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DECATUR – In the midst of a national helium shortage, floating balloons serving as tokens of affection for Valentine's Day can represent a precious commodity to business owners.

Helium, the second most common element in the universe after hydrogen, is distilled during natural gas production, and as a natural resource, cannot be duplicated.

The United States produces about 30 percent of the world’s helium, and cuts in natural gas production created a limited supply of available helium, causing costs to spike over the past several years.

“The price of helium has almost tripled in the last five years,” said Lori Barrett, co-owner of The Secret Garden, 1215 E. Pershing Road.

Florists and party retailers who sell helium balloons see a surge in sales around Valentine's Day, increasing the need to have an ample helium supply on hand to meet the demand.

Barrett said with the holiday rush, she expects this week's sales to total about as much as the entire month of January, and seven delivery trucks will be on the road Friday, as opposed to the normal one or two.

Diane Little, owner of Party Warehouse, 3090 N. Water St., carries a constant stock of about 10 helium tanks and goes through an average of 15 to 20 tanks each month. Though Valentine's Day usually brings in higher traffic for helium balloons, Little said graduation season serves as the busiest time of year when they could receive 1,000 pre-orders alone for balloons.

With the cost of helium increasing about four times in the past five years, many businesses have had to up their prices for helium balloons or make the choice to stop selling them, Little said.

“The cost of helium has become pretty substantial, but we try to be fair with our customers and have only increased the price once in the last three hits,” she said. “We've been blessed with our supply; a lot of stores didn't get helium for months, which can be devastating for businesses.”

Like oil and gas, helium is finite, and production cuts affect prices. Also, congressional legislation requires all federally held helium to be sold by the end of 2015, making helium a private enterprise in the United States.

Barrett said though they have been able to keep prices from increasing, the situation could change if the cost hikes continue.

“There will be a point where it will no longer be economically feasible, and there will be a day when we won't be able to sell them any more,” she said.

After 20 years in the balloon business, Camice Barker of Shelbyville recently told Barker’s Ballonery customers that the rising cost of helium was forcing her to raise her prices for inflating balloons.

“Over 20 years, the price has gone up 300 percent,” Barker said. “But this last increase, 30 percent, means we have to raise the cost of filling balloons.”

Helium has many technological applications in medicine and electronics, and giving balloons flight serves a very small portion of its uses. Because of its stability at low temperatures, helium is largely applied as a coolant to superconducting magnets found in most hospitals.

The resource produces magnetic resonance imaging for medical use, thermo graphic imaging in space and oceans and also has applications in welding, as well as manufacturing LCD flat panel screens.

Stuart Strate, owner of Decatur-based Airweld Inc., said many helium suppliers have had trouble in the past few years because they did not adequately prepare for the effects of the shortage.

“We tried to be more mindful of what was going on and decided to focus on maintaining our current business instead of taking on new business,” he said.

Businesses such as Barker’s, who purchase smaller amounts of helium, usually see the biggest price increases. Because of this, balloon manufacturers are coming up with other ways to inflate party and event decorations.

“There are lots of things you can do without helium,” Barker said. “Our prom and homecoming decorations for schools don’t have helium. Schools simply can’t afford it. You don’t need helium to do wedding decorations. We just have to be more creative.”

But one segment of Barker’s business is sure to see cutbacks. She often donates balloon bouquets and decorations for fundraisers.

“I can’t do that anymore,” she said. “Not the helium ones. Helium is like gold to me, and I can’t give it away.”

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