BABY, IT'S COLD OUTSIDE.
That means your home's oil bill is getting hot.
The 7.7 million U.S. households (5.9 million in the Northeast) that heat with heating oil can expect to pay 32% more this winter over last year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). That spells an extra $378 tacked onto last year's average bill of $1,199, the EIA estimates.
Before you start shopping for a new home closer to the equator, here are seven ways to keep costs in check.
1. Shop around
Don't merely settle for the company you used last year make sure you're getting the best price and service. The New York State Consumer Protection Board estimates that prices vary by as much as 20% among competitors in a local market.
How do you find home heating oil providers in your area?
- Start at your county's web site. Some counties, like New York's Westchester County, keep a list of providers, including their prices, services and discounts.
- If you can't find information there, you might try your county or state's office of Consumer Protection or Consumer Affairs. These bodies, usually a division of the attorney general's office, oversee the registration of home heating oil companies, and monitor complaints. How accessible the list is varies by state New York, for example, will provide a list, as well as energy-savings tips, when you call the Consumer Protection Board at 1-888-ASK-PSC1. Connecticut's Department of Consumer of Protection asks for a written request.
- No luck? There's always the phone book.
Once you've narrowed down your choices, check to see if there are any outstanding complaints against them, advises Jon Sorensen, spokesman for the New York State Consumer Protection Board. To get this information, contact the Better Business Bureau, or call your local Consumer Protection office.
2. Join a co-op
Fuel-buying groups make deals with retailers to charge members a set amount over the wholesale price. So while prices may still vary throughout the season, your discount is locked in, says Phil Lindsay, oil program manager for the Massachusetts Energy Consumer Alliance. The fuel-buying group, which serves eastern and central Massachusetts, negotiates a fixed-margin price over wholesale for its 8,000 members. Right now, says Lindsay, full-service retailers are offering consumers $2.49 to $2.59 a gallon (cost per gallon will vary by provider), while Mass Energy members are paying $2.25.
Heat USA, a fuel-buying group that serves New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island, estimates that its members are saving between 18 cents and 36 cents off the regular prices of $2.40 to $3.01 per gallon, based on a comparison of prices with full-service companies in the those areas. Based on average home usage (864 gallons per year, according to the Consumer Energy Council of America), that's a savings of $155.52 to $311.04.
Generally, you'll be expected to pay an annual fee, but the price usually includes benefits such as a service contract to keep your furnace in top condition during the winter and ensures you'll get an emergency repair if it breaks. If your group happens to be a nonprofit, as with the Fuel Buyers Group in New York and others, that "membership contribution" is considered a charitable donation rather than a membership fee. You can deduct the membership contribution from your federal income taxes, but sadly, not your heating oil bills.
Look for a group that ties its prices to the wholesale market, rather than a retailer, warns Consumer Reports. It ensures that the price you're getting is based on the market, not what an individual dealer wants to charge.
Here are a few of the big names:
To search for other fuel-buying groups in your area, check the yellow pages; groups will be listed with other heating-oil suppliers. Can't find a group in your area? Consumer Reports recommends starting your own with neighbors or others in a common group. Then call up oil providers in your area to see what rates and services they would offer for a group of consumers buying collectively.
3. Dig for discounts
Check the usual suspects any organizations with which you are involved. For example, members of the union group AFL-CIO get discounts through Heat USA. In addition to discounts on full-service fuel oil purchases (estimated savings of $200 to $300 annually), you get a free service contract for your home heating system, $10 off the annual membership fee and 25 gallons of free fuel oil.
You might also qualify for a discount if you are age 55 or older, or have a large oil tank (500 gallons or more).
4. Know your pricing options
Most home heating-oil providers offer full-service contracts, meaning you agree to use them as your supplier for the season, and they provide automatic fuel delivery, as well as regular servicing and emergency repair for your furnace. (Your other option is to use a collect-on-delivery service; more on that in Tip No. 6.)
Most full-service retailers offer a variety of options. Each has benefits and risks, depending on the market and the weather, but it's important to understand the differences before you sign a contract:
Market price.You'll pay the market price of heating fuel at the time of delivery.
Locked (fixed) price.You pay a set price per gallon throughout the period of your contract. You're protected if prices soar, but you won't benefit if they fall below your fixed rate.
Capped price.You'll pay the market price up to a specified amount. If market prices fall, you'll pay the lower rate. Should the market price rise above your cap, you'll continue to pay the cap price. Be sure to ask if the cap will still hold should the wholesale price of heating oil rise above your cap.
Also ask about any extra fees the company charges, such as those for deliveries during the weekend, or during inclement weather. With high gasoline prices, you should also ask if you'll be subject to a delivery fuel surcharge.
5. Use collect-on-delivery services
Consumers really concerned with finding the lowest prices may benefit from using collect-on-delivery, or C.O.D, companies, according a September 2005 study in Consumer Reports. On average, you'll pay about 20 cents less per gallon than with full-service companies, but the trade-off is more work for you, and a little more risk.
Unlike full-service companies, C.O.D. retailers don't offer contracts you just call and purchase fuel, which they deliver. If you want, you can switch companies every time you need fuel (great for bargain hunters). The downsides: If prices spike, so will your bill. Plus, these companies aren't full service, so you could face a hefty bill should you need emergency furnace repair if the company can help you at all. Some don't do repairs.
If you use a C.O.D. service, you'll need to pay attention to your tank level. Be sure to leave yourself time to reorder and avoid emergency service charges.
6. Get help if you need it
There are federal and state energy assistance programs for low-income families. To find out if you qualify for assistance in your state, visit the Administration for Children and Families here. You might also talk to your local Red Cross or the Salvation Army.
You might also ask your heating-oil supplier about budget plans, which let you spread your bill payments throughout the year, instead of paying when the oil is delivered.
7. Conserve energy
From caulking your windows to putting heavier blankets on your bed, there's plenty you can do to keep warm without wasting fuel. For some ideas, see our story, "25 Extreme Energy-Saving Tips."