Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Free At Last, Free At Last! Great God Almighty, Free At Last!

Yea, verily! I have kicked another one of my corporate overlords to the curb!  Last year, I ushered Wells Fargo to the door after their abysmal customer service, and their ridiculous service charges were bleeding my checking account dry.

An even bigger, more enduring, and ultimately more satisfying battle was with my propane company, Amerigas.  I have been an Amerigas customer for all fifteen years I have been in my home in Virginia.  This was not entirely by my design, since the 500 gallon underground propane tank attached to my home was installed by the home-builder before our arrival.

The way these things go, the tank was owned not by me, but by Amerigas.  It was installed on my property, but Amerigas had sole rights to service the tank.  That meant that Amerigas had an actual monopoly on my propane purchases.

After a while, I started to check the propane prices on the regional and national market.  I kept this information in a spreadsheet and tracked every bill.  I know that petroleum prices in general have been rising, and I have no reasonable complaint about that.  But I noticed that Amerigas was charging me a premium for my propane, usually about $0.40/gal above market price.  Considering I purchase in 500 gallon blocks, this is a sizable chuck of change.  What's more, they would be very helpful in their program to "Amerilock" me in at that exorbitant price, while competitors in town were offering much cheaper propane.

However, I was legally unable to purchase from competitors, because Amerigas owned the tank.  I was stuck with Amerigas!

Seeing this, about five years ago, I asked Amerigas to allow me to purchase my tank.  They initially said, "OK," but because I was a "good customer", they offered to drop my price for propane to below market for the rest of the year, to which I happily agreed.

This little game went on every year for three years.  I would happily call and complain, request to buy my tank, and they would lower my price to below market.  As long as I was paying below market, I figured, "Heck, I'm getting a good deal, so why switch?"

Then a couple years ago, they got nasty.  Amerigas said they were no longer allowing tank purchases, and if I wanted to remove my tank, I would have to pay heavy surcharges to close my account, would have to hire a third-party company to remove the tank myself (to which NO third-party company would agree, because since I don't own the tank, they can't take on the liability of touching an Amerigas tank), and Amerigas would actually charge me to recover the remaining propane in my tank, propane that was bought and paid for by me.  I scoffed; I gnashed my teeth; and I swore, but there was little else I could do but eat the expensive propane costs for another year, continuing on as an Amerigas customer.

Finally, this year, I talked with a neighbor who was successful in his kicking Amerigas to the curb.  I knew it could be done!  Using his advice, I called Amerigas and informed them that I would like to purchase my tank, to which they responded, "We don't do purchases."  To which I responded, "Fine.  Then we will abandon it in place.  I will fill it with sand or you can come and get it, and we will take on a new supplier."  To which they responded, "Oh, well, it looks like we can sell it to you, for a price of $750." (Which is quite reasonable, actually.)  I placed a lock on the tank (so they wouldn't fill it), and marked it as "DO NOT FILL."  The last thing I needed them doing was coming out to fill me up with 500 gallons of expensive propane as I'm trying to be rid of them.

After a couple of weeks, Amerigas finally generated an invoice for the tank, which I promptly paid.  Then I had to wait for my bill of sale to arrive.  It was this document that would allow me to prove ownership of my tank and shop my propane throughout town.  But the bill of sale wouldn't come.  The check had cleared, but no bill of sale.  After two more weeks, I finally called Amerigas and they apologetically said they'd send the bill of sale right away.

Finally, with bill of sale in hand, I owned the tank.  Hooray!!  I can call any propane company for service, and I can shop around for the best prices.  Isn't that how the free market is supposed to work?

I just got off the phone with Valley Energy, and they are offering propane today at $2.659/gal.  This sure beats Amerigas's Amerilock price of $3.49/gal!  So I pre-purchased nearly 1,000 gallons for this coming winter.  For our normal winter usage, this will be a savings of $831 for this year alone!!


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