As prices at the pump start to soar, and the temperatures outdoors start to drift down, the prices of another pump are entering the minds of many homeowners. What will home heating oil set you back this year?
An article in the Chicago Tribune says the East Coast could be in for home heating oil price hikes due to a combination of refinery closures and methods to go “green” throughout the region.
"If we get a real cold spell this winter, we'll see spot heating oil prices go to $5 a gallon," said Philip K. Verleger in the Tribune article. Verleger is an oil market economist who advised both the Carter and Ford presidential administrations.
"A rush by Northeast heating oil users to react to the cold weather could push prices up," Adam Sieminski, the head of the Energy Information Administration, told the Tribune. "I'm actually a little concerned about that."
The EIA estimated that the current cost of home heating oil, without any further increase in 2012, would lead to an average of $400 more per homeowner in home heating costs.
According to reports in the New York Times, the steep increases in prices affect those in the Northeast, including Pennsylvania, more than other parts of the nation. About 8 million people in the United States rely on oil as their primary source to heat their homes, and most of them live in the Northeast.
“Gas and oil prices used to run in tandem, and gas prices were at times extremely volatile,” according to the report. “But since 2003, even as heating oil use, heavily concentrated in the Northeast, has declined, its price has risen sharply above gas, a gap that is expected to continue widening.”
This week, heating oil costs listed by dealers in Western Pennsylvania are ranging between about $3.50 to $3.80 per gallon. The price generally is contingent on the amount of oil purchased and if the buyer pays cash.
Customers of The Energy Co-op, a Philadelphia-based members-only purchasing cooperative, also listed the per-gallon price at between $3.71 and $3.88 per gallon, depending on the area and supplier.
"Do I think it will hit $5 a gallon? I don't know. No one knows that," said Amy Adams, president of Adams Petroleum Products on Camp Horne Road in Ohio Township.
"But everything in heating has gone up—natural gas, electric, propane—and the market is up generally, based on the cost of the barrel of oil," she said. "It hinges on so many things—a hurricane somewhere, a refinery fire somewhere else, something happening in Europe" or the Middle East.
Per-gallon prices typically fluctuate as much as four times each day, Adams said, noting that it dropped three cents per gallon on Monday morning but could jump by as much as 10 cents over the next 24 hours. So far this year, she said, prices were lowest in July.
"Typically, we tell customers to order early," she said. "As it gets closer to cold weather, the supply is up and the trend is that the cost is up. If they haven't ordered yet, they should do it soon."
So what can a Pennsylvania homeowner do to budget for these changes?
Adams said homeowners can reduce their costs by taking a few key precautions.
"Make sure you check your furnace and have it serviced every year," she said. "Change the filter. A dirty furnace won't work efficiently."
Some oil furnaces also may require some parts to be changed each year, she added. Her suggestions were echoed by Steve Oehlert, president of Oehlert Bros., Inc., “The Energy Experts” in Royersford, Montgomery County,
“The top two items would be to make sure your heating system is tuned up annually . . . and to check your home’s energy efficiency,” Oehlert said.
“Nothing wastes more energy than a system running with 20 percent less efficiency,” he said. “Reduce your overall oil consumption by having it serviced.”
Aother wise decision is to have a home checked for overall energy efficiency, he said. Energy companies often are willing to conduct an energy analysis for customers.
“If your house is not efficient, you are going to give money to the outside,” said Oehlert.
Such simple steps as caulking around leaky windows or ensuring an outer wall is well insulated can help save money for you when the heating oil truck pulls up to your home, he said.
Oehlert also suggested using a budgeted plan to balance your finances when oil prices are so up and down.
“We have two price-protection plans,” he said. “Because the market is very volatile, we at least recommend customers be on a protection plan so your bill is not all over the place.”
According to Scientific American and the EIA, the average household will spend $2,535 for oil heat during this year’s winter season from Oct. 1 to March 31. Just two years ago, that cost was $1,752. With such a quick and dramatic change, a budget is recommended to plan ahead.
The state and federal governments often offer financial incentives to make a home or business more energy efficient. To find out what might be best for your home, visit The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency here, which catalogues all available savings for the state of Pennsylvania.