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What the propane industry is saying about COVID-19

November 27, 2020 By     0 Comments

Photo: lutavia/E+/Getty Images

Editor’s note: As the coronavirus pandemic moved into April, LP Gas editors and content producers – Brian Richesson, Ellen Kriz, Carly McFadden and Sarah Peecher – began sharing information from their conversations with propane industry members in a state-by-state timeline below. If you would like to share your story or a thought with us, email your contact information to brichesson@northcoastmedia.net and LP Gas will reach out to you.

Nov. 18

New England: Like everything else in 2020, this year has been unprecedented in terms of winter supply preparation, says Leslie Anderson, president and CEO of the Propane Gas Association of New England (PGANE). The association has worked since June to inform members about the ramifications of a historic decrease in petroleum demand and a concomitant decrease in production. Experts expect limited spot supply product this winter, according to Anderson. “It is going to be critical for members to have frequent and early conversations with their suppliers if they are starting to experience any issues,” she says. She is also concerned that increased exports will pull supply away from New England. “With new export terminals and pipelines, there will likely be less rail than in past years that can be diverted to our region,” she says. “We’ve encouraged members to contract all their anticipated volumes for this year, bearing in mind that increased residential demand from working and schooling from home will likely offset any reductions from small businesses affected by COVID such as restaurants.”

Nov. 17

Texas: The Texas Propane Gas Association (TPGA) hasn’t held an in-person meeting all year and canceled its annual trade show and convention due to the pandemic. “Texans do not want or desire to cower to much of anything; it is difficult – however, necessary – to heed the warnings, social distancing and all,” says Bill Van Hoy, executive director of the TPGA. The pandemic has not affected Texas retailers’ sourcing plans much, notes Van Hoy, but they are ready for possible disruptions to operations: “Retail marketers are watching their employees closely. Any sign of sickness means one less driver or customer care rep. Coming into winter, that could become a real problem.” Van Hoy reminds retailers in Texas to ensure they establish sound sources of supply, which requires a two-way discussion between suppliers and marketers. “Topics [of discussion] would be availability of product during normal winter conditions, allocation clauses, if a terminal that I normally pick product from goes down what are my back-up plans b and c,” he explains. “I would make sure my supplier had a solid plan for attrition both at the plant and for drivers due to illness.”

Nov. 16

Florida: As in many parts of the country, commercial load has slowed for propane retailers in Florida due to the coronavirus pandemic, says Dale Calhoun, executive director of the Florida Propane Gas Association. However, with more people staying at home and remodeling, many retailers have been able to recover lost revenue on the residential side. While there was a pinch on supply contracts when the pandemic began in the spring, “most of that has worked itself out,” he explains. The pandemic has also closed shelters during an active hurricane season, which ramped up demand for propane-powered backup generators for homes, says Calhoun. As far as the hurricane season: “Nothing has impacted our distribution, but everybody was definitely trying to prepare that in their supply chain,” he says. “Luckily we got pretty well spared by hurricanes this year.” As the hurricane season transitions to winter weather, Calhoun reminds Florida retailers to “plan ahead.”

Michigan and Ohio: The Ohio Propane Gas Association (OPGA) closed its Michigan-based offices, managed by Kindsvatter, Dalling & Associates, to comply with the latest COVID-19 pause announced by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Though the three-week pause does not begin until Nov. 18, the OPGA staff began working from home and can best be reached by email, according to a special update by the association. OPGA says it will work to return all phone and email messages by the end of the next business day.

New Mexico: Gov. Lujan Grisham issued a statewide shelter-in-place order, the New Mexico Propane Gas Association announced. Essential businesses, including those in the propane industry, may remain open. The order, she says, instructs New Mexicans to stay home except for essential outings through Nov. 30. The order essentially reimposes many of the business closures that were enacted shortly after the pandemic hit in March but were later relaxed, the association adds.

Oct. 5

North Carolina: Blue Ridge Energy reopened its district office lobbies and says it is taking special measures to protect visitors and employees as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The company is requiring visitors, no more than 10 in the lobby at one time, to wear a mask and observe social distancing of at least 6 ft. That requirement is aided by social distancing markers on the lobby floor and single-chair seating for waiting. It’s also added touch-free sanitizing areas at entrances and exits, and installed clear acrylic sneeze guards for the lobby customer service area. Blue Ridge Energy is also encouraging customers to use contactless service options – like the office drive-thru, office and community kiosks, the website, mobile apps and the customer service phone line. Propane fill stations are open at every office location, but community meeting rooms will remain closed for now, the company adds.

Aug. 27

Global: The pandemic has affected nearly every market in the world, and the global propane market is no exception. “The global picture for LPG is mixed,” says James Rockall, CEO and managing director at the World LPG Association. “Generally, the domestic demand has held up well,” he adds, citing some countries such as India have seen growth from 2019. Meanwhile, the autogas and commercial propane markets have seen a worldwide drop in demand due to shutdowns, but have started to rebound as some countries emerge from the lockdown. “As we emerge from the pandemic, LPG is very well-positioned not only as an affordable low-carbon fuel but also for its contribution to cleaner air,” Rockall says.

Aug. 17

Iowa: At the beginning of the pandemic, employees of New Century FS were not entering buildings for leak tests, and all offices were closed to the public, says Jay Christie, energy sales manager. The company set up payment drop boxes, did business primarily via email and phone, and conducted Microsoft Teams meetings. Now that the initial uncertainty has diminished, employees are performing leak tests and using electronic forms to minimize face-to-face contact. “In the end, they still have a job to do,” says Christie, referencing summer service work and winter fills. “We don’t do a lot of face-to-face [work] anyway.” Last year, the company had some issues with supply allocation, says Christie, so the pandemic initially raised concerns about supply this winter. But severe thunderstorms rolled through Iowa in August and damaged a large portion of the corn crop. Lower crop drying demand should ease some supply pressure this winter, says Christie. “We have good plans in place, a great supplier, and we sit in the middle of a couple of pipelines,” he explains. “We purchased a rail facility in December so we can bring in propane on rail. We have that supply plan in place to take care of it.”

Aug. 12

U.S. and Canada: As a result of the various impacts of the novel coronavirus, Superior Plus Corp. has made a number of adjustments to its facilities and how it operates to ensure the safety of customers, vendors, employees and the communities it serves. The duration and impact of the COVID-19 outbreak are still unknown, the company says, and it is difficult to estimate the full impact on its operations, the markets for its products and its financial results. Superior Plus says it does expect a modest impact to business as it relates to customers that operate in industries that governments have classified as nonessential and customers required to operate at reduced capacity. “The safety, health and well-being of our employees and the communities in which we operate remain our primary focus,” says Luc Desjardins, president and CEO of Superior Plus Corp. “Our goal is to operate safely and to mitigate potential exposure. As such, we implemented physical distancing strategies, increased cleaning and disinfection at our facilities and offices, provided personal protective equipment as required, executed remote working policies, and eliminated all nonessential travel.”

Aug. 6

U.S.: In announcing “exceptionally strong” fiscal 2020 third-quarter results, ending June 27, Suburban Propane Partners President and CEO Michael Stivala addressed the company’s ability to persevere through the coronavirus pandemic. “Our operating personnel demonstrated a tremendous commitment to safely providing our essential services to the customers and local communities we serve, while adapting to the ever-changing circumstances and new operating protocols to help protect the health and safety of our customers and employees,” he said in a press release announcing the financial results. “We successfully adapted our business model to the shifting customer demand patterns, as an increase in residential demand more than offset softness in the commercial and industrial sectors during the third quarter.” Retail propane gallons sold in the third quarter of 75.4 million gallons increased 2.2 percent compared to the prior year third quarter. Although weather during the third quarter typically has less of an impact on volumes sold than it does during the heating season, volumes in the third quarter of fiscal 2020 were positively impacted by cooler temperatures during April and May that resulted in strong residential heat-related demand, Stivala said. The combination of the cooler weather and temporary stay-at-home governmental measures helped drive residential propane usage that more than offset the decline in commercial and industrial volumes due to the economic slowdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, he added. “As we look ahead, and as the country continues to deal with the unprecedented health crisis from COVID-19, there remains a level of uncertainty surrounding the length and depth of the economic slowdown associated with measures taken to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Stivala said. “While we expect to experience continued softness in demand from our commercial and industrial customers in the near term, our efficient and flexible business model leaves us well positioned to support our customers and local communities as they recover.”

New England: Propane’s portability and clean-energy composition make it a go-to fueling solution in natural disaster response and winter storms. This has been the case for years, says Leslie Anderson, president and CEO of the Propane Gas Association of New England, but the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced propane’s importance in responding to a crisis. “Thank goodness we’re an essential business,” Anderson says of the industry. “It’s been fantastic to watch our members step up and support the COVID response throughout New England, not just because we’ve been providing heat, hot water and clean cooking fuel to residential and commercial locations, but we’ve been fueling hospitals and setting up propane to heat outdoor testing sites.” In addition, Anderson says, New England companies have provided pop-up services for the homeless population that need help to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Propane will also continue to help businesses, especially restaurants that are forced to limit indoor seating and service due to social distancing mandates, and serve more customers outside, she adds. “For them to come back, propane is essential to provide that heat for outdoor dining in New England.”

July 13

California: COVID-19 has presented challenges for Sequoia Gas, as California is still only halfway to meeting the four phases of fully reopening its economy. Part of that challenge in these “unprecedented times” is maintaining the morale of employees, says Ben McWhorter, part owner of the third-generation company. “But we’ve been lucky,” he says. “We have some great employees.” McWhorter says the company is focused on safety, as employees are wearing masks around the public – offices reopened recently with modifications – and drivers are limiting their interactions with customers. Meetings are held to remind the company’s 25 employees to follow protocols like washing hands to ensure safety. Gallon sales during the pandemic have been nearly a wash, McWhorter says, as an uptick in residential sales due to people spending more time at home has made up for commercial losses when businesses were forced to close. Sequoia Gas has heard from customers who have lost jobs and are struggling to pay their bills. “As a small company in a small town, you have to work with folks a little bit,” he says.

July 7

California: Ted Johnson Propane, based about 15 miles east of Los Angeles, weathered the early part of the pandemic. The company, which focuses mainly on the commercial market, continued to deliver to manufacturers and distribution centers that were deemed essential. Other businesses that used less propane early on have ramped back up, says John Weigel, operations manager. Meanwhile, the company continues to emphasize safety, holding its monthly safety meetings outdoors. In addition, drivers use proper personal protective equipment and don’t allow customers to touch their tablets. A COVID-19 code is entered into the system following a delivery to denote why the customer didn’t sign. The company is also promoting social distancing by staggering the arrival times of its 11 drivers in the morning. When the drivers begin their deliveries and visit customer locations, they may encounter varying policies. “You’re going to have some businesses who want to do their own thing and you have other businesses that are going to be very strict,” Weigel says. Weigel’s main concern is that Ted Johnson Propane employees “do the right thing,” no matter the customer’s policy. “Just because somebody is not requiring the mask doesn’t mean you have the right to take it off,” he says. Weigel doesn’t foresee many of the new safety policies changing anytime soon. “The vaccine is probably the golden ticket,” he says.

June 30

New England: Eastern Propane & Oil, with locations in New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont, can lean on the positives during the coronavirus pandemic as it follows the health and safety guidelines in those states. “Health wise, we’ve been a very fortunate company,” reports Denis Gagne, senior vice president of supply and acquisitions for the Rochester, New Hampshire-based company. “We also have an employee base that understands and knows that there’s a reason why people put the guidelines up. … If we err on any side, it’s on the side of caution.” Gagne, the newly named chairman of the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA), says Eastern has kept everyone employed during difficult circumstances. The company curtailed some new installations and services at the outset of the pandemic to avoid having to enter customers’ homes if the work wasn’t immediately necessary. “We changed the way we do business,” Gagne says. “Some people are working from home; some people are still working at the office. We’re starting to reopen [to the public] as we speak.” And that’s important, Gagne says, because “we are in the business of interacting. We do the best by interacting with each other.” Gagne recognizes the “essential” nature of the propane industry – a designation that NPGA helped to secure in federal guidance early in the pandemic as state and local authorities began to install shelter-in-place ordinances or other restrictions on movement. Propane was “one of the fortunate industries that stayed in business,” he says. Like many aspects of the novel coronavirus, however, unknowns about the future remain. “Tomorrow is going to tell us what we’re going to do as far as COVID-19.”

June 25

Eastern U.S.: Dave Bertelsen, national propane product manager at Matheson, says business has been pretty typical for the season, despite coronavirus concerns, but is already looking ahead to the upcoming winter. Bertelsen, who covers the eastern United States territory stretching to Ohio, shares that March and April “were almost banner months” due to a colder-than-average spring. With temperatures back up in the summer, he says Matheson’s propane business has slowed a bit – nothing atypical for this time of year. Back in early spring, the company was quick to adopt strict coronavirus guidelines, including equipping all employees with personal protective equipment, requiring social distancing and ensuring that third-party contractors do the same. Bertelsen says Matheson will continue implementing those guidelines for the foreseeable future. “At this point, there’s no end in sight,” he says. “We’re just going to track whatever the federal government requires and do what we have to do.” Although business is just beginning to slow, he is already looking ahead to winter, and notes the industry’s general uncertainty regarding supply. “It seems as though there is a lot of angst in the industry from producers to suppliers as in what production is going to be in the event we have a normalized winter, or even a polar vortex,” Bertelsen says. “We are probably anticipating some spot shortages, which is not unusual, but could be exaggerated this year.”

June 18

New York: While the country’s overall economy has taken a downturn, Great White Propane has seen an uptick in business during recent months. The retailer, based in Long Island, New York, shared that business has been better than average due to a variety of factors. With more people staying home due to the virus, customers have required more propane for pool heating and cooking purposes. In addition, Great White Propane Founder George Yakaboski Jr. says that the region has experienced cooler-than-average temperatures for the season, especially at night. “It has been cool at night, which means more gas is needed to keep their homes and pools warm,” Yakaboski says. Right now, the retailer’s physical office is still closed for walk-ins, but customers can call or use a drop-off box to make payments. At the beginning of the virus spread, Great White Propane’s employees were equipped with the proper PPE and limited entering customers’ homes except in emergency cases. The company plans on maintaining its cleaning and hygiene routines for both the office and its trucks as the year goes on.

June 16

Florida: J&J Gas Service in Mayo feels blessed that COVID-19 hasn’t negatively impacted its local economy and that the general public has remained mostly healthy, says Brandon Hewett, president of the family-owned and -operated company. Rural Lafayette County in northern Florida has 15 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, according to the Florida Department of Health. J&J Gas Service limited operations for about two weeks at the outset of the pandemic, but April, May and June have been some of the busiest months for service that Hewett can remember. For example, people spending more time at home saw the opportunity to swap out a stove or get their ovens repaired, Hewett says. J&J Gas Service is still taking precautions. Employees are encouraged to use sanitizer more frequently and become more aware of their surroundings. Masks are available for service technicians, but because of Florida’s heat and humidity, wearing them is optional unless the customer requests it, Hewett says. J&J Gas Service, which sells about 1 million gallons of propane annually, moved into a new office in June. “We’re definitely growing,” Hewett says.

June 9

Michigan: Bowman Gas, serving the central Upper Peninsula, made a lot of adjustments initially during the coronavirus pandemic, says President Kristopher Bowman. As a mechanical contractor fulfilling service calls and installations, Bowman Gas stopped entering customers’ homes for two months – except for emergencies – and it closed its three showrooms to the public. “We’re getting back to full operations,” he says, noting how the company opened its storefronts to customers in late May. It is still taking precautions, providing personal protective equipment for employees as needed and plenty of hand sanitizer. As it transitions back to work, Bowman Gas is busier than usual for this time of year, as it serves mostly residential accounts, Bowman says. “One thing that’s influenced that is a lot of people are spending more time at a cabin or second home in the area up here,” he says. Bowman also is noticing more new construction in the area.

June 5

Pennsylvania: Deiter Bros., based in Bethlehem, implemented many new procedures to reduce points of contact with customers during the coronavirus pandemic, including closing the office building to customers, emailing invoices and checking customers’ comfort levels before surveying property or entering a home, says Bob Vishnesky, propane manager. The company also established a new policy for refilling 20-pound cylinders: Cylinders must be disinfected before they are filled, and customers must come back the next day to pick up their sanitized cylinders. Overall, says Vishnesky, the company has seen little downtime, and sales are currently busy. He says he’s seeing customers use their vacation funds to invest in outdoor fun, purchasing pool heaters, generators and patio features that they never considered before.

June 3

California: As states have begun to reopen during the coronavirus, one retailer notes that demand will likely shift. “On one hand, homes may see a decrease in use as people start returning to work, but businesses may find themselves needing more propane as they ramp up,” says Brent Wingett, co-owner of Central Coast Propane. The company also prepared tips for businesses reopening, including to check all tanks, inspect propane-powered vehicles that have been idle for months and watch propane levels during the first months, because more propane may be used than usual as a business increases its operations. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the retailer, located in Paso Robles, California, has still performed scheduled deliveries and emergency deliveries. To ensure the safety of customers and employees, Central Coast Propane has implemented social distancing practices. Delivery drivers must remain 6 ft. away from customers. Service technicians entering a home may ask customers if they are sick, have symptoms of coronavirus, if they have been traveling or recently were exposed to someone who tested positive. Central Coast Propane also asks customers who are trying to pay bills to call its office, pay online or drop the payments in an envelope in the company’s mailbox.

May 31

Connecticut: As the state slowly reopens, Quality Propane’s greatest concern is ensuring employees continue to use personal protective equipment in accordance with guidelines and customers’ comfort levels. “It’s a unique situation – there’s no playbook for it. We just try the best we can to adhere to all guidelines,” says Jonathan Malazzi, vice president of the company. About a month and a half ago, Quality Propane laid off some service technicians based on their wishes to stay at home and the company’s need to reduce staff for a time, says Malazzi. Now, with the busy building season in full swing, the company is at full staff again, and Malazzi does not anticipate a decline in business on the service side compared to this time last year. Looking ahead to winter, Malazzi says he is concerned about securing supply, especially if the region experiences an average or colder-than-average winter. The company sources a lot of its product from rail terminals. A week ago, a shortage of rail gas and spot gas made finding product expensive; the company had to purchase from pipeline terminals that were farther away, Malazzi explains. “I pre-bought more gallons this year than I ever had in years past just based on the rumblings,” he says.

May 28

Nebraska: Rob Benke is in a unique position in Cedar Bluffs, where he owns Musiel Propane Service and serves as the village’s fire chief. With its six employees, the company’s protocol early in the pandemic was to keep drivers away from the office and have them call in as needed. Office doors were locked to the public with signs encouraging customers to call the office with their questions. “You have to think even farther out and think of other things,” says Benke, noting the importance of communicating with suppliers and planning ahead in the event an industry employee or vendor falls ill. Musiel Propane Service employees aren’t faced with the decision on whether to enter a customer’s home during the pandemic because company policy already dictates they stay outside. “We’re so busy that we don’t have time to do anything in the house,” Benke says. Benke’s roles as fire chief and propane company owner can sometimes intertwine. He explains how the fire department used plastic gas piping to help construct patient-protecting plastic barriers in the village’s rescue squad vehicles.

May 19

Rocky Mountain region: “Things are getting back to normal” in the states that comprise the Rocky Mountain Propane Association, says Tom Clark, executive director. “It hasn’t been as bad as some of these big cities because we just don’t have that cluster of people like a lot of other states,” says Clark, whose association covers Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. In response to the pandemic, the association formed, what Clark calls, a “COVID relief group.” “If a company had any type of problems where they could not get out and deliver gas, 10 companies [within the group] would be willing to travel and help somebody else,” he says. The association never heard about companies having sick employees or facing other delivery-related issues, so “we didn’t have to utilize that service,” Clark adds. COVID-19, and restrictions about crossing state lines, has challenged the association from a training standpoint. In-person Certified Employee Training Program offerings, which normally run from March through July, were put on hold. “We typically train a couple hundred people during that time frame,” Clark says. “That restricted us from being able to perform those services, but I think we’ll be able to kick that back up June 1.” As the region was adjusting to news about the pandemic, a 5.7 magnitude earthquake rocked the Salt Lake City area March 18. Then on March 31, a 6.5 magnitude quake struck Idaho. The earthquakes received little national attention in the wake of the pandemic, says Clark, adding how the quakes and the virus both drove “panic buying” for propane.

May 13

Canada/New York: Superior Plus Corp. – headquartered in Toronto with U.S. propane operations based in Rochester, New York – says it has instituted enhanced operating procedures and protocols – in line with recommendations from local health authorities – to maintain its sites and facilities to even higher levels of cleanliness during the coronavirus pandemic. All of Superior’s facilities and locations continue to operate with modified operating procedures to ensure the safety of its employees, customers, suppliers and the communities it serves, says Luc Desjardins, president and CEO of Superior Plus Corp. “The safety, health and well-being of our employees and the communities in which we operate remain our primary focus,” he adds. “Our goal is to operate safely and to mitigate potential exposure. As such, we have implemented physical distancing strategies, increased cleaning and disinfection at our facilities and offices, provided personal protective equipment as required, executed remote working policies and eliminated all nonessential travel. Due to the variable cost structure of our businesses and our ability to react quickly to changing situations, we were able to take the appropriate measures to minimize the expected impact of COVID-19 on our business.”

Texas: Green’s Blue Flame Gas, located in Houston, has made some operational changes, especially in its delivery and invoicing processes, aimed at protecting employees and customers in response to the coronavirus spread, according to the company. It discontinued the practice of employees having customers sign tablets when receiving deliveries. Instead, employees leave the delivery tickets in a designated area inside the storage rack for commercial forklift accounts. “This one change has resulted in a notable increase in delivery efficiency. We would like to continue this practice going forward, but ultimately, our customers will have the final say in that decision,” says Joe Green, co-owner and president of Green’s Blue Flame Gas. Texas, similar to other states, is beginning to reopen some businesses. As of May 13, the Texas Department of State Health Services says there are 1,676 people currently in Texas hospitals with lab-confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with an estimated total of 17,241 active cases in the state. Green shares that Houston has not only been impacted by the virus, but also by the oil price crash. “Unfortunately, COVID-19 and the crash in oil prices hit Houston at the same time, which has really hurt our economy,” says Green. “We are well positioned to weather this storm, but look forward to better days.”

May 12

Hocon Gas is supplying temporary heat at a CVS drive-thru testing site in New Haven, Connecticut. Photo courtesy of Hocon Gas

Hocon Gas is supplying temporary heat at a CVS drive-thru testing site in New Haven, Connecticut. Photo courtesy of Hocon Gas

Connecticut: “We’re taking this very seriously,” says David Gable, president of Shelton-based Hocon Gas. The company’s South Norwalk office is only about 50 miles from New York City and about 25 miles from New Rochelle, New York, an initial COVID-19 hot spot. Fortunately, none of Hocon’s 120 employees has come down with the virus, says Gable. A few have been in contact with coronavirus carriers, went into quarantine and got tested, but the tests have come back negative, he adds. Employees have been working remotely when possible, sanitizing hands and touch points frequently, and wearing personal protective equipment. While masks and face shields were difficult to secure at first, as they were diverted to hospitals and first responders, the orders are in now, including a set of masks sent by the National Propane Gas Association. To help the community, Hocon is providing temporary heating at Griffin Hospital in the southwestern part of the state and at a CVS drive-thru testing site in New Haven. Gable attributes swings in business compared to last year mainly to weather: Business was down in March, but the weather was warmer than usual; business was up in April, but the weather was colder than usual. About 70 percent of Hocon’s business is residential, so coronavirus hasn’t made much of a difference, says Gable. However, the restaurant and service side of the business is down, he adds. Gov. Ned Lamont issued a plan to reopen some businesses on a modified basis starting May 20, but Gable says Hocon can’t rest on its laurels. The company is preparing for the possibility of a resurgence. If the virus spreads in one of the branches, explains Gable, the company plans to pull resources from other areas of the business. For example, employees who don’t already have CDLs are getting endorsed to establish a pool of backup drivers.

Depew Energy set up a tent outside its office to service customers during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Roger Rosenbaum

Depew Energy set up a tent outside its office to service customers during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Roger Rosenbaum

New York: Depew Energy, a branch of Stone Road Energy, is located in Orange County, about 60 miles north of Manhattan. Its service area includes Dutchess, Greene, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan and Ulster counties, where the combined death toll of COVID-19 has reached more than 950. The Depew branch set up a tent outside its office for cylinder fills and exchanges and for customers who prefer to pay their bills in person. Employees are following a cleaning regimen five times a day and are outfitted with personal protective equipment (PPE). The company was able to acquire PPE in early February before New York state confirmed its first case of COVID-19 March 1, says Peter Teresi, regional manager. He expects many of these safety measures will stay in place until at least September. The company purchased washable rubber and cloth masks to use when conditions improve, but it is prepared to upgrade equipment immediately if the need arises, says Teresi. While the LPG side of the company lost business in commercial applications like restaurants, the company has been fortunate enough to keep all of its employees on the payroll, says Teresi. The company is supporting its community by extending credit to customers who are experiencing financial hardship and providing discounts to first responders and essential workers. It is also donating to the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley.

May 7

New York: Paraco Gas is focusing on teleworking where possible, reducing gatherings, staggering work times and cleaning on a regular schedule, says Dave Latourell, director of safety and transportation. But it’s also looking ahead: “Do we want to return back to what used to be the normal? Or are we going to evolve to a new normal?” asks Latourell. Having experienced major storms like hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Paraco had already prepared for remote work in an emergency, and the company was able to implement its plan immediately during the initial stages of the coronavirus crisis. Now Paraco is considering how it can use this experience to provide a better product and better customer service, explains Latourell. It’s looking into whether telework should be part of normal operations to allow more flexible work hours, or if it should continue to stagger shifts to extend service hours. Paraco also took the opportunity to upgrade equipment that would be effective during the pandemic and in the future, says Latourell. For example, the company invested in hard hats equipped with full plexiglass visors. The equipment helps employees maintain social distance but can also be used on construction sites, when working with cranes, or in any other environment where head protection or face shields are necessary. The biggest challenge moving forward, says Latourell, will be balancing comfort levels and safety as the economy reopens: “What we want to prevent is the complacency that always creeps in when you think about safety and compliance.”

May 6

Washington: Inter-Island Propane co-owner Donny Galt knew something was off when vacation rental houses in the island town of Friday Harbor became occupied at winter’s end. “In March, we totally knew people moved back, which is very odd because they don’t come until June or July,” he says. While business from the rental properties boosted residential gallons, the company has taken a hit on the commercial side (e.g., hotels, resorts and restaurants), which represents about 20 percent of its total gallon sales, Galt says. “We started losing service work because customers don’t want us in their houses,” he adds. Washington saw the first case of COVID-19 in the United States in January. Galt says the company took measures early, including using personal protective equipment, mandating only one employee per company truck and not allowing employees who are feeling unwell into the office. Galt says he will probably keep much of the protocol in place after the pandemic. He also notes software from Cargas and Tank Utility has made it possible “to run our business from anyone’s house,” and many of Inter-Island Propane’s customers are going online to make payments. Washington announced a plan May 4 to reopen its economy in phases.

April 30

New York: Bruce Whitney says his weekly newsletters remind members to remain in close contact with their staffs because the stresses that employees face could tear them away from the company. “You have to be in touch with your people and create a safe environment,” adds the executive director of the New York Propane Gas Association. Whitney says propane supply is on members’ minds after COVID-19 shutdowns have forced a falloff in petroleum product demand and refinery throughput, and increased the potential for production slowdowns. “Storage wins the day,” he says. Whitney addressed several other topics. He talked about the “great customer service person who can make a decision and execute it.” Coming out of the pandemic, Whitney believes, the smart propane marketers will be able to provide new levels of service that will overtake the necessity to move a penny or two on their propane prices. “Look at what your customers want and overserve them, so that way your price is your price and as long as you’re in the ballpark you’re good.” According to Whitney, members have been able to do the things they’ve been putting off, though an April cold snap kept heating gallons flowing.

April 28

New Jersey: Energy provider Star Group, based in New Jersey, has witnessed the effects of the virus firsthand. As of April 28, the state has had 111,118 positive cases of coronavirus and 6,044 virus-related deaths, according to the New Jersey Department of Health. Similar to other states, many New Jersey businesses and parks have been closed, and social distancing orders have been implemented. Star Group has witnessed an uptick in sales – due more so to the weather than the virus. “Winter actually showed up in April,” says Jerry McDonough, vice president of operations at Star Group. “It’s been very cold out, so there’s been a lot of heating needs that our customers have had, and business has been going very well from that point of view.” McDonough says that the company, since early in the pandemic, has told employees to work from home if they can. The company is still making necessary deliveries, and is ensuring that all employees wear the required personal protective equipment when working. He credits his employees for being safe and respectful during this period. “I think our people have done a very good job distancing,” he says. “They’ve been staying very safe during this whole time.”

April 24

Georgia: Elizabeth Williamson, office manager of Southland Propane Service in LaGrange, Georgia, says the company is playing it safe even though Gov. Brian Kemp has begun to reopen Georgia’s economy today. “Most people I know are not comfortable going out to eat,” says Williamson, regardless of the governor’s decision to allow in-restaurant dining beginning April 27. This time of year, the company is usually busy with service work and new construction, but that hasn’t been the case. Southland is performing service work with personal protective equipment, says Williamson, and they’re asking customers to either leave the home or stay away. “We’ve adapted and try to work around it,” she notes. One employee was tested for the virus, and if results come back positive, at least four employees would have to quarantine, says Williamson.

April 23

Pennsylvania: In Falls Creek, Earle Moore of Moore Propane is waiting for the state government to lift some restrictions on May 8. His company is based in Jefferson County and services north central Pennsylvania, where relatively few coronavirus cases have been reported. Moore says business is heavier this year for April because it’s been colder than normal and many customers want to ensure their tanks are filled during the crisis. He hasn’t seen a drop-off in his industrial business, either, as most of the customers he serves in this segment are considered essential. His greatest concern is securing enough supply for the summer and the coming winter. Frackers have shut down wells due to low oil prices, he says, and some suppliers in the past two weeks wouldn’t even quote him for fuel. These limitations are raising prices, too. He says the price of propane was 37 cents on April 1 but is now about 60 cents. Moore believes he’s seen the bottom for summer pricing in his area.

Washington: VanderYacht Propane is balancing today’s “new normal” of taking extra precautions to guard against COVID-19 concerns and supplying its customers with propane. “It’s our duty to make sure they are warm and safe in their homes,” says Denver VanderYacht, sales and marketing manager. That means propane deliveries continue, with service limited to emergency situations and other essential customer needs, as well as some tank installations for new construction. “From a service standpoint, that was our biggest hit,” VanderYacht says. The company eliminated foot traffic by closing offices to the public and utilizing online orders and bill pay. It cleans doorknobs and countertops constantly, VanderYacht says, and drivers clean bobtails regularly. Masks and hand sanitizer, however, have been tough to come by. VanderYacht remains positive. “We’ll get through it,” he says. “Our industry is strong, the country is strong. Once this is over, I firmly believe, while not everything will be back to the way it was, we’ll definitely bump back and hit the ground running.”

April 22

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Blue Ridge Energy launched a campaign to help customers during a coronavirus-driven turndown of the economy. Photo: Blue Ridge Energy

North Carolina: Blue Ridge Energy has seen the coronavirus’ effects on the economy firsthand. In response to an uptick of unemployment and furloughs, the company is giving back with its “In This Together” campaign to provide its community members financial relief. The campaign includes an elimination of all late fees and emergency delivery fees. The company is also setting up payment plans with customers unable to pay their bills. The campaign is funded by “Operation Round Up,” which Blue Ridge has been involved in for years, where customers round up their bill to the nearest dollar. That contribution goes toward subsidizing bills of those who may be struggling to pay. Blue Ridge Energy’s parent company is also utilizing its capital credits campaign, in which the member-owned cooperative retires millions of dollars back to customers. Due to the coronavirus crisis, the company is asking those who can afford it to donate their capital credits back to the “In This Together” campaign. “We’re trying to get as much money as possible to members who are struggling,” says Grey Scheer, director of community relations at Blue Ridge Energy. “They’re worried, they’re scared, they’re buying food. Utility bills have been put on the back burner and we’re not going to pressure them to pay.” There are now more than 7,000 cases of COVID-19 in the state, with 242 deaths as of April 21, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

April 21

Oklahoma: One small family-owned company has persevered through a mild winter and a COVID-19 exposure that forced the president to idle employees for two weeks. The company is operating at nearly full strength again, but the phones have been fairly quiet at a time when graduation parties, barbecues and camping trips usually boost business, she says. Though the company benefited from a recent cold snap, business at its bottle rack and deliveries for oil field applications have slowed. “If I look on the bright side, I am sure thankful the winter was just about over when the COVID started. We are really thankful for that,” she says. “What a nightmare had it been in the dead of winter.” The company can only wonder when things will return to normal. “Lord willing, we’ll keep hanging on,” she says.

April 20

Kansas: Greg Noll, the executive vice president of the Propane Marketers Association of Kansas, remains upbeat. He’s heard about marketers – and their suppliers – staying busy filling tanks for customers this spring. “It’s been business as usual with caution,” says Noll, noting the biggest question early on was how marketers should treat customers’ out-of-gas situations. Noll says his email inbox has been fuller than usual during the pandemic, challenging him to keep up with the many COVID-19-related messages and decipher their level of importance to his members. He praised the resources and information from the National Propane Gas Association and the Propane Education & Research Council. “Because of that, I increased communications with my members as well,” he says. “It’s better to get too much information than not enough or none.” Noll says his staff of four in Topeka rarely cross paths due to their flexible scheduling and social distancing practices. Kansas’ current stay-at-home order is in effect until May 3.

April 17

California: Kemgas, located three hours north of San Francisco in the coastal city of Fort Bragg, is a “rare retailer,” says President Josh Kemppe. The fourth-generation company is big enough where it operates two transports but remains an independent, serving about 7,500 customers from three branches. About half of its propane supply comes from refineries, which have cut production due to the falling demand for gasoline and aviation fuel, creating some logistical challenges, Kemppe says. “It’s the uncertainty” of the situation, he adds. The company has made several adjustments in response to the pandemic, now temporarily waiving setup fees on rental accounts, as well as late fees. Cooler temperatures and more people in their homes have kept residential business up, Kemppe says. Most of his concern comes on the commercial side, with a lack of business at restaurants, hotels and bungalows, and whether people out of work can afford to pay their gas bills. Kemgas has enacted strict safety guidelines, limiting customer contact, practicing social distancing and having some employees work remotely or wear masks while separated from one another in the office. “I’m running this like we’re L.A. even though we don’t have any cases up here right now. We want it to stay that way,” Kemppe says. The company is addressing customer needs on a case-by-case basis. “We have to protect our employees as much as the customer,” he adds.

South Carolina: Prince Gas Co. is based in Landrum, near the border of North and South Carolina, and serves customers in both states. Most coronavirus cases are concentrated in city centers, not in the company’s rural service area, reports Stephanie Bolding, vice president. South Carolina is slowly beginning to open back up, she says. Today, Gov. Henry McMaster reopened public boat docks and ramps, with restrictions and a warning to maintain social distancing guidelines. Bolding is grateful the company was entering its slow season when the pandemic struck. At the moment, the company is working on summer and spring fill-ups while the price of gas is favorable. Bolding has also seen a “tremendous pickup” in grilling fuel while residents stay home and try to get outside.

April 15

Propane tank photo by Pacific States Petroleum

Pacific States Petroleum in Concord, California, says rental companies have shown an interest in propane-fueled equipment. Photo: Pacific States Petroleum

California: Though propane makes up a small portion of its business, Pacific States Petroleum, based in Concord and with locations across the state, says it experienced a significant boost on the LPG side in March and continues to see an uptick in activity. The company, which mainly services the commercial sector, has been supplying propane for building remediation jobs, temporary heat for refinery projects, and generators, says Jason Edwards, general manager for the company’s propane operations. “A lot of rental companies are purchasing generators that are operating on propane,” he says. The remediation jobs include heat treatment for insects, while refineries use propane to degas tanks when switching over products, Edwards explains. This type of business has made up for gallon declines seen in other commercial sectors, such as restaurants, he adds. The company is also supplying propane to heat hospitals’ temporary COVID-19 testing tents. “I can’t be more excited about how propane is doing during these times,” Edwards says. “We are a diesel-driven company, and to see propane take the lead as the No. 1 product of our company at this point, it’s pretty impressive.”

Georgia: Conger LP Gas closed one of its locations to the public due to its proximity to a coronavirus hot spot in Albany, reports Dan Richardson, president and CEO. Its other two locations remain open to the public, with precautions. Customers have limited access to the buildings, and inside, a barrier ensures customers stay 6 ft. away from employees. Employees are learning to sanitize hands and shoes properly, and are also using a mobile app to check for and record potential symptoms of the virus three times a day. The company has seen a slowdown in work orders during the past couple of weeks, but Richardson says he expected that due to concerns about entering customers’ homes. “Customers don’t feel comfortable yet, and I completely understand that,” he explains. “I’m not sure that I’m completely comfortable with our guys going in the home, so we’re limiting that as much as possible.” Still, Richardson believes opportunity is on the horizon. He’s hearing from neighbors and friends around the country that people are using the time at home to work on home improvement projects. Richardson believes that once the pandemic ends, the industry will see pent-up demand for tankless water heaters and kitchen appliances. He’s looking to showcase some new appliances in the company’s showroom by mid-May.

April 14

California: DeCarli’s Propane in Petaluma has limited its service offerings to propane deliveries and some tank sets at new construction sites. It closed its offices to the public and stopped filling cylinders. It also has chosen not to enter customer homes. “We would much rather play it safe,” says Alex DeCarli, a manager at the family business, noting the importance of keeping employees healthy. “To gain a handful of accounts now and risk thousands of them makes no sense.” DeCarli says he’s cautious by nature and has worked off his own safe practices, now amplified for the situation, but the company also reached out to the Western Propane Gas Association for information. The company is located in Sonoma County, which is requiring all members of the public to wear facial coverings beginning April 17.

South Carolina: Mobile Bottle Gas Co., which runs a small refill station in Greer, is seeing a surge of new customers, likely because some of the larger home-fill companies and hardware stores shut down, explains Allison Perry, director of operations. A stay-at-home order went into effect in South Carolina on April 7, but customers can still bring in small bottles for refills during limited hours. Mobile Bottle Gas has communicated with customers about making payments online and via credit card to reduce person-to-person contact. Overall, the company hasn’t had to curtail many of its major services, Perry says.

Virginia: Southern States Energy, a multi-state and multi-fuel provider based in Richmond, has tried to operate as closely to normal as possible, says John Schatz, manager of energy operations. The company has taken precautionary measures like providing personal protective equipment and working remotely, when possible. Drivers, for example, can use mobile devices to download their routes so they don’t have to go to the office. The company is open to new installations, as long as customers are willing and there’s no illness in the home. Customers are asked a few questions about their health to confirm. So far, says Schatz, customers have been receptive to the new procedures. The installation side of the business is down, however. The number of new tank sets is about 20 percent lower than last year for the past five to six weeks, says Schatz, but that downturn was expected given the circumstances.

April 13

Arizona: Phoenix-based U-Haul International saw a huge spike in propane gallon sales when concerns about the coronavirus hit about mid-March, says John Barnett, propane program manager. Though he didn’t share data from its 1,150 locations selling propane across the United States and Canada, Barnett recalls one day in particular when U-Haul saw an 80 percent increase in gallon sales. Propane sales remained strong through March, and also have trended higher in April compared to the same time last year, he says. Barnett relates the situation to that of a natural disaster, in which the company prepares for heightened customer activity for propane. U-Haul is filling cylinders and bottles for a number of customer applications, such as grilling, camping (RVs) and temporary heating. “Some hospitals are creating temporary tents and using propane to heat their tents,” Barnett says. “They are coming to us to refill their portable cylinders.” The company has seen a decrease in gallon sales for autogas and forklift applications, he adds. Barnett says the company sought to train its new employees during the outbreak on dispensing propane safely for customers. It used a blended learning program in which the employee trains on U-Haul’s online learning management system, incorporating training materials from the Propane Education & Research Council, and works with trainers during a “hands-on” portion of the curriculum. Barnett lauds the work of U-Haul’s vendors and partners to address issues related to the increased use of pumps and dispensing equipment.

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Blossman Gas employees are taking all necessary precautions during this time, including wearing PPE. Photo: Blossman Gas

Mississippi: Blossman Gas has seen a large amount of support from its customers during the coronavirus pandemic. The retailer has locations across the Southeast and is still making necessary gas deliveries – with extra precautions. With about 97 percent of the workforce out in the field, President and CEO Stuart Weidie understands the need for employees to be available for customers with essential needs. Walk-in traffic has been suspended at all locations, as has all non-emergency service work. All employees still in the field are equipped with goggles, masks, ponchos, gloves and boot covers. Weidie says that in emergency situations when employees are entering a customer’s home, such as an out-of-gas call, they take all necessary precautions to keep employees and customers safe. He credits community members for being understanding through this time. “What we’re finding out is that everybody is comfortable with deferring installations 30 to 45 days into the future, so that’s not really a big problem for most everyone,” Weidie says.

April 10

Nebraska/Iowa: Sapp Bros. Petroleum Inc. says that low oil prices have generated a lot of sales. Its locations vary as to how they are handling the effects of the virus; some locations are using the closed-door method and doing curbside sales. In rural areas, fewer people are contracting the virus, and those company locations are using gloves and masks when necessary while maintaining normal activities. The situation in Nebraska and western Iowa is scattered. Metropolitan areas have more cases, while rural areas are seeing few or no cases at all. The company has recommended that all drivers and techs have the proper gloves, masks and sanitizer on their trucks. At the company’s travel centers, workers sanitize fuel pumps before each use and are helping customers at the pump. In an effort to help, the company is currently hauling totes of alcohol free of cost to a location that makes hand sanitizer. “It’s a difficult time right now with things changing daily, but with our management team we are in a good place and will continue to adapt as necessary to the changing conditions,” says Ray Collins, the company’s propane safety director.

Texas: Bell Hydrogas, headquartered in San Antonio, is seeing a shift in propane sales due to the coronavirus. While March’s gallon sales were higher than average, Vice President Sharon Seal has seen a slowdown for April so far. She says that there has been an uptick in sales for barbecues and pool-heating, likely due to the amount of families staying home. The company’s office is still open to the public but is only seeing one or two customers at a time. Bell Hydrogas equipped employees with hand sanitizer, gloves and crimson face masks that match the color of the company’s bobtails. Despite the uncertainty and fear surrounding the pandemic, Seal notes the willingness and sense of duty that her employees have. “No one has complained,” she says. “We’re going to keep our employees as safe as we can and reward them for hanging in there through this crazy pandemic.”

April 9

Arizona: One Arizona marketer says “people are definitely changing their habits,” but the situation hasn’t been too bad for a company that sells roughly 650,000 gallons annually. “I don’t think it’s really hit us yet,” he says. The company’s territory includes many second homes for people who live in California. “Everyone from California came out here and we were super busy because people were heating pools like crazy,” he says. That pool heater business has replaced some of the commercial business that was lost when restaurants closed and spring breakers didn’t come to town like usual, the marketer says. While pool heaters represent about half of all new tank installations, they make up 20 to 30 percent of the company’s overall gallon sales.

Bourne's Energy sets up a propane-powered heater for an outdoor facility at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. Photo by Jim Kurrle and Sharon Ferland

Bourne’s Energy sets up a propane-powered heater for an outdoor facility at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. Photo by Jim Kurrle and Sharon Ferland

Vermont: Bourne’s Energy is providing propane free of cost to medical centers in northern Vermont that are setting up outdoor structures – including tents and RVs – to manage the coronavirus crisis. So far, Bourne’s has supplied tanks to four facilities in its service area and plans to provide more as coronavirus cases climb, says Sharon Ferland, customer service and operations manager at Bourne’s. The company is still delivering fuel in a rural area where many Vermont residents are hunkering down in second homes. However, “service is truly emergency,” says Ferland. Technicians are taking advantage of downtime with online training, whether that’s revisiting CETP materials or completing refreshers on equipment. The biggest challenge has been reassigning tasks based on employees’ locations in the office or at home. The coronavirus crisis differs from disasters for which the company prepared, explains Ferland. If there’s a flood, for example, the disaster recovery plan indicates employees would meet at a second location, but in this situation, employees are scattered and have varying degrees of access to the technology they need to work remotely. The company is working to improve processes so it is ready to hit the ground running when business returns to normal, says Ferland.

April 8

Arkansas: For Arkansas-based propane retailer Affordable Propane Arkansas, business seems to be running mostly as usual – with some extra precautions. Located in a rural area about three hours outside Little Rock, the retailer has not seen many confirmed cases in surrounding counties. General Manager Zachara Ayappa is still taking preventative measures, however. The company closed its physical offices to the public and business is being conducted by phone. Gallon sales have begun to slow, but not unlike the normal start-of-summer trends. Ayappa says the rise of unemployment caused by the virus may delay people from topping off their tanks this summer, resulting in a further slowdown. The retailer is changing its approach to marketing to prevent person-to-person contact. “A lot of our marketing is going door to door and meeting our customers,” Ayappa says. “Obviously, that’s been postponed, so we’ll do more door hangers and postcards through the mail. We’re returning to mail marketing during this time.”

Montana: On a macro level, says Energy Director Brad Sullivan of Valley Farmers Supply in Worden, operations have been curtailed. A couple of employees went on unemployment for personal reasons. Most employees are working from home. The pandemic led the company to devise a standard operating procedure if the need arises for employees to enter customer homes that have a potential risk exposure. Sullivan gathered information from his first responder who has a history in firefighting. The procedure includes the employee’s use of personal protective equipment, keeping customers in a separate room during the visit and cleaning touchpoints that customers may have touched. Employees expressed relief that the company had a plan, Sullivan says, and there remains a positive feel with little frustration among the group. “It’s tough to beat the work ethic of the people up here,” Sullivan says of his state and the Pacific Northwest in general.

North Carolina: Rodney Ormond, president of Ormond Energy, says he’s working to maintain morale as employees and customers adjust to changes in operations and North Carolina’s stay-at-home ordinance. Like many propane retailers, Ormond Energy is using personal protective equipment and encouraging remote work. CSRs have their own laptops and can access the phone system from home. Ormond also sent a letter to all customers advocating the company’s online portal, where customers have full control of their accounts. The company launched the portal two years ago, but the coronavirus situation has expedited usage. An additional 10 percent of customers have signed up for the service, Ormond says. Foot traffic supporting cylinder refills and sales of hearth and heating products has declined, which impacts a certain number of staff dedicated to that part of the business. Ormond says he applied for a payroll protection loan and is looking into extra administrative duties to retain as many employees as possible. Even though ancillary sales are down, primary sources of revenue haven’t been impacted much, explains Ormond. A lot of his customers – like farmers and some commercial accounts – are considered essential. “This is a time when I’m thankful to be in this industry,” he says, because delivering fuel is an essential service. He’s heard employees express the same sentiment.

April 7

Colorado: Wallace Oil Co. in La Junta and sister company San Isabel Services Propane in Pueblo West are taking several steps to keep employees and customers safe. Drivers are working from their home base and traveling directly to customer locations, utilizing delivery software and communicating as necessary with the office staff. The offices are open for business, but they are closed to public access. “As far as the propane side and refined fuel side, we’re keeping our drivers out of the office and isolated using best industry practices with PPE,” says Jim Wallace, president of Wallace Oil Co. “If we do have an out of gas [situation], we’ve got PPE, and have trained our drivers on how to use it. We would use that accordingly to industry standards and our company policies.” San Isabel Services Propane General Manager Robin Geiss is communicating with customers about COVID-19 through messages on its website and social media, and safety meetings are held via conference calls. “When you think about this business and what we’re going through now, it falls in line with what our industry does to begin with – to keep customers safe and employees safe,” Wallace says. February was a good month for propane gallon sales due to cold weather, says Wallace, who was awaiting March numbers. “We feel quite blessed to be able to keep all of our people working right now,” says Cathy Wallace, owner of San Isabel Services Propane. “That’s a tremendous opportunity so many other companies don’t have.”

Georgia: Tommy Busbee of Evergreen Propane reports business as usual, to the degree possible. Some employees took time off because they don’t have access to childcare, or they have underlying health issues and don’t want to risk contracting the virus. The company also closed its offices and showroom to the public. Usually, customers browse for propane appliances like grills and fryers in the showroom, but now the company can only serve customers who place a specific order, if the showroom has the inventory. The lack of customer interaction proves challenging, says Busbee. He hasn’t seen a major decrease in gallon sales but will have a better gauge once April numbers come in. He has noticed an uptick in residential gallon sales – for applications like cooking, grilling and hot water – as his customers hunker down at home. Busbee says the increase in residential gallons helps to offset some losses in commercial gallons, especially for restaurants that are now closed.

New Mexico: Marvin Martinez, area manager for Pendleton Oil & Gas, feels fortunate that his area in northeast New Mexico has fewer confirmed cases of the coronavirus than other areas of the state, but he is still taking precautionary measures for employees and customers. The propane retailer’s physical office is closed to the public, but customers can still call ahead and get their tanks filled outside the facility by employees donned in personal protective equipment. Pendleton is also not currently taking any new customers in an effort to focus on taking care of its current customers. To Martinez, it’s all about being proactive rather than reactive in this situation. When a customer needs a propane delivery, Pendleton employees call other customers in the area to increase efficiency and avoid potential emergencies. “We’re making calls to customers and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to be in your area on a certain day. We want to know if you’re going to need gas,’ so we’ve given them the awareness to go out there and check their tank as well,” Martinez says.

Pennsylvania: A retailer in southwestern Pennsylvania says his company is still delivering propane and that few coronavirus cases have been reported in his small town and the 50-mile radius he serves. If a customer requires a leak check, a technician will enter the home with personal protective equipment, as long as no one is sick. The company is doing new installations, too. He’s heard of some retailers who aren’t entering homes because they don’t have the appropriate protective equipment. Pennsylvania is locked down for the most part, he notes – a friend in the plumbing and heating business is shut down except for emergency calls.

April 6

Colorado/New Mexico: Dan Binning, executive director of the Colorado and New Mexico propane gas associations, says a lot of his members are reporting customers out of work. “We have a high tourism and service industry. There are a lot of nonessential jobs in Colorado where people have been laid off,” he says. “My members in both states are worried about customers’ long-term ability to pay for their bills, which could adversely affect their business.” Binning says it’s interesting to note how propane delivery personnel are “by nature social distancing” because few people are ever near a tank fill. Still, he’s heard many companies choosing to drop delivery tickets off at the customer location instead of drivers going to the door. “The big question the first few days was: Can we go into the houses? I’ve talked to authorities having jurisdiction in both states. The code doesn’t change. If there is an interruption of service, you need to get in to make sure there are no leaks. You still have to do what you always had to do.”

Florida: Mike Gioffre of American Cylinder Exchange, based in West Palm Beach, Florida, says the company has implemented remote work for its sales and administrative staff at its 14 locations around the country. When remote work isn’t possible, the team follows social distancing guidelines and wears personal protective equipment. Drivers are also sanitizing their delivery truck cabs as much as possible. One major difficulty has been figuring out which customers are closed so delivery drivers can follow the most efficient routes. Adapting to new communication styles among employees and customers is also a challenge. But the company is focused on learning during this unprecedented time, says Gioffre. He views new challenges as opportunities to evaluate operations and potentially improve processes once the pandemic ends. One of the company’s best resources in that regard is its employees. “We’re asking employees what we can do better,” says Gioffre.

April 1

Alabama: Joshua Childress of ThompsonGas in Wetumpka shared with LP Gas how he’s “found joy in this time of confusion.” He says this time has given him the chance to become a more meaningful part of the team. Childress performs propane delivery and service tasks at the company, but with the doors closed to customers, the team has become even closer, which will also help customers, he says. Childress praised the company’s customer service representative, who “has shined over the phone.” “She is a positive voice that brings comfort in a time of uncertainty, especially to our elderly generation.” With spring cleaning upon companies, Childress finds comfort in washing the bobtail or cleaning the space shared by his team.


*Featured image: lutavia/E+/Getty Images

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