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North country fuels up for winter heat bills

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CANTON - Brisk weather means heating bills are around the corner for north country residents.

Whether those bills will be higher, lower or about the same as last year depends on the weather and the heating source - fuel oil, electricity, natural gas, wood pellets, propane or wood stoves.

Residential natural gas users served by St. Lawrence Gas, Massena, are expected to see their bills drop by about 4 percent this year compared to last, but area oil suppliers said it’s difficult to predict what their prices will be in the coming months.

The popularity of wood pellet stoves continues to increase as consumers look for more convenient, cleaner ways to stay warm during the notoriously cold Northern New York winters.

Oil prices have been on the rise, but prices change on a daily basis, said John W. Baird, vice president of sales for MX Fuels, Massena.

There’s little correlation between fees at the gas station pumps and what consumers pay for heating fuel, propane and kerosene, he said.

“There’s a 50-50 chance of prices rising or going down at this point,” Mr. Baird said. “A lot depends on what happens with Iran, the presidential election and the world economy.”

On Thursday, MX was charging $2.24 per gallon for propane and $3.65 per gallon for fuel oil, which is about the same as last year, Mr. Baird said.

Charles J. Merriman, president of Merriman Fuels, Norwood, said the worldwide supply of oil is high and there is “no legitimate” reason for costs to increase.

However, he couldn’t guarantee that prices won’t climb this winter.

“We have no way of sensing what’s going to happen,” Mr. Merriman said.

Often, when the media starts speculating that oil prices will rise they create a self-fulfilling prophecy, he said.

“It becomes a media feeding frenzy,” he said. “There’s no reason for it to be going up other than speculation. It depends on what’s happening in the world, like if somebody starts fighting or blows up a big refinery.”

Wholesale oil prices can fluctuate by 6 or 7 cents a day, he said. Merriman’s was selling fuel oil for $3.65 a gallon Thursday, propane for $2.09 and kerosene for $3.95.

Alternative Sources

The popularity of other heating sources, including pellet stoves and infrared electric heaters, continues to grow, said William J. Coakley, Coakley Ace One Hardware, Canton.

“Wood pellet stoves continue to be very popular. They’re a lot easier and cleaner than regular wood,” he said. “You don’t have to cut or split the wood. You only have to fill a wood pellet stove once every two days.”

The wood pellet stoves at Coakley’s sell for about $1,399. The infrared electric heaters sell for $279, and they cost about $10 for every eight hours they’re running.

Brian Arquette, owner of Factory Fireplace, 7814 Route 68, Ogdensburg, sells between 15 and 20 wood and pellet stoves a year.

The price range at Factory Fireplace is from $1,200 to $4,000 per stove. Not surprisingly, there are two familiar reasons for Mr. Arquette’s annually brisk sales.

Financial and practical.

“A lot of people buy them because of rising fuel prices,” Mr. Arquette said. “You got a source of constant heat. And you save money.”

Across town at Aubuchon Hardware, 7444 Route 68, Ogdensburg, wood and pellet stoves cost anywhere from $599 to $2,000. Store manager Brett G. Graveline said the smaller models sell quicker, but preference varies with need.

“It’s all up to what you’re looking for,” he said.

And, as Mr. Graveline said, people are looking for clean, safe and mostly less costly ways to keep their homes warm in the winter.

“A lot of people are changing over,” he said. “And they (the wood and pellet stoves) are more efficient.”

At Lowe’s, 2001 Ford St., Extension, Ogdensburg, assistant store manager Eric B. Stevens said pellet stoves are more popular with customers than their wood-burning counterparts.

“It’s less mess,” he said.

Economic Advantage

As for the economic advantage of going wood or pellet, Mr. Stevens can take off his Lowe’s hat to attest to that. A few years ago, he switched his home heating preference from oil burner to pellet stove.

The next time he checked for cost comparison, he was pleased.

Mr. Stevens’s total oil-burning bill was $4,000 compared to the $1,200 bottom line for the pellet stove.

“It definitely saves money,” Mr. Stevens said.

Wood and pellet stoves also definitely need to be handled with care. Vendors, local code enforcement offices and fire departments should be contacted for advice on installation, operation and maintenance.

“You really need to know what you’re doing,” Mr. Graveline said.

Natral Gas Bills

James P. Ward, assistant general manager at St. Lawrence Gas, Massena, said natural gas customers will get a break this year. Company officials estimate a 4 percent decrease in residential gas bills compared to a year ago.

“Right now it looks like good news for our customers. Natural gas prices are projected to be lower than last year. We are therefore projecting lower prices for our customers,” he said. “That decrease reflects the normal weather pattern for this upcoming season compared to the very warm winter we had last year. The difficulty in projecting prices is you have to take the weather into account. If we project a normal winter, we’re looking at a 4 percent decrease.”

He said last year’s prices were down from the previous winter.

Customers who use the company’s budget plan may see less of a decrease than other customers because of last year’s rates, he said.

“Some of our budget customers ended the year with some very low monthly rates last year. That was because the way our budget works. We reassess it in April. We started out with some prices figuring that we would have a normal winter. When the winter didn’t show up, we adjusted the prices down,” Mr. Ward said. “We don’t want to have customers with a big balance at the year’s end.”

He said there’s no correlation between the St. Lawrence Gas costs and the increasing prices that motorists are seeing at the pumps.

“Natural gas and oil prices used to be kind of tied at the hip. When one went up the other one would go up. With all the new extraction methods for natural gas, those methods are keeping natural gas prices low. Oil and natural gas prices have been disconnected the last couple of years,” Mr. Ward said.

As the company expands into Franklin County, that could mean some lower prices in the future because there will be more customers over which to spread fixed costs.

A typical home using natural gas, based on September rates, would pay about $1,300 annually, Mr. Ward said.

Fuel oil users would pay about $2,800 based on those rates, he said, while propane users would pay about $3,300.

Electric Heat

Massena Electric Department is once again discouraging homeowners from using electric heat for their homes. Electric heat drives up costs for all ratepayers in MED’s district, according to Superintendent Andrew J. McMahon.

MED receives a certain amount of low-cost hydropower from the New York Power Authority each year. When consumer demand spikes and exceeds that allocation, MED is forced to purchase more expensive, supplemental power, driving up bills system wide, Mr. McMahon said.

“The more energy we use, the more our average cost of power is driven up,” he said.

He encouraged homeowners to take advantage of the energy audit program MED offers and to make the switch to alternative energy sources.

“The people who did the program were more appreciative that their home was more comfortable than the money they saved on electricity,” he said.

Wood Is Cheapest

Dale J. Matthews of Matthews Firewood, Brasher Center, said the least expensive way to heat a home is with firewood.

However, wood suppliers have been impacted by the growing number of customers who receive help through the Home Energy Assistance Program and the allowance changes that have been made to that program.

“The biggest issue business has been down a little bit because of the economy and growing number of people using HEAP,” Mr. Matthews said. “They’ve lowered the allowances for firewood customers and given more for people who burn fuel.” Last year, HEAP customers were given the option for an allowance of $250 for firewood and $550 for fuel, Mr. Matthews said.

“That hurt our profit margins and business a lot last winter,” said Mr. Matthews. “Most of the HEAP dealers have dropped out of the program because there wasn’t any profit in the business.”

Mr. Matthews said customers typically use 10 cords of wood per winter; $60 per cord for green wood and $70 for dry wood, with an additional delivery charge based on the load.

Three cords of wood is the equivalent of a 275-gallon tank of fuel oil, Mr. Matthews said. Using $3.69 per gallon as an example, the tank of fuel would cost $1014.75 while the three cords of dry wood would cost about $210.

Mr. Matthews said he will find out in early October what the new HEAP allowances will be for this winter.

“I don’t imagine they will change because, with the economy, there is still such a need for fuel,” said Mr. Matthews. “The government says they want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but they are in fact doing the opposite.”

HEAP Usage Up

More than 11,000 households in St. Lawrence County took advantage last winter of HEAP benefits, county Department of Social Services Christopher R. Rediehs said.

“I think it will be a similar number in the coming year that will use it,” he said. “We are grateful to have it.”

The program will operate much as it did last winter. Regular HEAP will begin Nov. 19. Emergency HEAP is expected to start at the beginning of January.

Income guidelines have changed slightly.

“If you’re eligible, you’re paid the benefit,” Mr. Rediehs said. “The amount of the benefit will be a little higher than it was this year.”

This winter is projected to be warmer than usual, but not as mild as last year when the temperature was higher than normal and snowfall was much lower, said Andrew Loconto, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Burlington, Vt. office.

Reporters Martha Ellen, Brian Kidwell, Bob Beckstead, Amanda Purcell, Brian Hayden and Sean Ewart contributed to this story.

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