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Bottled Gas; the Right Way To Do It

Zyra's Guide to Good Practice in the business of Bottled Gas Cylinder Management

Many people have grumbled about the way some parts of the bottled gas industry are run, especially in the UK! It's not the gas that's the problem; it's the CYLINDERS! It has been said that the practices of some companies are not fair. Renting out of cylinders, charging deposits and not giving them back, unnecessary bureaucracy, unreasonable double-charging, expecting dealers to act as "sheriff and marshall", and confiscation of cylinders from customers with no compensation. If questioned about such things, the excuses are usually either based on the idea that there is a monopoly/cartel and that every company is just as bad as each other, or that safety rules dictate unreasonable bureaucratic practices. Neither of these excuse-types has much credibility, and there IS a proper way to run the admin of bottled gas cylinders.

The right way to administrate the management of bottled gas cylinders is based on the principle of the deposit bottle. Deposit bottles were typically glass bottles containing beer or fizzy drink, and if you bought such a bottle you'd be charged an extra amount (the "deposit") for the bottle. This was no hardship, as some time later when you'd drunk the contents you could return the empty bottle to any shop that sold that brand, and you'd get your deposit paid back in full. The bottles would then be reused, (like recycling only better). No dead bottles would be seen in the street or in the canal, and the cost of the drink would be less because the manufacturers weren't having to pay for bottles which were then discarded into the environment.

Here's the principle applied to gas cylinders:

1. Anyone buying a cylinder of gas pays an extra fee for the cylinder. As they are aware this is fully refundable regardless of whether they happen to still have a receipt, they are quite happy about this.

2. The gas cylinders are clearly marked indelibly with something to the effect of "I promise to pay the bearer the sum of...", and the manufacturer's name and hard-to-forge distinctive logo are embossed or engraved into the cylinder.

3. Anyone taking an empty cylinder into a gas dealer who sells that brand of gas will be given their money back if they request it, but may be persuaded by the good sales-talk of the dealer to buy a full cylinder of gas and just swap the cylinders over.

4. Cylinders arriving at the dealers are inspected for safety. If a cylinder is found to be gas-unworthy, then the cylinder is removed from circulation. However, the customer is always paid back the deposit so as to keep everyone happy.

5. A similar arrangement exists between the dealers and the manufacturers so there is fairness to all.

6. Gas cylinders leaving the dealers and taken into the care of the customers are labelled with a safety certificate which is dated. Customers are requested to take cylinders back for checking after the expiry date to ensure safety is maintained. The safety insurance of the cylinders is valid while the safety certificate is in-date, and after that customers do as they will at their own risk. This doesn't affect the deposit, which is always refundable.

7. To prevent thieves from making "easy money" stealing gas cylinders, the deposit values are chosen to be low. This, combined with the suggestion of the use of a bike lock, and possible delayed-payment system, may get the balance right so that cylinders are worth returning but not worth stealing! In a similar way, supermarket trolleys are generally saved from a watery grave by the interlocking of a £1 coin.

8. When a cylinder is worn-out, (they last a long time, but not indefinitely), the cylinder is returned and the customer is paid back the deposit. It's not the customer's fault that the cylinder has worn out. This policy is also used by the British Royal Mint! Banknotes that have become ruined (for example by being inadvertently put through the washing machine) can still be redeemed for cash, provided there's enough of the note remaining to prove it really was once a banknote.

The advantages of this system are:

Now let's be honest about it; I am not a legislator and have no way of forcing any company to take on such a good set of policies, and even if I had such powers I'd probably not impose them as law, but would instead set up a set of standards of good practice. However, I invite bottled gas companies to consider these ideas carefully. The first bottled gas company to take on a fair-do deposit-bottle type system like this will have a commercial advantage versus their rivals. Customers will consider them in better regard, and will buy gas from them in preference to other companies with less reasonable policies. It will also be excellent for Public Relations as it will be possible to make a big fuss about being fair to everyone and being good for the environment.

Any constructive comment on this, e-mail me. The idea is open to suggestion and refinement. If you're a gas company and you'd like to use this set of principles, please do! You don't have to pay me, (although donations are gratefully received), but if you credit me with the suggestion I will give you a LINK and promotion from this site! (If you've got an affiliate program, that could get you a dedicated page).

Update 2011/12: Calor Gas now have an improvement to their policy. Although they're still not paying customers back the deposit which the customers have already paid, they are at least making a charitable donation to a worthy charitable cause. For more about this see www.calor.co.uk/customer-services/faqs/general-cylinder-queries/ which also has helpful info on weighing cylinders to see how much gas is in them, and a few other useful things. Calor Gas is one of the more helpful bottled gas companies.

Update 2012/05: I have emigrated from the UK to Panama. There's no mains gas in Panama, so all gas cookers run on bottled gas. There is a proper "deposit bottle" policy on gas cylinders. It's $45 on a 25lb cylinder, so people look after the cylinders, and the cylinders always get returned as they are worth money. This is good, and well worth the minor downside of having to have a padlock and chain to stop thieves stealing the cylinder.

There is friendly commercial rivalry between Panagas and Tropigas and other bottled gas companies. They each have different regulator adaptors, which are incompatible. As far as I know they all have proper deposit-bottle policies on their cylinders so you never see any dead cylinders in ditches. In Panama, they have got the deposit on bottled gas cylinders right!

Also the gas price on moderate sized cylinders is kept low so poor people can afford to cook. $5 for 25lb of gas.

Astonishingly, though, gas in Panama does not smell! This is dangerous. I don't know how much it would cost to add that distinktive gas-smell to gas, but I would be willing to pay slightly more for gas that had a smell, as it is a worthwhile safety feature. In absence of this, I am implementing my own safety procedure which is that the gas is turned off at the cylinder after the gas cooker is turned off.