Bad roads, cold trigger delays, higher costs for heating firms

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The average cost of a gallon of heating oil in
Pennsylvania in late January was about $3.80, a
price that has risen in part because of the increase
in demand.
The average cost of a gallon of heating oil in Pennsylvania in late January was about $3.80, a price that has risen in part because of the increase in demand.

Colder than normal temperatures, including a spate of severe cold snaps, has led to heating oil and propane gas shortages – and price hikes – in locations across Pennsylvania.

Part of the problem, according to Jane Apgar Domitrowitz, owner of Apgar Oil in Allentown, is people who haven’t ordered enough oil, after several warmer winters, and are now spiking the demand.

Terry Smith of Trexler-Haines Gas Inc. in Allentown said the demand for propane has been at about 104 percent of what it was last year. The winter’s extreme downward spikes in temperature fueled some of the increased demand, he said.

Getting the oil from where it is stored to retail oil distributorships such as theirs has been part of the challenge. Wholesale distributors have had difficulty in getting the fuel to where it is needed in a timely-enough fashion.

To help ease some of the burden on heating fuel companies trying to keep up with the demand, the state Department of Transportation late last month temporarily waived certain restrictions on commercial drivers who are delivering heating oil and propane gas to homes and businesses for heating purposes.

The move extends the limits on hours of service for fuel delivery drivers.

According to PennDOT, drivers usually must take a mandatory rest period after 11 hours behind the wheel.

Under the waiver, the limit for driving hours is extended to 14 hours. Exemption is also granted from the requirements of the 60/70-hour limits rule. This rule requires drivers to stop driving upon accumulating 60 or 70 on-duty hours over a period of seven or eight consecutive days, respectively.

The waiver extends through Feb. 11 or until the emergency conditions end.

Domitrowitz said the waiver is helpful, especially on the wholesale level. She said that while her drivers have been extremely busy getting heating oil to people on a faster schedule or on an emergency basis, they have not gotten to the point where they were exceeding limitations.

She said, though, that it is good to have that option should the extreme cold continue or worsen.

The biggest challenge for her drivers has been the hazardous driving conditions on local roads.

“We always say in the [heating] fuel business that we love the cold but hate the snow,” she said.

Drivers are slowed by poor road conditions and often have had to make more than one trip to a customer’s home or business because a delivery could not be made because of snow.

An additional challenge to the propane industry, Miller said, is an overall shortage of propane gas for heating.

He said that propane stockpiles were at below normal levels at the start of the winter heating season because high propane prices in Europe and Asia led to excessive exporting by American companies over the summer.

Increased demand from extreme cold temperatures exacerbated the shortage.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a shortage to this degree,” Miller said.

He estimates that national stockpiles are at their lowest level since the 1990s.

Neither Miller nor Domitrowitz were concerned that their companies would not have enough fuel to meet the demand of their customers, thought they are concerned that prices have spiked higher because of the demand.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average price for a gallon of home heating oil in Pennsylvania last week was around $3.80, with propane prices just slightly lower at about $3.76 per gallon.

“There are several weeks of winter remaining,” Miller reminded.

Both urged those in charge of paying fuel bills to be mindful of extra usage and higher prices and budget accordingly to ensure proper heating through the remainder of the winter heating season.

Stacy Wescoe

Stacy Wescoe

Writer and online editor Stacy Wescoe has her finger on the pulse of the business community in the Greater Lehigh Valley and keeps you up-to-date with technology and trends, plus what coworkers and competitors are talking about around the water cooler — and on social media. She can be reached at stacyw@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 104. Follow her on Twitter at @morestacy and on Facebook. Circle Stacy Wescoe on .

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