A Push for Plastic

February 1, 2003 By    

One of the propane industry’s most enduring and recognizable public images – and one of its healthiest market segments – could be headed for a major overhaul.

A coalition of propane and other interested industry representatives in late January met with the U.S. Department of Transportation to push for changes in federal regulations to allow propane cylinders to be built with materials other than steel and aluminum.

Intrigued by the popularity of high-strength, lightweight plastic cylinders sold in Europe in the last decade, industry officials say composite cylinders offer a dynamic sales opportunity that also could lead to new market applications here.

“From a propane marketer’s standpoint, it’s truly an exciting opportunity,” says coalition member Darryl McClendon, whose Platinum Propane retail operation did 10 million gallons in cylinder exchange sales in Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. Platinum recently was purchased by the nation’s largest cylinder exchange company, Blue Rhino.

Plastic propane cylinders like this one, made by Raufoss Composites of Norway, are common in Europe.
Plastic propane cylinders like this one, made by Raufoss Composites of Norway, are common in Europe.

“Every time our industry studies an issue, we find that the public thinks of us as a stodgy, old fuel,” says McClendon, who served two years as chairman of the Propane Education & Research Council, which has invested $150,000 to facilitate the coalition’s efforts.

“That’s what’s so striking with this project: it’s marketability. There are so many positive aspects to the container itself. We’re all Americans, and we know how important packaging and imaging is. The same is true for propane with its stodgy image. We need to get this going.”

Composite materials – any of a class of high-strength, lightweight engineering materials consisting of various combinations of alloys, plastics and ceramics – have been in development for more than 35 years. Created for use in spacecraft and military applications, they were introduced to commercial products in the 1970s and 80s. Composites now are becoming common in fuel tanks and pressure vessels throughout the world.

The Benefits

The weight of composite material is roughly half that of steel. This key feature makes it more suitable for handling in homes and outdoor leisure activities including barbecuing, recreation vehicles and boats. The light weight also is valuable for industrial uses such as forklift trucks.

Some composites are transparent, allowing consumers to see the amount of liquid propane remaining in their cylinder without any other instrument. According to European manufacturers, transparency is one of the main reasons customers prefer these cylinders.

Composite materials are impact-resistant, giving cylinders a degree of resilience to avoid the dents and dings commonly found in metal cylinders. Manufacturers say they are easy to clean and stack easily for storage and transport. Their casing can be ergonomically designed to simplify handling and installation and to protect the valve.

Perhaps most significantly, plastics such as fiberglass don’t corrode. That means the cylinder exteriors will not rust in harsh climates or other tough industrial environments. The propane inside the cylinder likewise avoids contamination from rust or other particles from the cylinder.

Cylinder exchange operations spend millions of dollars annually to refurbish worn cylinders before putting them back into service. That overhead could be significantly reduced – if not eliminated altogether – with a cylinder that does not rust, dent or need to be repainted.

Proponents contend that composite cylinders offer major safety advantages to their metal counterparts. While fiberglass does burn and will deform when subjected to fire, manufacturers claim it does not explode via BLEVE. Propane industry leaders hope that will open the door to using portable heaters indoors – something that is prohibited by current law as a safety precaution for firefighters.

Composites also can be marketed as attractive and environmentally friendly. Plastics can be made from recyclable materials and in different colors.

Despite those strengths, hurdles remain before composite cylinders can be introduced to American consumers.

Regulatory OK

Safety standards for composite propane cylinders already exist in Europe. The International Standards Organization also has recently approved their use.

Still, National Fire Protection Association and other domestic codes require all propane cylinders to be constructed according to U.S. Department of Transportation requirements. They currently do not allow composites in the manufacturing of propane cylinders.

PERC has hired the non-profit research firm Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio, to coordinate a push to change the DOT regulations. Battelle has gathered representatives from PERC, the National Propane Gas Association, the Cylinder Exchange Council, Manchester Tank & Equipment, Worthington Cylinders, Blue Rhino, AmeriGas PPX Plus, and a handful of U.S. and foreign composite pressure vessel manufacturers to work on the project.

Battelle’s Denny Stephens, a technical expert in composite pressure vessels, is program manager. He says the propane group will provide research data and technical information over the next year to respond to DOT concerns. There is no timetable for DOT to take action.

“The propane industry, through PERC and NPGA, recognizes the value in composite tanks in opening the market for propane fuel. The industry has taken a leadership role to encourage and lead these efforts,” Stephens says.

“This needs to be a collaborative effort between the cylinder manufacturers and the propane suppliers. That’s my goal – to have all key stakeholders at table working collaboratively to support this project.”

Gaining Consensus

Gaining unanimous support may not be that easy. While propane marketers and cylinder exchangers are champing at the prospect of a new and improved product offering, there is understandable apprehension from the steel cylinder manufacturers. Both Worthington and Manchester, which split the 80-million domestic cylinder market, face the likelihood that composites would cut into – rather than bump up – total cylinder sales.

Unlike steel and aluminum, which can be built on the same production line, plastic cylinders require a completely different manufacturing technique and expertise. Companies that are capitally entrenched in facilities that press, stamp, weld, heat treat and paint steel cylinders may be forced to invest in new plants or risk opening the door to hungry, new competitors. To compete, Worthington and Manchester would have to spend a lot more money to make same number of cylinders.

Matt Lockard, Worthington’s vice president for business development, says it’s still too early to asses any impact of composite cylinders here. His company is still evaluating whether it will get involved in the new technology.

“Composites have been around for years. I don’t think it detracts from the steel business,” he says. “The existing processes and technologies that out there today make them very expensive relative to steel. That limits the broadness of potential usage. I think they really are going to be more of a niche market.”

Lockard says Worthington has been researching composites for three years. In fact, its Austrian plant already does some composite work for high-pressure cylinders used in the industrial gas market.

“The way we view ourselves at Worthington is that we are more than a steel pressure vessel manufacturer. We want to bring solutions to the industry that benefit our customers. That’s why we spend our time looking at composites and better understanding their potential in each of the markets where we sell.

“We have customers that are interested in some of the benefits that composites bring, but they are not sure they are willing to pay the price. There are a lot of regulatory and safety issues that will need to be worked through.”

The Price Tag

Unquestionably, plastic cylinders are more expensive than steel. Exactly how much more is tough to say, since there are no approved manufacturing specifications. Current estimates run anywhere from 50 percent to 300 percent more.

The upcoming debate will center on whether the price would make them cost prohibitive or limit them to market applications such as high-end gas grills.

“I don’t buy into the argument that it’s too expensive,” McClendon argues.

“My feeling is, if we can make it friendlier to the everyday consumer there may be lots of opportunity. Look at what happened with bottled water. There’s a great example that helps you get over your limited notions and realize that if properly marketed and properly packaged, it can sell. Maybe some people would be willing to pay $20 for 10-pounder. Who knows? Until we get it out there, who can say?

“The marketplace eventually will determine how it will fare. But that can’t happen until we get through the regulatory hurdle.”

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