Cylinders Gone Missing

Janice Bandy

No problem? Someone has to pay!

“I got tanks from a welding supply dealer several years ago. Don’t use them much. The tanks went empty and when I went back to get refills I found out the dealer went out of business with no notice. Now I’m having trouble getting them refilled.”

“I was just given a torch set and the two oxygen tanks need refilling. What is the going rate to have tanks refilled? Can anyone suggest a place to have it done? I called around and nobody wants to touch personal tanks.”

The above two postings on two different Internet discussion forums are symptomatic of a problem several GAWDA members are pointing to as escalating over the past few years—the refilling of cylinders by people other than their owners; or, in the words of one distributor: “disappearing cylinders.” And another: “stealing cylinders.”

A Question of Ethics

2006 GAWDA President Whip Seaman, president of Corp Brothers (Providence, RI), weighs in on the topic of cylinder ownership, saying, “With all the mergers and acquisitions in our industry, proof of cylinder ownership by cylinder identification has become blurred. Who owns a cylinder with a National Cylinder Gas neck ring? I am a Praxair distributor. Praxair sold me all the tanks I was renting from them several years ago. How do I tell my tank from their tank, particularly when it might be a tank I exchange with them?

“It’s very tempting for people to make assumptions about cylinder ownership. For instance, a customer may think, ‘If I don’t know who to return it to, I might as well keep it.’ Unless ownership can be proven by serial number, challenging ownership of cylinders in another’s possession is impossible. This is where bar coding can be a great help.”

Some distributors attribute the increasing problem to the number of big-box stores now exchanging cylinders. Others attribute it to ignorance of the regulation; still others to the high amount of consolidation and changing store ownership. Whatever the reason, distributors should be aware that the problem is becoming rampant, and judging by the number of posts on the Internet from users of cylinders, it is not going away anytime soon. (Ed. note: As of press time, requests to big-box stores for official training procedure on filling cylinders went unanswered.)

In short, users of tanks want them refilled—quickly, easily, cheaply. In many cases, the individual with the tank does not realize it belongs to the company whose name is on that tank, and in essence, they are only leasing the tank. Some of these tanks were purchased at auctions or handed down, with no paperwork.

Following are some of the online responses to the above postings:

  • “I just swapped a cylinder at (big-box store) with no questions asked.”
  • “If you leased them and the dealer sold the business, they belong to the new owner. If that store closed, they are abandoned and are yours.”
  • Cylinder Ownership Lawsuit Settled

    Airgas and Scott-Gross Company jointly announced on January 26, 2009, the settlement of a lawsuit relating to a cylinder exchange program operated by Scott-Gross’s wholly owned subsidiary Thoroughbred Industrial Cylinder Exchange. All parties agreed to dismiss their various claims and counterclaims without any admission of wrongdoing by any party and without certification of the plaintiffs’ claims as a class action. The lawsuit, which was originally filed in 2005, revolved around Thoroughbred’s alleged acceptance, refilling and relabeling of Airgas Mid-America cylinders at certain retail locations. Read the terms of the settlement

  • “I’ve gotten tanks from (big-box store) with all kinds of names stamped on them. I assume they just take them and repaint them for the next customer.”
  • “I’ve never seen them even look at a tank that I brought back empty. Most of the time, I just drop it on their dock, pay for a new one in the office, and help myself to a full one. Sounds like you need to find a more relaxed company to deal with.”
  • “My cousin works for (gas supplier) so I get him to swap my empty cylinders.”
  • “Just bought two sets of cylinders at estate auction. Sometimes I think it depends on the mood of the guy at the counter when you get refilled.”
  • “Find out who bought the store, and get them refilled there. Beware, the competition is gone and you’ll be gouged.”
  • “I’ve bought five tanks over the past 30 years, all from different sources, and I’ve changed suppliers several times. They all just exchange them and thank me for the business. No trouble at all.”
  • “Look for another supplier. Sounds like the one you are dealing with doesn’t want your money.”
  • “The dealer is just looking to make more money off you. I have tanks in two different states and never had any trouble getting them exchanged or refilled. My two sets of oxygen and acetylene were purchased used, without a receipt. Sounds to me like you need to find a new dealer. Where there is competition among dealers, this will not happen. Only a dealer who has an exclusive area is going to play games with you. You can’t control what a supplier will do, but you sure can replace them.”
  • “Need a receipt? ‘Give’ them to a friend who could sell them back to you. You could write them a check that they just decide to rip up. Then at least you would have a bill of sale.”
  • “The bill of sale serves as the title to the tanks and proves ownership. Maybe you can get a bill of sale somewhere. There’s a local plant here that may be able to help. Email me.”

The Deal With Aluminum Cylinders

Like many distributors, 2007-08 GAWDA President Gary Stoneback, vice president for operations at Metro Welding Supply Corporation (Detroit, MI), has seen a rise in propane cylinder business with contractors and industrial accounts. Along with that increased business has come the issue of keeping track of propane cylinders. “Most propane tanks are made of aluminum, the cost of which has gone up. Sometimes these tanks are as expensive as a standard cylinder,” Stoneback says. “Historically, people who are just in the propane business have not viewed propane tanks as assets, but the cost is forcing them to. People are stealing them just for the scrap value of the aluminum.” Stoneback tracks his propane cylinders with bar codes, the same way he does with standard cylinders (see page 63). “It’s become a big challenge for us because there’s really no formal rule for the return of propane cylinders.”

 

Janice Bandy
Janice Bandy

Rampant Problem
Janice Bandy, president of Metroplex Service Welding Supply (Fort Worth, TX), says a lot of the problem exists because people are not trained properly or don’t understand the rules. “The consolidation in our industry has created conglomerates whose employees often don’t know who they’ve purchased, nor have these giants been required to change their neck rings, leading to theft by ignorance,” she says.

Big-box stores are also troublesome. Bandy sent a relative to swap cylinders at a big-box store. The cylinders were clearly marked on the neck ring, shoulder and side. When asked, “Can we swap these cylinders?” the big-box employee quickly said, “Sure, no problem.”

No problem? Well, it is a problem. It is a problem because distributors are losing assets every day. It is a problem because it’s not clear who is responsible if something goes wrong with a cylinder that has had a neck ring removed. It is a problem when people filling the cylinders are not properly trained. It is a problem when customers believe rising costs justify theft. And it’s a problem when users think the only reason a distributor won’t swap a cylinder is to make money.

There are some bright spots. Increased education of employees is one of them. Another is from a forum user who simply posted the following:

“If your cylinders have ‘leased’ or ‘property of’ stamped on them, you cannot sell or buy them. You can’t sell a house you are renting, can you? Same with those cylinders.”

The end-user comments in this story came from online forums at www.smokstak.com and www.ytmag.com.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association