Building a Bulk Plant: Van Etten Oil & Propane Expands

Over a period of about six weeks this spring, Van Etten Oil & Propane built a 60,000-gallon propane storage system on its property in Monticello, N.Y.

Here are some other facts about the project:

-Two 30,000-gallon propane tanks, made of half-inch thick steel, each weighing 80,000 pounds when empty

-The facility has one loading stanchion, and is piped for a second

-Tim Gottlieb, local engineer, designed the site plan, working closely with Hiltz Propane Systems, Marietta, Pa., which designed the bulk plant and also carried out the installation.

-Excavator on the project was MK’s Landscaping, Liberty, N.Y., including Tony Krum of MK’s.

– The budget for the project was $450,000.

Eli Van Etten, vice president of Van Etten Oil & Propane, talked about the project on May 9, in an interview at the site and in the company’s office. The project was well along to completion by that date, with the tanks installed. Van Etten said the aim was to have the plant operating in early June.—Stephen Bennett

Fuel Oil News: Why did you decide to build a bulk propane plant?

Eli Van Etten: We had a very wonderful arrangement through-putting with Porco Energy out of their Wurtsboro, New York, facility. Over the past eight and a half years we have built up our volume to the point where it was probably costing us the same if not a little bit more to through-put than it would to build our own facility.

It’s something I’ve had in mind for the last several years but I was just being patient and waiting until it made the most economical sense to go through with the project.

Obviously having your own storage, your own control of your storage, is an important thing for a propane company or an energy company, for that matter. We’ve operated petroleum bulk storage for seventy-five years. But this is a big step for us—moving into propane bulk storage.

Of course, after this particular winter, especially after Christmas till the end of January, when supplies were getting tight and transportation was hard to come by, there were a lot of challenges in the industry in the Northeast. We were contracted properly, we made it through, but we were certainly biting our nails the whole way. Having our own facility will certainly help us to be a stronger company for our customers.

FON: What were some of the expected and unexpected challenges of this project?

EVE: We were kind of worried about how the village planning board and building department and powers that be would respond to our request to build it. [Van Etten Oil & Propane worked closely with the village and studied the planning and zoning regulations that applied.]

We decided on a design that would comply with existing codes rather than apply for variances. That eliminated a lot of red tape. It meant that we ended up doing a partially underground facility. We literally designed our plant where we dug a huge hole and put our tanks in the ground.

The strategy worked, but interestingly enough, along the way, while we were preparing the hole in the ground, if you will, we ran into a problem with a lot of bluestone bedrock and ledge rock. We had to learn about underground mapping before we started bringing in excavators with hydraulic hammers to square off the excavation and dig down. [That threw the project a bit behind schedule.]

At the bottom of the pit we still had to pour what’s called a ballast pad. The tanks are strapped to this concrete pad so if there’s ground water they won’t float up out of the ground. This massive crane was scheduled to show up the next week. I had to go back to the planning board and tell them. ‘I have to change my design—amend my site plan. We ran out time to dig the hole [as deep as planned] because of the rock we’re dealing with.’

I asked them for permission to mound the tanks. That means instead of the tanks being totally underground they’re about half-way underground and then [covered with material]. You won’t see the tanks when we’re all done, but they won’t be fully underground like we initially thought they’d be. And thankfully, the village planning board gave us their blessing to do that.

They allowed us to do it in a way that satisfied them and let us continue working at a pace without interruption to the job. Otherwise we would have had to shut down and I was very concerned that the engineers and the people who were building the plant were going to have to move on to other jobs, because they have other commitments.

FON: The site has historical significance?

EVE: Our service department’s shop was the Ontario & Western Railway depot for Monticello. You can still see railroad ties in our parking lot. [The railway operated in the area until the 1950s, carrying tourists who came to visit the Catskills region.]

FON: Van Etten Oil & Propane has been in the propane business since 2010. How is this expansion going to change how you run your propane business?

EVE: [Under the through-put arrangement with Porco Energy, Marlboro, N.Y., Van Etten Oil & Propane stored its propane at Porco’s site in Wurtsboro, N.Y.]

In the very beginning when we first got into propane, we would just buy gallons off of [Porco’s] facility and they would charge us by the gallon. [For] every gallon we pulled out of there they would bill us for a gallon of propane plus a small fee for access to the terminal.

As our gallons grew, Porco encouraged us to establish relationships with our own suppliers. So, for the past several years we actually bought our own gas, transported our own gas and literally stored it at Porco. We rent space from them. Because of that we already have well-established relationships with multiple suppliers and we contract all of our own gas. [Porco’s] facility has acted like it’s our facility, if you will. Porco was incredibly generous to us. Their fees were very reasonable. We had, and still do have a fantastic relationship with [the Porco family] and Chris Scaturro of Porco Energy. They were very excited for us—that we’re building our own facility.

FON: What is the trend of the propane business for Van Etten Oil & Propane?

EVE: We’ve been in an upward growth trajectory since the first year we’ve been in the business. Volume has grown about 40% year over year.

The customer base is a healthy mix of apartment complexes, restaurants, warehouses, office buildings and residential. The residential part includes heat, cooking, hot water, pool heating, and backup generators.

I think our seventy-five-year history of serving this community has certainly helped us. This is a natural step to better serving our customers and continuing our growth. It just made the most economic sense for us to do it.

PICTURED (from left): Company Vice President Eli Van Etten; his son Jacob; daughter Molly; Jan Van Etten (Eli’s father and the president of Van Etten Oil & Propane); Patrick McGar, service manager; and Mike Foster, propane operations manager. Photo courtesy of Van Etten Oil & Propane.

Aerial photo on home page by Patrick McGar, using a drone-mounted camera.

A version of this article appears on Page 18 of the June 2018 print and digital issues of Fuel Oil News with the headline: “Building a Bulk Plant.”

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