Faster, Safer, Cheaper

July 1, 2003 By    

Outdoor cooking continues to drive up sales at propane cylinder exchange racks across the country, but the popular American pastime also is pressing cylinder fillers to improve efficiencies to meet growing overhead demands.

The Crisplant Universal Filling Machine has become a hot item for Ely Energy. The units are used in either free standing applications or on the carousel.
The Crisplant Universal Filling Machine has become a hot item for Ely Energy. The units are used in either free standing applications or on the carousel.

The typical 20-pound pre-filled cylinder customer often is not a traditional propane consumer, so merchandising strategies call for a differing menu of marketing efforts.

The cages require regular upkeep and a constant replenishment of full cylinders. In fact, keeping up with demand has become a major ingredient in serving this recreational market segment, stirring up some sizzling competition among the competitors.

“There’s a lot of positioning going on in the cylinder exchange market,” says Gary Eaton, managing director at Ely Energy of Tulsa, Okla.

Upgrades in the production processes and consolidation among the bigger players has become commonplace. “People in the business are expanding,” Eaton reports.

Each year 66 million Americans host at least one cookout. In 2002 more than 9.5 million grills were sold in the United States; 61 percent of them are propane-fired, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

The carousel installed at Parker Gas will have six filling machines to process 350 20-pound cylinders per hour.
The carousel installed at Parker Gas will have six filling machines to process 350 20-pound cylinders per hour.

Meeting this fast growing demand for pre-filled cylinders has some propane dealers on the griddle as they struggle to balance volume vs. cost in keeping their cages stocked. Various technological enhancements have been added to the mix as propane dealers look to beef-up their bottom lines with automated cylinder-filling equipment.

“If you want to make money at it you have to do it on a large scale; we found that out in a hurry,” explains Daren Parker, co-owner at Parker Gas in Clinton, N.C. With 1,600 cylinder exchange sites throughout the Carolinas, Parker has purchased sophisticated automated cylinder filling equipment from Ely.

“We had gotten to the point where we either had to increase employees or go with an automated system,” he says. “This equipment will allow us to do it with less overhead and increase the number of cylinders.”

The Parker family enterprise entered the cylinder exchange market in 1993, “playing around with it” before embracing the expanding demand. “It’s a big part of our business now. There’s more products out there; you’ve got turkey fryers and Mosquito Magnets plus all of the grilling,” Parker points out.

Last April through September was particularly busy. Two shifts were cranking out newly filled cylinders at considerable expense, yet the required output made it necessary to pursue investing in automated equipment. Due to be fully online this month, Parker will be able to eliminate the second shift while increasing the amount of cylinders rolling out the door.

Blake Wallace, Ely's group manager for Crisplant products, and Thomas Holst, project manager for Crisplant in Denmark.
Blake Wallace, Ely’s group manager for Crisplant products, and Thomas Holst, project manager for Crisplant in Denmark.

The system’s automatic leak detection capability and computerized accuracy were key attributes that helped seal the sale. “It takes a lot of the human error out,” Parker says.

Jim Lahey, vice president of AmeriGas’ Pre-filled Propane Exchange unit – better known as PPX – reports that several Ely systems are in place and more are being added to the company’s supply chain.

“The payout is there and the efficiency is there. We’re going to expand,” Lahey says. “We’re very happy with the machines. This is far more accurate.”

The traditional I-beam scales along the filling lines were unable to prevent faulty fill rates, a problem that the Ely fixed with filling heads that disconnect automatically when the proper cylinder weight is achieved. The process now offers virtual pinpoint control over the propane flow.

Ely's manual (left) and semi-automatic filling heads for the automated cylinder filling machines. The semi-automatic version disconnects automatically when the proper cylinder weight is achieved.
Ely’s manual (left) and semi-automatic filling heads for the automated cylinder filling machines. The semi-automatic version disconnects automatically when the proper cylinder weight is achieved.

“If you save a pound per bottle it’s certainly a savings,” Lahey explains. “Additionally, it really increases the level of employee safety.”

Eaton claims businesses using this automated equipment usually report a significant reduction in back strain injuries along with a corresponding savings on workers compensation costs.

The company’s partner in marketing the carousel and chain conveyor models is Kosan Crisplant of Denmark, which has been supplying the European propane industry since the 1950s. A non-metallic chain that prevents sparking, corrosion and excessive wear on the cylinders is a prime feature of the conveyor units.

“As a rule of thumb, the benefits of a filling carousel become most attractive when the hourly cylinder filing rate reaches 250 to 300,” says Eaton. “Below that rate, alternative semi-automatic cylinder filling configurations can be employed.”

Acceptance of this scope of automation has been slow to catch on in the United States, yet an ever-increasing American attraction to cylinder exchange cages has captured the attention of several propane providers.

“They’ve been somewhat of a tough sell to the first-time buyer, but once they get one they say, ‘We’re contemplating getting another one,'” Eaton says.

Technological and marketing details are kept under wraps by many of the players within this hotly contested category, with rigorous non-disclosure pacts in place.

“This is a bit of a sticky wicket,” Eaton says. “The competitors don’t want the competition to know what they’re doing.”

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