Bobtail Tank Head Shortage Continues

Roger Smith has been getting a number of calls from propane marketers lately, wondering when they will receive their truck orders from his company, Kurtz Truck Equipment (Marathon, N.Y.). But Smith, vice president of marketing for the company, can’t give them a straight answer right now because of a bobtail tank head shortage currently plaguing the industry.

“We have about 20 signed contracts to build trucks, and we can’t get the tanks to build them,” Smith said. “I’m telling them that I talk to my tank supplier almost every day. Things are changing a little bit, and some heads are starting to pop up. I did find out I’m going to get three tanks in the month of October. It’s better than nothing, but it’s not going to light the world on fire.”

The reason for the uncertainty is that Trinity Heads (Navasota, Texas), the primary company in the United States that makes propane bobtail tank heads, has experienced mechanical problems with the press that forms the heads. The machine has been down or producing at reduced capacity for several months, affecting the operations of truck builders and their propane marketer customers. Smith noted that Kurtz Truck Equipment has always stocked surplus tanks, but they sold quickly when the supply got tight.

Milt Swenson, truck tank division manager for Arrow Tank (Cambridge, Minn.), has been fielding one or two calls a day from truck builders all over the country, asking when the propane tank heads will arrive so they can receive their orders. Swenson has told the truck builders they can refer the marketers’ calls to him for an explanation.

“A lot of them have taken me up on that, and I have gotten calls from end users,” Swenson stated, adding that he is filling the oldest orders first. “Whether it will take two weeks or three months to straighten this thing out, we don’t know until we see when the manufacturer of the heads can get back to full speed.” Talking to BPN in late September, Swenson said he heard from Trinity that its head press was back up and running, but the backlog of orders as a result of the problems is the reason for the continued delay. Swenson and other truck builders noted that Uniform Components Co. (Houston) is the only other U.S. company that produces tank heads, and they said they rarely buy heads from Uniform. But Swenson noted he has bought some heads from Uniform during the shortage. He added that he and other truck builders who are his competitors sometimes share heads when necessary. “We try to help each other out that way, and they will help me if I run into issues like that. But in this case, nobody’s got any.”

Trinity Heads, which is part of the industrial business segment of Trinity Industries Inc., produces heads for various industries, including propane. Contacted by BPN in early October, Trinity Heads’ general manager Stuart Cole would not provide any details on the equipment problems, other than to confirm that the equipment problems are occurring.

“I would leave it just that there’s a shortage in the industry right now and it will be a while until it’s resolved,” Cole noted.
Up to now, Lin’s Propane Trucks (Dighton, Mass.) has survived the tank head shortage in good shape because Lin’s keeps a large inventory of tanks on site. “We’ve been very fortunate because I know a lot of builders haven’t been able to do anything except refurbs,” said Scott Swensen, sales representative for Lin’s. “They can’t build any new trucks because they can’t get any tanks.” But he noted that Lins’ new tank inventory is getting low and the company will begin feeling the effects of the tank head shortage if the issue is not resolved soon. He added that the issue has been going on for about six months and that Lin’s just received some tanks in September that the company ordered in April.

Bobtail builder Western Cascade (Tukwila, Wash.) has also survived the shortage in decent shape so far. Owner Pat Malara said he is waiting to receive tanks that he ordered in January, but he tries to keep three new tanks and several used ones in stock.
“My only salvation was we have always bought every decent used tank we could get our hands on,” Malara stated. “That’s what saved us, because otherwise there’s no way we would have had a tank to build anything for anybody.”    —Daryl Lubinsky