A helium shortage is threatening to let the air out of Valentine's Day sales for some florists and party stores.
Though flowers and chocolates are more common tokens of love, helium-filled balloons are popular as bouquets or added to floral arrangements. But as the global scarcity of helium intensifies, local retailers are reporting it difficult or impossible to get their tanks refilled and, in some cases, the price of helium has ballooned.
Capitol Hill Florist & Gifts in Oklahoma City ran out of helium about two weeks ago, said owner Kent Whitnah. Neither of his two suppliers can refill his tanks, but he did find a source for pre-filled helium balloons for Valentine's Day. The florist typically sells about 100 Mylar balloons for the holiday a week away.
Trochta's Flowers & Greenhouses is facing a similar situation. The retailer is nearly out of helium and has already received the stack of balloons it ordered for Valentine's Day. Trochta's Maggie Barrett said a supplier promised her a shipment this week.
“We are waiting with bated breath to get our shipment in,” she said. “I'm supposed to get two tanks.”
And though Party Galaxy stores haven't run out of helium and expect to have enough for Valentine's Day, the nine-store Oklahoma City-based retailer has raised the prices on its balloons to recapture some of the increase it has been paying for helium — as much as 60 to 70 percent more in the last year and a half, said co-owner Mike Dillon.
He expects the stores to blow up 50,000 helium balloons on Wednesday and Feb. 14 for Valentine's Day at a cost of about $1.99 each.
“We've been stockpiling as much (helium) as we can because Valentine's is such a big balloon holiday,” Dillon said. Graduation, another big balloon holiday, is still up in the air.
What's causing the shortage?
Helium, the second-most abundant element in the universe (after hydrogen), has uses beyond balloons: cooling MRI machines, filling blimps and manufacturing semiconductors, like for iPhones. Because helium is a byproduct of natural gas extraction, low natural gas prices have reduced helium production, according the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Federal Helium Program.
Contributing to the shortage are production problems straining suppliers' ability to meet the growing demand for helium, including construction delays or maintenance troubles at plants being built or already operational in Qatar, Algeria, Wyoming and elsewhere.
Like fossil fuels, there is a finite amount of helium on Earth. The federal government maintains an underground helium reserve near Amarillo, Texas, that produces about 35 percent of the world's helium, the Bureau of Land Management said. A helium plant in the Oklahoma Panhandle closed in the 1980s.
There have been periodic helium shortages in the past, but scientists, industry experts and federal officials say this shortage is one of the worst in duration and scale.
Two years ago, Party Galaxy stopped selling the large tanks of helium it had offered customers since the business was founded in 1937. The company didn't have enough helium to fill the tanks and blow up balloons in the stores, Dillon said. They still sell smaller, disposable tanks which contain enough helium to fill about two dozen balloons, but it has taken suppliers months to fill orders for them.
So what's the alternative? Balloons on a stick, for one, which gives the illusion of a helium-filled balloon. Florists are also adding chocolates, stuffed animals, candles, lotion and other romantic items to floral arrangements.