on price and experience swapping tanks, and their customers convinced me of their good service. The race was close, but I could only select one, and they got the one and only vote. No vetoes.

It is spring. I use about 10% of the tank every month in winter. I use less in spring. It will take months, and possibly a season or two to use up enough of the fuel to make the tank light enough to move. Consumer decisions sound like one day decision making events. Reality takes longer. The next move may not happen for months, but I’m at least relieved that I shouldn’t receive any more Amerigas fuel bills. If I do, I look forward to finally applying that $50 credit the upper level manager offered. I can’t find it on the fuel bill, the tank bill, or in any reference to my account when I called. A switch to a better competitor may make that a small price to pay.

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About Tom Trimbath

consultant / entrepreneur / writer / photographer / speaker / aerospace engineer / semi-semi-retired More info at: https://trimbathcreative.wordpress.com/about/ and at my amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B0035XVXAA
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