Gas provider still losing accounts

01/12/2012

Those passing through Inverness Park last week may have been surprised to see an empty propane tank shouldering Sir Francis Drake Highway with a sign reading, “De Carli’s: If you respected your customers, you wouldn’t be reading this. Take this away, now.”

The sign was the work of Matt Gallagher, a West Marin native who says he has grown tired of poor service and perpetual administrative blunders by one of the area’s two leading propane distributors. The frustration came to a head on Christmas Eve, when Gallagher’s vertical tank, which is owned by De Carli’s and lacks a tracking gauge, unexpectedly ran out of gas. Gallagher, his wife and young son have gone without heat and hot water ever since.

But this is neither the first time nor the only reason that he and others in the community have taken issue with De Carli’s. Earlier last year, Gallagher says he began receiving four-year-old rental bills for the gas tank, which he’d come to believe he had owned since he’d never been asked to pay a rental fee in the past.

In addition, a couple of months ago he and his neighbors began smelling propane in the air near the site of the tank, suspecting the smell was the result of a leak. Only after “cajoling” a De Carli’s driver was Gallagher able to get the company to perform a simple bubble test, which didn’t show any leaks. Though the smell persisted, “there was no follow up with a better test,” Gallagher said.

“The bottom line is,” he added, “regardless of whether they are a bad company, they are doing nothing to show their customers that they actually care.” Gallagher is currently deciding whether to switch to the other leading provider, McPhail Fuel Company, or to try a relative newcomer, Pro Flame, based in
Cotati.

De Carli’s has serviced Marin and Sonoma counties since 1946, but in the last decade a series of issues have surfaced involving customer dissatisfaction. In 2003, for instance, problems in the company’s billing department led to widespread invoicing delays. In 2008, a payment discrepancy pushed De Carli’s to discontinue its service to an elderly resident in Bolinas.

In 2009, three West Marin customers filed a class action lawsuit against the company, alleging it had overcharged them on several past bills. A settlement was subsequently reached the following year, forcing De Carli’s to pay up to $34,000 in consumer refunds.

A recent thread on the West Marin Share Google group, titled “De Carli’s Questionable Service,” pointed to current customer concerns: “My opinion only: De Carli’s could care less about giving good customer service,” when one user wrote.

According to Denise Finley, a Pro Flame representative, Gallagher’s exasperation seems to be shared by several De Carli’s customers in West Marin who have recently inquired about switching providers. An obstacle for many, she said, is that the switch often means bringing the tank site up to county fire and earthquake code, which can cost up to $1,300.

The code, passed in 2001, requires new tanks to be equipped with gas shut-off valves and ground straps, and to be placed on a concrete pad.