What do you do when your 20-pound (5 gallon) propane tank is empty? If you are Alan, you go to a near-by filling station and refill the bottle. There’s a Shell station close by with gas-refilling capability.
The cost is minimal. Filling a propane tank today (June 29, 2016) got us 4.7 gallons (20 pounds) at $2.99 per gallon, for the princely sum of $14.05. The whole process took about ten minutes.
At that same Shell station was one of the exchange tank systems, in this case, Blue Rhino. I have no objection to that company, but know that what Blue Rhino (and others) offer is convenience — not a great price on fuel.
The price to exchange a Blue Rhino bottle at the Shell station: $24.99. (Prices can vary wildly, both for the Blue Rhino exchange and the cost of bulk propane.) That’s a lot more — nearly $11. And for less fuel!
If you dig into the Blue Rhino FAQ, you learn that they don’t give you 4.7 gallons. They don’t put 20 pounds of propane into a 20-pound tank:
How much propane does Blue Rhino put in its tanks?
Inflationary pressures, including the volatile costs of steel, diesel fuel, and propane, have had a significant impact on the cylinder exchange industry. In 2008, to help control these rising costs, Blue Rhino followed the example of other consumer products companies with a product content change. We reduced the amount of propane in our tanks from 17 pounds to 15 pounds.
To ensure our consumers are properly notified, Blue Rhino clearly marks the amount of propane contained in our tanks, right on the package.
A gallon of propane weighs about 4.2 pounds, so Blue Rhino’s 15 pounds is 3.6 gallons of fuel. That’s a lot less than 4.7 gallons. Doing the math, Blue Rhino’s price per gallon is $6.94. And you have to fill the bottle more often, of course, since there is less fuel in it.
Okay, it costs more and gives you less. What benefits do you get with a bottle exchange? Convenience. It’s quicker to exchange a tank rather than have a gas-station attendant come out and fill your existing bottle.
Also, Blue Rhino says that the tank is leak-tested, cleaned, freshly painted as needed, and checked on a schedule:
Propane isn’t just propane with Blue Rhino, America’s leading brand of propane tank exchange. Every tank is cleaned, leak-tested, inspected, precision-filled, delivered to your favorite store, and more. So you can grill with confidence. So take a Rhino home!
Another major U.S. propane-exchange company is AmeriGas. Their website is more obtuse and doesn’t say how much propane goes into an exchange tank. (Or at least I can’t find it.) However according to Home Depot, which sells AmeriGas, their Propane Tank Exchange specs are:
With safety being our number one priority, the chemical properties of propane restrict us to only fill our tanks to 80% capacity.
I’ve got to give Blue Rhino kudos for honesty. At least they are up front with admitting that under-filling is a cost-saving measure. On the other hand, AmeriGas gives you 80% capacity, compared to Blue Rhino’s 75%.
Bottom line: Don’t exchange! Get your propane bottles filled at a local filling station. However, if a tank starts looking rusty, or if you’re not sure if it’s still good, bring it in for a Blue Rhino/AmeriGas exchange. Then, refill that tank for a while until it looks ratty. Remember, not only are you paying less for fuel, but you are also dealing with an empty tank less often!
Update 6/30: Found an AmeriGas service at a Circle-K convenience store, and the bottle exchange fee was $21.99. Prices can vary tremendously!