Inventor finds easy propane tank gauge


SACRAMENTO, Calif. – With the summer barbecue season well under way, gas grillers everywhere face the bane of propane: running out in mid-cookout. A Granite Bay, Calif., inventor known worldwide for devising a scale used to weigh animals says he has a solution.

Al Werner’s Propane Tank Scale senses the weight of a propane tank and uses a simple one-button LED system to alert a user when it’s time to refill. The idea came to him about three years ago.

“I ran out of propane in the middle of a barbecue,” Werner said. “I thought, “I know I’m not the only person that this has happened to. How I can I solve this?”‘

His answer is a decade-long story about how inventions evolve, and the battle inventors face to sell them for profit.

In 1997, the Sacramento Zoo was looking for a scale to weigh one of its lions. Zoo officials were concerned that the animal was sick; accurately tracking its weight was one way to monitor its health.

Werner’s company, Gagetek, made weight-sensing “load cells” that convert downward force into an electric signal.

It worked. Refinements followed. The Gagetek RB-100P Portable Platform Scale became a word-of-mouth hit.

The Propane Tank Scale, however, is a moneymaking venture. It uses the animal scale’s load cell technology packaged in a 2-pound black plastic ring that looks like a car steering wheel. The user places it on a flat surface next to a gas grill, sets the propane tank on top and connects to the barbecue as unusual.

A push button activates a five-LED panel powered by two AA batteries. The tank’s weight is translated into descending quarter-tank measurements next to each light, from “Full” to ” ¼.”

As the tank gets lighter, the LEDs darken one by one until only the “Refill” light remains on, indicating about 2 pounds of liquid remain in a 20-pound tank.

Rick Self, owner of Placer Propane in Roseville, Calif., said that during the summer months he gets dozens of panicked barbecuers each week who run out of fuel in mid-grill.

“It’s a common problem,” Self said. “And the thing is, the only way to tell for sure how much gas you have is by weight.”

Pressure gauges, which sell for as little as $16, aren’t accurate because they measure gas pressure, not propane’s liquid volume or weight, Self said. “So you never really know how much propane you have until you’re on fumes,” he said. “By then it’s usually too late.”

Several manufacturers sell low-priced magnetic strips, “but to get a reading you have to boil water and pour it on the strip,” Self said. “Who wants to do that?”

A new generation of translucent composite cylinders allows users to see the fuel level, but at $80 and up, they’re roughly two to four times the price of a steel tank.

Some barbecues have spring-loaded arms that attach to a tank and move an indicator bar as the cylinder empties.

“But those rust, get bent, the spring just wears out or the arm sticks,” Self said. “People come in all the time and tell me that the thing showed half-full right up until they ran out of gas.”

Tom Tapken, chief executive of patio furniture and barbecue retailer California Backyard, said, “We always recommend an extra tank as the only surefire way to know you will have gas.”

The Gagetek scale uses the same weight principle employed by companies that fill large propane tanks and tanker trucks, said Lesley Garland of the Sacramento-based Western Propane Gas Association.

“(Werner) has taken the technology used industrially and brought it down to the consumer level,” Garland said.

But designing a problem-solving gadget and selling it for profit are distinctly different things. Retail space is precious. Profits margins are thin. Store decision-makers can be skeptical of new products. And the sales window for outdoor accessories is open just a few months of the year.

“I have no retail experience,” said Werner, an aeronautical engineer whose day job is running a company that makes machines that automate production. “With industrial applications, 500 units is a large run. In retail, though, I now understand you need to sell thousands or tens of thousands of copies, or you don’t make any money.”

No one knows how much propane flows through America’s barbecues, but 10.1 million gas grills were shipped to retailers in North America last year, according to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, an industry trade group based in Arlington, Va.

Assuming the average grill lasts for seven years, Werner figures there are up to 50 million in use – and nearly that many gas grillers who could use his scale.

The trim 58-year-old has spent close to $40,000 on the scale’s research and development and three years of evenings and weekends refining it. He even traveled to China to meet with manufacturers there.

The scale debuted at a Nevada trade show late last month to rave reviews. Industry trade magazine Hearth & Home recognized it as the one of the year’s best new products.

Werner has sold about 500 units so far, about one-fifth of his first shipment from China. Gagetek charges $29.95 per scale on its Web site, but some stores sell it for less.

Werner would like to get the price below $20, but shipping and distribution costs made that impossible with the first batch.

Patenting may be a bigger issue than price, said Dennis Tootelian, a marketing professor at California State University, Sacramento.

“I’m surprised that a major manufacturer hasn’t tackled this. It’s such an obvious problem,” Tootelian said. “But what this guy needs to watch out for is a big company with deep pockets coming up with a few minor tweaks to his idea and then pulling him into an expensive patent fight. They’ll bleed him dry.”

Werner declined to talk about patent infringement issues.

Tootelian also suggested that Werner establish a sales record that he can use to crack other retail outlets and create a distinct brand, starting with a different name that will stand out. Werner picked “Propane Tank Scale” to maximize the product’s Google search exposure.

The big money, however, could come from licensing the scale’s technology to barbecue and patio heater manufacturers who could incorporate it into their products.

“All it takes is just one,” Werner said. “The rest would follow.”

(c) 2007, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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AP-NY-07-03-07 0610EDT