PERC Aims to Educate Consumers

A research-based consumer education program is scheduled to launch in spring 2016

By Stephen Bennett

After a hiatus of six years, the Propane Education & Research Council is back in the consumer education business in a big way. The Council’s 2016 budget for consumer education is nearly $10 million.

PERC’s consumer education authority was restored in 2015 after a six-year restriction triggered by a Commerce Department price analysis in 2009.

“We are now free to resume that consumer education work, which for our purposes means talking with the general consumer audience about the generic benefits of propane,” said Gregg Walker, director of communications for the Council, based in Washington, D.C.

“We’re going to resume talking with consumers about all of the ways propane can help them save money, cut emissions and take part in a wider movement to increase American energy security and independence,” Walker said. “But the way we talk about it may change. So many things have changed since August of 2009”–when the Council complied with the DOC restriction.

“Any messages we use in our new consumer education campaign will be driven by data,” Walker said. “We have a research project underway now and we’ll be working with our strategic partners to develop messages that work. But it’s almost certain they will be different messages from what we were using six, seven, eight, nine years ago because so many things have changed.”

Since 2009, approximately 40 new propane-fueled products have come onto the market, Walker said. “This is equipment of various kinds”–appliances, school buses and other vehicles, commercial mowers–“that now runs on propane and is expanding the market. So we’ve got those things to talk with consumers about.”

Walker added, “We also have a very different energy environment now.” Propane production has risen so sharply in recent years that the United States is now the world’s leading producer and exporter of propane, he said. “We always thought of it as a clean, American fuel, but now we can say that with a lot of confidence because America makes more than enough propane to meet domestic demand.”

After its market research is completed, in February, the Council plans a short turnaround during which to develop the consumer education messages: a month or two, so that the program can launch in April.

Meanwhile, other long-running programs will continue, including outreach to the residential and commercial market, budgeted at $2.16 million. The program is targeted at residential and commercial builders, and plumbers and HVAC technicians; it is designed to provide information they need to specify and install and maintain appliances and equipment that run on propane. “This is an ongoing program that we’ve had for several years,” Walker said, “and it consists primarily of training, trade shows, public relations and advertising.”

Last, but hardly least, is a​”retire oil heat” campaign. While Fuel Oil News readers would largely have an issue with that campaign, especially given today’s clean-burning bioheat/ultra-low sulfur fuels and efficient oil-heat appliances, there are multi-fuel dealers in the industry (some with “oil” in their company name) who are already marketing against their oil product. Walker said the campaign was designed “to prepare fuel dealers–especially those folks who deal in propane and oil heat–to help hold onto accounts even when, say, an older oil heat system no longer makes sense.”

In places where laws or regulations are discouraging oil heat use, Walker said, “propane in many cases is an excellent replacement and it’s a way for a dealer who sells oil and propane to hold onto that account.”

In helping a person with aging oil heat equipment convert to propane, “there’s another benefit,” Walker said. “When you move from oil heat into propane you expand the number of possible applications in the home.”

Walker said that changing an account from oil heat to propane opens the possibility of getting the customer cooking with propane–“so there’s another burner tip.” Walker said, “Get him to use propane to fuel the fireplace–another burner tip.” Further, there is the potential for propane usage in standby generators and outdoor living equipment, Walker noted. Each additional burner tip helps to grow demand per household, Walker said.

In areas where electric rates are climbing, fuel dealers may be hearing from people who are heating with electricity and are looking for an alternative, Walker added.

“This program is designed to give those dealers all the information they need to help those electricity customers move into propane.”

The Council has a number of incentive programs including one for builders “when they build houses with a particular number of propane appliances,” Walker added.

The Council has programs in agriculture as well, where farm customers can get incentives for adopting propane technology.

In the meantime, the Council continues to support demand growth in every market propane serves through ongoing outreach efforts and through state programs, including safe appliance installation rebates.

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