With the temperatures hovering just above single digits Thursday, Kyndal Looper wasn't about to let her daughter build a snowman.
“It's just too cold outside,” Looper, 31, told her daughter as she was tugging at her shirt asking to go play. “We are gonna stay inside and keep warm.”
Warmth at the Looper's comes courtesy of propane tank that sits in the side yard of the family's Edmond home. And despite a huge increase in the price of propane across the country, Looper and her family, unlike some others, still are relying on the fuel to keep them warm.
“Thankfully, our propane dealer saw the hikes coming and told us to fill up early,” she said. “We've been able to get by without paying an arm and a leg.”
About 5.5 million homes nationwide are heated with propane, mostly in rural areas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In Oklahoma, about 400,000 customers rely on propane.
Since early December, the price of a gallon of the fuel has rocketed from about $2 to nearly $5 at its peak in late January. The soaring prices prompted Gov. Mary Fallin to issue an executive order last week to help lower-income families who rely on propane pay to keep their homes warm. The order provides up to $3,600 in heating assistance per household on a first-come, first-served basis.
Meanwhile, governors of seven Midwestern states have joined in calling on the Obama administration to help increase the dwindling supplies, which industry officials attribute to the extremely cold winter weather and an especially wet harvest season when an unusual amount of propane was used to dry corn crops.
Cold customers are confronting propane dealers with hostility and accusing them of price gouging.
At American Propane near the Oklahoma City stockyards, owner Herb Hampton said he tries to explain to angry customers that the rising prices have been a mess for everybody and that his hands are tied.
Benchmark prices are set by large-volume dealers in Texas and Kansas, Hampton said. The cheapest supplies came out of Houston so many smaller dealers were traveling the southwest and waiting in 30-hour lines to stock up at the lowest price.
He sympathizes with his customers for their hardship.
“It's extreme pressure on everyone because when that budget breaks, you just feel helpless,” Hampton said.
And he points out that with tight supplies, he's barely breaking even.
“We finally get a cold winter, and there's a propane shortage,” Hampton said. “Now we are praying for 80 (degrees).”
Most of Hampton's customers weathered the high prices by filling up their huge tanks, at Hampton's urging, when prices were low. The best way to think about your propane tank is to compare it to a bank account, Hampton said
“You should always have plenty of savings in case of an emergency situation,” he said.
For those who didn't fill up when prices were low, Hampton said relief may be in sight. He suggests waiting a week or two because prices are starting to drop.
In the meantime, closing off doors in your house, keeping the thermostat set at a lower temperature and buying a small space heater can help make your propane last, Hampton said.
“You don't want to fill up now and have it cost $600 or $1,000,” he said. “The prices will drop back down, and you will be resentful of how much you spent in that tank.”
Hampton fears that the recent price spike will do permanent damage to the propane brand.
In northeast Oklahoma near Tahlequah, Paul Laney, owner of Liberty Propane Co., has seen Hampton's fears come true. He's had several customers let their tanks run dry only to replace them with space heaters.
When winter ends, Laney said he expects to lose about a 100 customers who will make a permanent switch to electric or wood-burning heating.
“A lot of people are in a tremendous bind,” Laney said. “We are doing the best we can, we are delivering the smallest amount of propane that we can which only allows us to break even. But we want to help our customers.”
The Loopers plan to stick with propane. It's usually the most affordable heating option and better for the environment, Kyndal Looper said.
“This is the first time we've ever had to pay more than $2 a gallon for it,” Looper said. “We love it. We won't change.”