BLOG: Running Out of Hot Air. Where Has The Helium Gone?
For the second time in three weeks I have gone to the Edgewater Safeway to buy balloons and they have been out of helium. I trekked over to Giant Foods where luckily they were able to blow up a dozen balloons for me; but not without informing me that helium is in short supply and I was fortunate a new tank had just arrived.
Seems the U.S. government created the National Helium Reserve in the 1920s with the intent of storing large amounts to fuel blimps which at the time were thought to be the next big thing in air warfare.
The blimp idea never came to fruition, and the government began selling off the reserve, which in part has led to the increase in demand and price.
I reached out to Marty Fish, executive director for the International Balloon Association to find out more.
Fish said the crisis began in 2007 when demand outpaced supply. Currently, there are only 14 natural gas fields in the world that contain enough helium for extraction. Due to the small number of sources, when a plant is slow to produce or there are problems with the extraction process, supply cannot keep up with demand. That combined with planned and unplanned shutdowns for maintenance on the U.S. pipeline as well as overseas results in a constant state of short supply.
What does this mean for consumers? In short, businesses with non-essential needs, like party stores, go on a helium waiting list. In addition, prices for helium-filled balloons are increasing slightly. Unfortunately, some stores that solely rely on helium could go out of business.
Fish said new sources for helium production in Wyoming, Algeria, and Qatar may bring relief by early next year but it will only fulfill pent up demand.
So, for balloon fans, everything is up in the air.
Ronnie Malley, manager of the Deale Rental Center, said he’s not having a difficult time filling his oxygen-size helium tanks, but prices have definitely increased.
“We had to raise our prices by 20 percent last spring,” said Malley. “But the good news is that prices have held steady the past few months and we have plenty of helium for our customers.”
I reached out to Safeway and Giant Food’s corporate offices to see how the helium shortage has affected their balloon sales and how often they received shipments of helium tanks. Calls were not returned. The store clerk acknowledged that balloon sales are a significant part of the floral business.
While helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, there’s still only a limited supply on Earth. Needless to say, I’m now less concerned about purchasing helium-filled balloons and more in-tune with the need to reserve the limited supply of helium.
Next time I need some balloons for an affair, I’ll simply tap into my own reserve of “hot air.”