The Propane Problem

Heating your home may be the last thing you're thinking about during these warm days. But viewers are calling the NEWS4 I-Team complaining about a growing utility problem.  Unwanted propane trucks coming to their homes and delivering expensive fuel when it’s not needed.  Tisha Thompson shows you why they’re so upset about propane’s booming business.

Randy Earle says the air blowing through his house is costing him a fortune.  "I saw $4.60 a gallon and I nearly hit the floor and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’"

Since natural gas isn't available in Churchton, Md., and electricity is too expensive, Earle says he signed up for propane.  "I didn't really know that much about it other making a phone call,” he explains.  “Set a tank and hook it up."

But Earle says he didn’t realize he was signing up to lease this tank, not buy it, and could only get propane from that supplier at whatever price it wants to charge.

Even if Earle doesn't need it.

"I told them not to come to my house,” Earle says.  But when he came home one day, “There is the sticker.  I open it up.  Three hundred and sixty-five gallons of gas I didn't order."

Annapolis homeowner Andy McFall says his propane salesman also didn't make it clear that he was only leasing his tank.  "Here's the tank, here's the price.  A buck eighty-nine.  I'll take it.  There wasn't any kind of information about what is going to happen down the road."

McFall says in the three years since he first signed up, his propane price has jumped more than $2,700 more to fill his tank.

Both men tried to change companies but realized after reading the fine print they would have to pay thousands to remove both the unused fuel and the tank.

"They've got me,” McFall says.  “I'm held hostage by my propane company."

Karen Straughn is the Director of the Mediation Unit at the Maryland Attorney General’s Office and says, "It's not illegal. It's something they can do."

She says propane complaints are “our problem because it isn't regulated elsewhere."

Most utilities like natural gas, electricity and water are regulated because one company tends to own everything -- the wires, the poles, the pipes and the fuel.

But when it comes to propane, there are a lot of companies and very few rules.

"There aren't a lot of statutes that deal with propane,” Straughn says.

The NEWS4 I-Team went through more than 160 complaints filed with the attorney general in the past two years.  “Outraged" customers upset at companies making "unsolicited deliveries" by filling "propane tanks … without authorization," charging "outrageous," "inflated" and "exaggerated" prices at more than double the going-rate and being "grossly overcharged" to remove a tank.

Both the National Propane Gas Association and the Mid Atlantic Propane Gas Association declined our request for an on-camera interview and did not reply to our written questions about these complaints.  Instead, they sent a statement explaining, "Consumers have many choices for their propane supplier, which means there are numerous decisions consumers must make themselves, including the term of the service contract, tank ownership and price structure." (SEE THE COMPLETE STATEMENT HERE)

The Attorney General's Office says it can ask a company to return money to consumers who complain, but that's about it unless the state legislature beefs up rules on propane sales

Something Earle and McFall are eager to see.

"I have no recourse,” McFall says.  “I can't call anyone else.  I just have to pay it.  This just seems wrong."

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