Rising demand and dwindling supplies of helium are hitting San Joaquin County businesses as well as those in the rest of the country.
Rising demand and dwindling supplies of helium are hitting San Joaquin County businesses as well as those in the rest of the country. At Arthur’s Party World in Stockton, owner Mark Ehler said he’s seen the wholesale cost of helium nearly quadruple over the past year. As a result, he’s nearly stopped renting tanks for parties. “It’s just not cost-effective to be charging the retail customer more for the helium tank rental,” he said. Demand remains strong for individual balloons filled with helium, but prices are higher, Ehler said. “We have had to raise them probably 15 to 20 percent,” he said. “We just had to in order to stay competitive and just to cover costs. ”Another Stockton retailer, Barnes Welding Supply, has also stopped selling helium for recreation and entertainment, reserving what supplies it can get for its main business – welding applications, assistant store manager Stan Turnbeaugh said. “They keep telling us that at the first of this year we’ll start seeing helium again, but so far we have been seeing barely enough helium to meet our welding needs,” he said last week. “We have had some of our customers literally have to close doors because they just couldn’t get helium anymore,” Turnbeaugh said. Helium also is used in high technology, including as a coolant in MRI imaging machines. Tim Howard of Valley MRI and Radiology in Stockton said liquid helium coolant makes the machines much more efficient. “It has the benefit of reducing your demand for electricity,” he said. The helium shortage is a concern for the business, but so far, it has been protected by long-term maintenance contracts covering helium supplies for its machines, Howard said. “We’ve been fortunately blessed by not being overly impacted by it,” he added. Still, it is a major issue for a number of businesses in the area, said Ann Johnston, owner of The Balloonery in Stockton. While supplying balloons and balloon arrangements to individual consumers, it is also a distributor of helium, serving other small businesses such as florists and gift shops. She has enough helium to supply her own business and wholesale customers, but “a year ago, we were scrambling for product,” Johnston said. “We were able to overcome that and have been fine all year long,” she said. But it costs more. “My price has gone up – doubled,” Johnston said. “That’s the major issue, at least with the smaller businesses.” It’s not the first time The Ballonery has confronted a helium shortage in its 32 years of business, she noted. “We’ve been through the ups and downs. The last couple of years have been the most challenging in terms of that issue,” Johnston said. It has also left Ehler, who also operates a medical supply business, Ehlers Health Supply, wondering about the relative value of different gasses. He said one common-size tank of medical grade oxygen costs him less than $15, while the same tank of helium is $175.