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Winter-weary propane users await ebb in prices

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Rocky McClain of Gaile's Propane fills a 1,000 gallon tank Wednesday at a church near Trafalgar. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal
Rocky McClain of Gaile's Propane fills a 1,000 gallon tank Wednesday at a church near Trafalgar. Scott Roberson / Daily Journal

Winter isn’t over yet, but a camp near Trafalgar already has used as much propane for heat as it would in a normal year.

The 18,000 gallons of propane Camp Allendale orders typically is more than enough to heat the 15 buildings on the grounds for the entire year. But this winter has brought so many days of subzero weather that workers have turned down thermostats, plugged in electric heaters and hoped they wouldn’t need to buy more propane as prices spiked, bookkeeper Nancy Pim said.

Multiple bitterly cold days this winter have caused a national shortage in propane, which led to prices jumping by 50 cents or $1 in a single day, said Paul Voiles, operations manager at Gaile’s Propane.

Typically propane costs less than $2 per gallon during warm months, but prices in January got as high as $4.40 per gallon, which was double the highest price last winter and the highest Voiles has seen in 26 years working in propane, he said.

Homeowners who didn’t pre-order the fuel were stuck paying higher prices, and many put in small orders of 100 gallons to try to last until prices came down, Voiles said.

“During a normal winter, a 10-cent increase is huge. But we were seeing dollar increases on a daily basis,” he said.

The propane shortage was caused by multiple factors, starting in the fall. A late, wet harvest led to farmers using more propane to dry crops, and a major national pipeline was shut for repairs, according to the National Propane Gas Association. Then winter storms hit the Midwest and East and caused homeowners and businesses to use more propane to heat homes, straining the already limited supply.

Prices are starting to go down as temperatures warm up, with average prices at about $3.75 per gallon in Indiana, according to the U.S. Energy Information Association.

Rural residents are most likely to have propane heat in areas where natural gas lines haven’t been installed. Gaile’s serves about 800 customers in Johnson County mostly around Bargersville and Trafalgar.

The short supply caused prices to fluctuate wildly, and Gaile’s was waiting longer to get deliveries to the storage tanks at the shop. Because of the shortage, the supplier slowed some deliveries to customers who get automatic refills to make sure they didn’t run out. Instead of refilling tanks at homes when they’d get to about 50 percent full, the company was waiting until the tanks were running closer to 25 percent full before making a delivery, Voiles said. The average home tank holds about 425 gallons of propane and typically might need to be refilled once during the winter, Voiles said.

By January customers were asking for small orders of 100 gallons and needing more just a few weeks later, he said. Customers were saying they were using electric heaters, burning wood in their fireplaces or dragging out extra blankets and sweatshirts to try to conserve as much propane as possible. But because temperatures dropped as low as 20 degrees below zero, they still needed more.

Staff at Camp Allendale have been taking similar measures while trying to heat 15 buildings, enough to host scheduled retreats, Pim said. Some heaters haven’t been able to keep up with the coldest temperatures, and the camp was burning propane constantly just to keep pipes from freezing, she said.

“They are adjusting thermostats down as low as they can, but that’s still not real low because with these extreme temperatures even our heat sources are having trouble keeping it up. So there are a couple buildings we’re not using right now because the heaters can’t keep up with the extreme temperatures,” she said.

Gaile’s has been able to make deliveries whenever the camp needed more propane, and the nonprofit signed a contract for up to 18,000 gallons at a price of $1.39. Camp Allendale has about 4,000 gallons left at that price, but that amount has to last until June, Pim said.

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