This winter has been a particularly difficult one at times for some households in La Honda and the Woodside neighborhoods along the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The area does not have natural-gas service, and residents using propane to heat their homes and water have reported repeated shortages.
Of nine residents who emailed the Almanac about empty or nearly empty propane tanks this winter, all said they are, or were until recently, customers of Amerigas, a nationwide propane supplier based in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
"Oh how I would love to let someone know the bull$:!& I went through! 29 calls?!" Joanne Joye wrote. "I waited over a month. Ran out twice and still would like a call from the regional manager."
Susan Stucky wrote about how it's "no fun ... sitting here in a 45-degree-to-50-degree house without hot water, with no cooking and a load of wet laundry."
After two weeks with her tank below 17 percent and being repeatedly assured of a refill, Cathy Whitney of La Honda said she changed propane suppliers. Amerigas refilled her tank anyway, to 85 percent, she said, despite her having informed Amerigas that she had changed suppliers. She had also attached a waterproof note to that effect to the tank, and her husband had told the driver in person of the change.
Refills have been an ongoing problem, Woodside resident Harriet Garfinkle said. "Every single time we've gotten low, I've had to phone a minimum of six times," she said. A refill requested for Thanksgiving 2015 never came, she said. "Oh my god, we're having 20 people over," she recalled thinking. "What will happen if we run out?"
Asked to comment on customer complaints from this area, Amerigas spokesperson Kate Stickel emailed a statement.
"AmeriGas is not experiencing any shortage in propane supply," she said. Demand rose by 88 percent, or 500,000 gallons, in December, but Amerigas has "more than enough supply to meet all customer needs," she said.
"AmeriGas has an advantage when one area of the country sees higher demand due to extreme cold or other weather; we can and have brought in additional resources from other areas of the country to meet local delivery needs," Ms. Stickel said. "This means additional drivers, service technicians, and customer service representatives to serve our customers. ... In addition, our emergency call center is available 24x7 to assist any customers who need off-hours assistance."
"Our crews are working to ensure all our customers get the propane fuel they need," she said. "We are now focusing our expanded resources on customers who need deliveries most urgently those with less than 15 percent in their tanks."
Amerigas is one of five propane suppliers listed on the Skyline Propane Users Group website. The users group is an offshoot of the South Skyline Association, a community organization representing the interests of residents along Skyline Boulevard between Highway 92 and Los Gatos.
Members of the users group get a discount if they sign up with Amerigas, and about two-thirds of association members have, board member Ruth Waldhauer told the Almanac. "Recently, with the Amerigas staffing problems, complaints have flooded to me," Ms. Waldhauer said in an email.
In December, two other suppliers -- FerrellGas and Kamps Propane -- were offering propane right around the price quoted by Amerigas, according to the user's group website.
Switching propane suppliers is easy, Ms. Waldhauer said. The users group helps with the switch-over of tanks for a different supplier, and a table on the website shows that it can be done with minimal effect on propane prices. Because tank costs have "skyrocketed," and because the supplier maintains tanks, residents tend to rent them, Ms. Waldhauer said.
About a dozen companies provide propane to the Bay Area, said Scott Brockelmeyer, a spokesperson for one of those companies, Ferrellgas Partners based in Overland Park, Kansas.
Propane gas is a byproduct of crude oil extraction, Mr. Brockelmeyer said, and includes extraction by fracking the hydraulic fracturing of subsurface rocks to create access to buried oil and gas. Propane is plentiful; supplies were at a 20-year high over the summer of 2015, Mr. Brockelmeyer said.
In the propane business, the principal challenge is competitive pressure, and the keys to success are the right number of truck drivers, the right number of trucks and the availability of bulk storage, he said.
Residential propane customers fall into two categories, Mr. Brockelmeyer said: resupply on demand and resupply based on customer use patterns and/or Wi-Fi monitoring.
"We're receiving a lot of calls" from the Skyline area, Mr. Brockelmeyer said.