What to Do About No. 2?
Newcastle — Running the furnace is not foremost in the mind when the outside temperature is in the nineties, as it was last week when one of the local No. 2 providers snuck his pre-buy offer into my mailbox. So it’s time again for A Great Oil Gamble (AGOG). It happens every June.
When I moved here in 1996 the price for a gallon of fuel oil was about 55 cents; the gud auld days. It bounced up to about 70 cents as Fall came (it used to be reliably cheaper in the summer; remember?) The price slowly fell over the next couple of years, reaching, nationally (but not in Maine), just over 30 cents at the end of 1998; the gudder auld days! A slow rise pushed the cost to $1.85 in January of 2000, but it fell back to $1.10 by January of the next year. Nationally, the price dropped back to 55 cents, taking its most precipitous drop, curiously, after 9/11, but, again, Maine held fast between $1.10 and $1.40 through the Spring of 2004. For the heating season of 2004-5 I did an AGOG at $1.69. The cost nationally was considerably below this, but I recall my action as a win, locally. For 2005-6 I paid the going rate which wobbled around $2.40. In 2007-8 I watched with chagrin as the price soared over $3.00, but a late year decline brought it back to $2.00 at the end of the 2008-2009 season. Clearly it was time again for AGOG and I paid $2.30 for the 2009-10 and $2.80 for the 2010-11 seasons, both years well below market. For example, I coughed up $3.65 per for my last 77 gallons in May 2011 after I exceeded the volume of my pre-buy.
How does one decide on AGOG? I have a letter from Colby and Gale, Inc., dated June 2008, offering to carry me through the 2008-2009 season at just $4.60/gallon. I kept the letter because the price so astonished me. I chose not to participate, and as detailed in the preceding paragraph, it was the right choice. I have consistently made the right choice; dumb, blind luck.
The front page of the February 4, 2012 New York Times carried a story “In Fuel Oil Country Cold That Cuts To The Heart.” The article deals with the difficulty of staying warm in Maine where most homes are old and drafty and use oil furnaces for heat. This is not a good combination given the current price of black gold. This last heating season saw the cost holding between $3.50 and $3.80, about seven times what it was when I moved here. Nobody offered an attractive pre-buy for the 2011-2012 season. Heating my old lobster trap had become a significant expense. What to do?
From an article in The Village Soup this year: “For the second week of February, using the average heating oil price and converting to a common heating unit value (million BTU) the price of fuel oil was reported at $27.18. This compares with an equivalent heating unit value for natural gas of $15.70 (at $1.57/therm); propane, $34.71 (at $3.17/gallon); wood pellets, $14.30 (at $236/ton); and cord wood, $10.50 (at $210/cord).”
Most of us in Maine do not have access to natural gas; propane is too expensive, as is electricity, so the only realistic alternative to demon oil is to use a wood stove. I have a wood/coal second furnace and a wood stove in one of my living rooms which is unheated. I haven’t used the wood furnace previously and the wood stove serves only the one room. But the times, they are a-changing. In a March 2012 article in The Coastal Journal, Mr. Kando noted that the median consumption of oil in a Maine home is 1,103 gallons. This results in an approximate cost of $4,478 for the heating season, given the cost at the time of $4.06/gallon. That is simply staggering. Nobody should put up with that.
Last Fall I added a second wood stove on the main floor and collected a basement full of firewood. I challenged myself to get through the 2011-12 season on one tank of oil (275 gallons).
To get some perspective on how bold was this challenge, note Kando’s previously cited median consumption. My personal fuel oil usage since 2000 averages to his estimate. It has fallen slowly from about 1300 to 850 gallons as I have caulked and added storms and done all the easy fixes that Paul Kando proselytizes. I had also lowered the thermostat from a comfortable sixty-nine to sixty-four. This last season I endured an uncomfortable fifty-nine while I put up with the mess and inconvenience of maintaining the wood fires.
So how did I do? I failed. My oil consumption for this relatively warm heating season turned out to be 277.5 gallons. I came that close! Will I try again in the coming year? I don’t believe so. It was a lot of work and discomfort. 59 degrees is awfully chilly. Should I be content with saving $3000? That’s not the point. The challenge wasn’t a matter of money (I have plenty) but of principle. I’ll be damned if I’ll spend $4500 to heat my house, and I hope that most people share this attitude. Yes, don’t just hold out your hand for help, do something!. I think I’ll shoot for 500 gallons next year.
A funny thing is that I didn’t actually save any money. I scrounged all of the firewood, but there was the cost of the additional (used) wood stove, and in the Spring I upgraded my jury-rig connection to the furnace chimney with a three port chimney liner and also replaced my inadequate hearth pad. Poof went the profit. Of course the improvements were going to have to happen someday, if I wanted to bring my systems up to code or contemplate some upgrade of my furnace in the future.
Say Guv, on that subject, I really would like to put in a gas furnace. Let’s get moving on those pipelines eh? Oh! You’re wondering about that pre-buy offer of last week. It was for $3.89/gallon. No thanks.