Propane dealers: they're not all the same

Four Taos suppliers offer a surprising range of prices, policies

By Doug Cantwell
dcantwell@taosnews.com
Posted 11/7/19

Who would've thought propane prices in Taos would vary by more than 25 cents a gallon? Or that some vendors would make a concerted effort to win and keep your business, while others - not so much.

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Propane dealers: they're not all the same

Four Taos suppliers offer a surprising range of prices, policies

Posted

Who would've thought propane prices in Taos would vary by more than 25 cents a gallon? Or that some vendors would make a concerted effort to win and keep your business, while others - not so much.

Maybe it's a function of their size or their business model. Only one - Río Grande - is still a locally owned, family business. One of them - New Mexico Propane - has been taken over by a nationwide corporation, Amerigas. Kit Carson Propane, formerly a locally owned company, became a subsidiary of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in 2010. Pendleton is local to the area, although it's expanded its service area throughout north-central New Mexico and as far east as Ratón.

Río Grande Propane

"We're the only one that's locally owned and operated," said Billy Romero, who owns and operates Río Grande Propane at 320 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, along with sons Billy Jr. and Robert. "We're born-and-bred Taoseños for several generations."

Río Grande offers a flat per-gallon rate, currently $2.10, whether you buy 100 gallons or 1,000. "We try to be transparent and keep things simple," said Billy Romero. "We don't add on any fees for delivery or other things. All you pay for is the propane and the tax." While he doesn't offer new customers a "first fill-up" discount, Romero's tank rental fee of $85 per year is competitive.

If you sign on with Río Grande as an auto-fill or route customer, however, you'll receive a discount of 10 to 15 cents per gallon. "If you're a route customer, we will do everything humanly possible to make sure your tank never runs dry," said Romero. Once a year, usually in August, Río Grande offers its entire customer base a one-fill-up discount.

What if you find yourself with an empty tank in the middle of a January snowstorm? If you're not a regular route customer, Río Grande charges $150 for an emergency fill-up - the steepest of the four vendors' charges. On the other hand, if you want to cancel service, there's no charge to have them come out and remove your rental tank -- not even for pump-out. (By law, dealers cannot transport a tank that is more than 5 percent full due to safety concerns.)

Romero and his staff total seven employees. As the smallest of the four Taos vendors, Río Grande covers less territory -- as far north as Questa and as far south as Peñasco -- and they don't attempt to serve a broad east-west corridor. For example, they don't go to Angel Fire or Ojo Caliente.

Pendleton Propane

Pendleton Propane owners Kirk and Stephen Pendleton started out in Roy, New Mexico, taking over the business their parents had started more than 50 years ago. Today, they maintain two headquarters, in Taos and Las Vegas, and serve most of north-central and northeastern New Mexico through those facilities and their six field offices.

Pendleton's economy of scale might explain its $1.99 per gallon price, currently the lowest of the four vendors. They also offer volume discounts if you buy over 5,000 or over 10,000 gallons, and their annual rental for a standard-sized 250-gallon tank is $60, also the lowest rate in town.

As a new customer with Pendleton, you'll receive a 20 cent per gallon discount on your first fill-up, and your tank rental will cost just $1 for the first year. If you put a credit card on file, you can sign on for their auto-fill program and be billed on a monthly basis, which can be a nice advantage if paying for a $500 fill-up all at once creates a hardship.

If you're an on-call customer and require an emergency after-hours visit from Pendleton, it will cost you $75, also the lowest of the four companies. This includes a test to make sure your tank didn't run dry because of a leak.

"If you decide you want to switch vendors," said manager Ray Velasquez, "we don't charge to come and remove your tank. But we do charge a $45 pump-out fee if there's still propane in the tank." As for hidden fees and add-ons, Velasquez is clear. "We bill you for the propane and the tax -- that's it," he said.

New Mexico Propane

As a subsidiary of Amerigas, a nationwide supplier, New Mexico Propane is now wired into a computer network that tracks your usage and sets your rates and discounts accordingly. If you currently use at least 1,000 gallons per year, for example, and you live close by in Taos, your next fill-up will be billed at approximately $2.25 per gallon, currently the highest rate quoted by any of the four suppliers. This is surprising, considering that a national-scale supplier should logically be able to undersell the local guys.

"But it all depends," said district general manager Sergio Comacho. "There are a lot of different dynamics, including margins and markets, so I can't really give you one exact number."

In general, New Mexico Propane does not test high on transparency. Online customer reviews often mention unusually high prices and add-ons that show up on their bills, such as "dispatch fees" and "hazmat fees." While their computerized tracking of customer usage, frequency of fill-up and location might benefit some, it presents a lack of openness to customers who want straightforward answers about costs and policies.

If you sign on as an auto-fill customer with NMP, however, you'll receive a hefty $1 per gallon discount on your first fill-up, and monthly billing is available. You'll become a "forecasted priority customer," which means your consumption will be tracked by the Amerigas system, and the NMP truck will show up at your house when the computer says it's time.

According to Comacho, this ensures that your tank will never get close to empty. It also entitles you to 24/7 emergency service, which means a technician will come at any hour of the day or night if you have a malfunction in your heating system. They'll cover the cost if the problem occurs between the tank and the regulator. Otherwise, they'll charge you for the call.

On the other hand, Comacho said he has flexibility in dealing with customers who are financially strapped, especially the elderly and families with kids who are having a tough time making ends meet. "I've got a margin to keep," he said, "but you've got to have a heart. If it's a matter of offering a 25 or 50 cent per gallon discount in special cases, I can do that." However, this is not company policy; it depends on the manager's discretion.

The company charges $100 per year to rent a 250-gallon tank, the highest rate in town. If you decide to change suppliers, they'll charge you a $59 tank removal fee, a $35 service call and a $130 pump-out fee if the tank is more than 5 percent full.

Kit Carson Propane

Kit Carson currently offers a rate of $2.20 per gallon and does not offer volume discounts. Upon credit approval, you can sign up for their auto-fill program and be billed on a monthly basis if you so choose. If you rent your home, however, you'll have to pay on delivery.

As a new Kit Carson customer, you'll currently pay only $1.89 per gallon for your first fill-up, and tank rental for a 250-gallon tank is $84 a year. You'll pay only for propane and tax. With its large fleet, the company serves customers from Amalia and Costilla at the northern end of Taos County to Pojoaque Valley in Río Arriba County to the south; from Abiquiú to the west to Eagle Nest and Ute Park in the east.

If you want to discontinue service, Kit Carson has the most customer-friendly policy: you'll pay no fees provided your tank is less than 5 percent full. If they have to pump it out in order to transport it, you'll pay $65, but they'll credit you for the unused propane.

If you're not on the auto-fill plan with Kit Carson, they'll charge $125 for an after-hours fill-up. Otherwise, they'll get to you as soon as they can but won't hit you with an emergency fee.

"We offer a nice price every year during the month of August to encourage our customers to get their fall fill-up early," said bookkeeper Yvette Quintana. "This year, the rate was $1.99 per gallon."

Contact information

Romero's Río Grande Propane

320 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, Taos

(575) 751-7774

Contact: Billy Romero, owner/manager

Pendleton Propane

1547 Paseo del Pueblo Sur, Taos

(575) 758-2266

Contact: Ray Velasquez, manager

New Mexico Propane

514 Kit Carson Road, Taos

(866) 688-3579

Contact: Sergio Comacho, district general manager

Kit Carson Energy

201 Cruz Alta Road, Taos

(575) 758-7757

Contact: Lawrence Vigil, manager

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