Is It Better To Exchange Or Refill Your Propane Tank?

We’ve done that math to figure out if you’ll get a better deal by exchanging your propane tank of getting it refilled. Let’s see if you’ve been getting ripped off.

A propane tank exchange machine.
This is what a propane exchange costs in my area.

Key Takeaway

Getting an empty propane tank refilled is more cost-effective than exchanging it for a new one. In most cases you’ll actually bring home more propane and spend less money at the same time.

It sounds hard to believe, but stick with me and by the time your get to the end of this article you’ll agree that propane tank exchanges are a rip-off.

The easiest way to decide if it’s better to exchange or refill your empty propane tanks is to compare the price per gallon. But to figure that out we first need to understand how much gas can actually fit in a propane tank.

A standard propane tank that you’d use on a backyard grill can hold 20 pounds of propane. Each gallon of propane weighs about 4.2 pounds. That means that a 20 pound tank can hold about 4.7 gallons of propane.

This is important because when you get a tank filled you know the price per gallon going in. The price should be posted at the fill up station just like you’d see at a gasoline station when filling up your car’s tank.

I recently took a ride to a U-Haul station that offers propane refills. I had two completely empty tanks and one that still had some in it. I got 13.6 gallons for a total of $57.80. That equates to a price of $4.25 per gallon.

A receipt showing a propane refill at $4.25 per gallon.
Transparent pricing, unlike propane exchanges.

But how does that compare to what you’d pay for an exchange?

Propane exchanges don’t give you the price per gallon so we’ll have to figure that out ourselves. They do give you a total price for the exchange itself and that price can range quite a bit. Some readers say it’s only about $18 where they live, but in my area it’s more like $24 to $26.

The picture at the top of this article is one I took at a Wawa store and the exchange price was $23.99, so let’s just use that as an average.

If you pay $23.99 and get a full 20 pound tank with 4.7 gallons of propane that would mean you’ll pay $5.04 per gallon. That’s already 79 cents more per gallon than the refill, but just wait until you hear the whole story!

It Gets Worse

When you exchange your propane tank you don’t get a full 20 pound tank back. They only fill it about 3/4 full so you really get 15 pounds of propane.

Let me say that again to make sure I’m being clear. Propane tank exchanges only give you a tank that’s 75 percent full. Instead of getting the full 4.7 gallons that can fit in the tank, you only get about 3.5 gallons.

That completely changes the math and makes a bad deal even worse. Using our example above, a tank exchange that costs $23.99 and only provides 3.5 gallons of propane equates to a price of $6.85 per gallon.

That is a HUGE difference!

So you have a choice. You can either pay $4.25 for a refill or $6.85 for an exchange. You’re paying 60 percent more for an exchange!

To be clear, the propane exchange providers don’t hide the fact that they only give you 15 pounds of propane. Blue Rhino says it right on their website and if you read the fine print at the exchange locker it too will say 15 pounds.

I just don’t think many consumers realize that 15 pounds is not really a full tank. That means the price can be misleading to the average griller who doesn’t know any better.

Why Do Propane Exchanges Cost More Than Refills?

With a propane exchange you’re basically paying a premium for convenience. There are tanks exchanges all over the place including many large retailers, gas stations, and garden centers. All you need to do is drop off your empty tank and grab a new one.

And new technology is making it even more convenient with completed automated machines where you can pay with a credit card and exchange your tank without even having to enter the store or talk to an other human being.

Tank exchanges also have a lot of overhead and additional costs. They have to use trucks to transport tanks to and from all those exchange locations and they need to maintain and either recertify expired tanks or take them out of service.

The Bottom Line

If you’re asking yourself if it’s better to exchange or refill your propane tank, the answer is clear. Refilling your empty tank will cost you less money and you’ll actually get more propane, which means the tank will last longer and you won’t run out as often.