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Honey, they shrunk the propane refills

Suppliers try to keep costs down by reducing size of fuel tanks.

Retired lawyer Stuart Barr, 65, picks up a tank of propane at a store in Denver, Colo., on Friday. He was not aware that the volume of the gas in the tanks had changed.

AP PHOTO

DENVER — Backyard grillers may get a little steamed this holiday weekend when buying refilled propane tanks: They will be getting less fuel for their money than last Memorial Day.

When oil prices soared in 2008, propane suppliers quietly reduced by two pounds the amount of gas pumped into each 20-pound tank, saying they wanted to avoid raising prices.

Since then, propane prices have been cut in half as the price of oil has dropped. But smaller refills are still being sold nationwide by many dealers, and most buyers are unaware because the tank is the same size.

“It’s a price increase,” retired lawyer Stuart Barr said Friday as he swapped a tank at a Home Depot store in Denver. “I’m a great believer in full disclosure. Give me the information.”

The problem, consumers say, is that no one tells them they’re getting less propane. Companies have adopted similar practices in the packaging of coffee, sugar and laundry detergent.

“I’m not surprised,” said Tammi Dorsey of Denver, carrying a tank of propane from a store Friday, initially unaware that she got less this time.

For the past year, tank exchanges at retail stores have generally cost $20 to $25. Consumers who refill their existing tanks pay $17 to $20.

Until last year, Blue Rhino and Amerigas, two major suppliers, put 17 to 18 pounds of propane in each 20-pound tank. Tanks should not be filled completely for safety reasons.

About a year ago, that amount was cut to 15 pounds to save consumers a price hike, Blue Rhino spokesman Chris Hartley said.

“There are a number of companies in different industries across the country addressing product packaging, just because of the soaring costs,” he said.

Last year, all energy costs increased sharply, as did the price of steel used in tanks. Crude prices soared past $100 per barrel at the start of 2008 and climbed toward $150 by July.

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