ELLSWORTH - Central Lake resident Jack Vanniman has been delivering propane to local homeowners and businesses for the last 15 years. A whole lot of propane. In just the last two and a half years, he has pumped more than 1.75 million gallons into local storage tanks.
Jack is a driver for Ellsworth Farmers Exchange, which began serving the community in 1918 as the Banks Township Marketing Association and was reorganized in 1929 under its present name. Jack began working there in 1976, delivering Coke to East Jordan Iron Works. That was back when the train out of Traverse City went through Ellsworth, the nearest off load point to the Iron Works. “After the train stopped running I repaired tires on company trucks and delivered fuel oil for awhile,” Jack explained.
By 1987, propane had become so popular for home heating the Farmers Exchange got into the delivery business. Today, they deliver 20 times more propane than fuel oil. Jack explains, “It’s cleaner burning than fuel oil and propane boilers and furnaces require a lot less maintenance.”
Asked if delivering propane during cold Michigan winters is a tough job and Jack will point out that pulling 150 feet of supply hose over snow is a lot easier than dry ground or pavement. Also, wasps and hornets are not active during the winter and they love to build nests under the large domed lid at the center of the tank.
More than 15 billion gallons of propane are used annually in the United States, mostly for home heating. Also known as liquified petroleum gas or LPG, propane is a byproduct from the processing of crude oil and natural gas with around half of the supply coming from each source. Propane is an integral component in natural gas deposits and must be removed so it does not condense to a liquid inside the pressurized natural gas distribution lines and cause problems.
The tendency for propane to remain a liquid at easy to maintain pressures is the key to its distribution and use. Large amounts of propane occupy a relatively small space as a liquid, so like fuel oil, it can be transported by truck and stored in residential tanks. When the furnace or hot water heater runs, it draws the propane through a valve at the tank which reduces pressure so only boiled off gas is drawn into the supply line. Just like fuel oil, the amount remaining in the tank is indicated by a dial connected to a float gage that measures the liquid level.
When it comes to refilling the tank, however, propane is a lot different. At the back of the delivery truck, Jack is faced with a number of gauges and sophisticated metering equipment necessary because the amount of heating energy in a gallon of propane changes with temperature. Liquid propane expands about 1.5 percent for every 10 degree temperature rise. The metering equipment corrects the amount delivered to gallons at 60 degrees Fahrenheit. This equipment is certified annually and inspected by the Michigan Department of Weights and Measures. That means in the dead of winter, the change indicated by the level gage on the tank will be somewhat less than the number of gallons shown on bills.
Jack prefers delivering propane to delivering fuel oil because he never comes into contact with the product. That makes it safer and Jack points out, “You smell a lot better at the end of the workday.”
Ask Jack about the can of dog biscuits in the driver’s foot well of his truck and he smiles. “They are for some friends I have made over the years. Once in a while there’s a dog that will make you run for the truck. Those guys don’t get biscuits.”
Backing a large truck with dual axles through deep snow and down long narrow driveways is not easy, but Jack Vanniman does not plan to quit any time soon.