(WMC TV) - A combination of no minimum weight requirements and propane suppliers' cost-saving policies is shorting consumers on the amount of propane they're expecting when they buy or exchange grilling cylinders.
The Action News 5 Investigators would have never found out -- if we hadn't been grilling burgers with Richard Rendos.
The Olive Branch, MS, backyard chef cooks three to four times a week on his gas grill. He meticulously tracks what he cooks each week and how long.
He swears no two 20-lb propane grilling cylinders are ever the same.
"One tank we'll put in, and we won't even get through with grilling one full meal out here," said Rendos. "Another tank I put in will last me two or three weeks."
Rendos' theory convinced us to surreptitiously purchase nine grilling cylinders, three from each of the three distributors of consumer-marketed propane: Blue Rhino, AmeriGas and Gibson Propane (based in Southeast Memphis).
We purchased the Gibson tanks directly from its warehouse at 3542 Lamar Ave. since it does not sell its consumer propane through retailers. We bought the Blue Rhino and AmeriGas cylinders from random retailers, including home improvement centers, gas stations and drug stores.
"The safest and most accurate way to know how much propane is in these grilling cylinders is by weight," said Patrick Galphin of propane distributor nexAir (http://www.nexair.com/), which does not market to consumers.
We arranged to have nexAir weigh each of the nine cylinders on its industrial scales. An independent company calibrates the scales twice a day. We took into account each cylinder's tare weight, the weight of the cylinder itself, in making our calculations.
Federal regulations require grilling cylinders to be outfitted with overfill protection devices (OPD) to keep them from being filled beyond 80 percent capacity, or 20 pounds of liquid propane (for our story on how to identify properly outfitted cylinders, click here: http://www.wmctv.com/story/12734311/the-investigators-bbq-blow-ups).
But no agency or law regulates the minimum amount of propane that should fill a cylinder.
We discovered each of the three Gibson cylinders were filled to capacity: 20 pounds.
"The Gibson tanks were right on mark," said Galphin.
But nexAir's scales showed each of the Blue Rhino and AmeriGas cylinders ranged from 16 pounds to a little as 14 pounds.
"So that's a quarter of the propane that you would expect to get that you're not going to get," Galphin said.
"I honestly don't know what to say. That's shocking," replied Rendos.
A closer look at both the Blue Rhino and AmeriGas cylinders revealed the companies disclose right on their labels that they fill only to a net weight of 15 pounds.
Spokespersons for both companies admitted the 15-pound amount is a cost-saving measure.
"We provide that amount of propane to help control the volatile cost of propane and other materials within our industry," said Chris Hartley, vice president of marketing for Blue Rhino.
Bill Katz of AmeriGas said his company sent inspectors to each of the retailers where we bought its cylinders. He said the inspectors weighed and inspected every AmeriGas cylinder at each location. Each cylinder weighed right at, or in excess of, 15 pounds, he said.
"The results of our exhaustive review were fully consistent with the principle that consumers who purchase an AmeriGas barbecue cylinder receive everything our company promises to deliver," he said.
Even with Gibson's cylinders, each right on the money at 20 pounds, a consumer still has to drive to the company's warehouse to get that accurate fill.
"You got to take in your time and your fuel costs -- does it make it worth your while?" said Mike Schuk, Gibson's manager.
Approved cylinders must have triangular valves with "OPD" etched on them. If the valve is either circular or flower-shaped, it is an illegal cylinder.
Consumers should also check cylinders for their manufacturing dates or "re-test" dates, a month and year etched into the handle. By law, grilling cylinders are supposed to be re-tested and re-certified every 12 years.
If a cylinder has been re-tested, its "re-test" date will be etched below the manufacturing date. If the cylinder has a manufacturing date of longer than 12 years ago with no re-test date, it has not been properly inspected or re-certified.
Galphin said consumers should inspect the label wrap around the tank - called the "rust belt -- to see if moisture has been trapped inside and caused rusting. He said consumers have the option of removing the label to reduce the risk of rust.
Other Mid-South retail outlets offer to re-fill propane cylinders on site, but consumers should confirm if the personnel performing those services are certified to fill the tanks.