Finding a source of helium isn't difficult, especially if you live near a large city. Many party supply stores rent out helium tanks to balloon artists. Helium is also used in welding and almost all welding supply stores carry helium. Even Walmart sells disposable helium tanks in their party supplies section. Before you rent a helium tank or purchase disposable helium tanks, first calculate how much helium you need. The easiest way to do this is to use our Balloon Performance Calculator which we will be covering in a later tutorial.
Is there a helium shortage? The short answer is no. Helium is the second most abundant element in the universe. However, we have seen the price of helium increase significantly over the past decade. In the 2000s helium was significantly cheaper than it is today. Every family restaurant and car lot had helium filled balloons as decorations. This abundant and cheap supply of helium was the result of the U.S. Government deciding to sell off their reserves of helium in the late 90s, helium reserves they had managed since the 1930s. The market was flooded with helium. Natural gas refining facilities saw no need to extract and sell helium from their gas fields because they could not compete with the U.S. Government's cheap supply. In the 2010s, this cheap supply of helium started to taper off. The price of helium started to rise and natural gas refining facilities could compete in the helium market for the first time in almost two decades. However, they first had to build / upgrade plants that could extract the helium from natural gas. Before many of these new plants could be built or upgraded, the U.S. Government reserve ran low and the price of helium increased significantly. This caused many people to believe there was a helium shortage when in fact the opposite is true. As long as we have natural gas for cooking and heating our homes, we will never have a helium shortage. Helium is a byproduct of the natural gas industry. As more refining facilities invest in helium extraction facilities, we can expect to see the price of helium come back down. The image to right is of a helium extraction facility recently built in Utah (image courtesy of IACX Energy). Although we may never see helium at the price it was in the early 2000s, it still remains affordable for launching weather balloons, especially when placed in the context of the cost of all the other equipment invested in a launch.
Locating Helium Using Google Maps - The easiest way to find helium is to go to google maps, zoom in over the nearest city, type helium into the address search box, and click the search icon. The image to the left shows all the search results that come up for Denver, CO. Results include party supply stores, welding supply stores, businesses that specialize in balloon promotions, even a small family business renting helium tanks out of their home. Other good search terms to use in google maps are party supplies, welding supply store, gas supply, etc. Once you have compiled a list of places to purchase helium, shop around for different quotes.
Renting from a Party Supply Store - This is typically the easiest way to source helium if you are just getting into launching weather balloons. Many party supply stores will rent out helium tanks for up to three days. Party supply stores are also more than happy to rent out helium tanks to private individuals. However, be very careful when working with party supply stores. Some of them mix their helium with nitrogen in order to increase their profit renting out tanks. If you're using helium to inflate a party balloon, adding a small amount of nitrogen won't make too much of a difference. However, if you're using a helium / nitrogen mixture to inflate a weather balloon, your balloon will burst at a lower altitude than it would if you used pure helium. Make sure you inquire if the helium is pure or mixed. If you aren't satisfied with the answer, it would be best to find an alternate source of helium. Also make sure you return the helium tank on time. Many party supply stores take a significant portion of your safety deposit if you are late returning their tank. If you feel you might need the tank for more than a few days, negotiate a one week rental before you rent the tank.
Purchasing from a Welding Supply Store - Helium is a common inert gas used in the welding industry. Most welding supply stores carry helium gas. Many welding supply stores require you to lease a helium tank for up to ten years. You then pay for the cost of the helium on top of the lease. This gives you the benefit of being able to keep the tank for as long as you need without late fees. You may even be able to use a larger tank for two or three launches. Once your tank is empty, simply return it to the welding supply store and they will swap it out with another tank that is already full. Most welding supply stores will deliver the tank to your door for a small fee, especially if you are a business or a school. If you plan to launch weather balloons often, we recommend leasing two helium tanks from a welding supply store. If the first tank is getting low, you can still use the remaining helium on your next launch and then connect the inflator to the second tank to finish inflating your balloon. If you only have one tank, you would have to replace the partially full tank (helium you paid for) with a full tank before you launched your next mission.
Purchasing Disposable Helium Tanks - Balloon Time is a company in the U.S. that manufactures and sells disposable helium tanks. Most party supply stores, and even Walmart, carries their tanks. You can even purchase them online. Their jumbo tank is filled with 14.9 cu.ft. of helium. You will need three jumbo tanks to launch our Eagle Pro Kit with a 350 g weather balloon. If you want to launch our Eagle Pro with a 600 g weather balloon, you will need four jumbo size tanks. Balloon Time tanks store helium at a low pressure and do not legally require a gas regulator. Because you are purchasing the helium and the tank, the cost is higher per cubic foot of helium than renting. It is also awkward inflating a weather balloon with a tank which is designed for inflating party balloons. However, you don't have to hassle with renting, and you get to keep the tank for as long as you like.