Berlin Council Hears Natural Gas Project Update

BERLIN — The conversion of properties in Berlin from propane to natural gas is nearing the halfway mark with a soft completion date set for July 1.

Total conversion of Worcester County, however, is still a work in progress with even ballpark estimates anticipating five to seven years before the project is finished.

The conversion is being handled by Sandpiper Energy, an affiliate of Chesapeake Utilities. An update was given to the Berlin Mayor and Council Monday night.

“We’ve sectionalized Berlin into eight sections. We’re currently working on our third section,” said Steve Tull, Sandpiper’s energy manager of gas conversions. “As of close of business today, we’ve converted approximately 185 businesses and residencies. That third section should be completed within two weeks which will complete 53 percent of the customers in Berlin. We expect to be completely done in town, everything within town limits, by early to mid-summer.”

The conversion from propane to natural gas is optional for properties but encouraged as the more customers that switch to natural gas the cheaper the enterprise becomes for everyone on the network.

“The more gas load that we get off of propane and on to natural gas the more the rate comes down,” Tull said.

The process has so far run smoothly, though there have been occasional delays when specialized parts are needed and must be ordered. Tull told the council that his personal goal is to have all of Berlin converted by July 1. Even if the conversion picks up pace, Tull promised the council that there were no real risks as far as safety is concerned as the town will have a modern system.

“I can assure you that every piece of pipe in this town has been completely tested and surveyed by the end of this process,” he said. “This will be the safest system that we have in our entire area just because of the way that we have to do it.”

In fact, about 90 percent of Sandpiper’s total system is constructed of plastic with only a half-mile or so of cast iron left in Salisbury waiting on renovation. On the topic of safety, the council wanted to know what role Sandpiper will have once the lines have been installed.

“Do we have a maintenance and monitoring schedule?” asked Councilman Dean Burrell.

The typical schedule on that is on a three-year rotation, according to Tull. But other factors vary, with public line areas surveyed every year. In the case of a gas leak, Chesapeake Utility has an average 20-minute response time companywide.

While Berlin’s conversion should be wrapping up soon, the council was curious as to how long it will take to bring the rest of the county onboard.

“How long before the full conversion of the franchise area that you’re responsible for? How long do you think that will take?” asked Mayor Gee Williams.

Tull expects that Sandpiper will be working on Ocean Pines for a few years and that just reaching Ocean City is going to take some major effort.

“Ocean City is a bit of a challenge. We’ve got to get under the bay to get to Ocean City. We’ve started looking at that process. I would probably anticipate five to seven years,” he said.

But progress overall has been satisfying and Tull believes that customers will begin to see “significant savings” as the conversion brings more and more natural gas into the system. Williams said that he was happy to hear a positive report and he believes that property owners who might not be ready to sign-up to switch from propane yet might be encouraged to be brought into the fold after they have seen positive results over the next few months.