Cost of heat fairly stable despite cold

January 19, 1994|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

Toilet paper? Check. Eggs? Check.

But what about heating oil? Or something to keep the pipes from bursting? Or enough salt to keep the mail carrier from becoming airborne?

Baltimore has reacted to this week's cold snap as it usually does: by stocking up and digging in -- at the last minute.

"It's like grocery stores with the toilet paper," said Richard Phelps, president of Carroll Independent Fuel Co. of Baltimore, who pressed two of his cousins who work in the company's marketing department into driving delivery trucks to meet demand. "People don't prepare."

But while plumbers reported a brisk business repairing broken pipes, and fuel-oil companies like Mr. Phelps' were besieged with calls, the cold snap hasn't made much difference in one important area -- the cost of heat.

Peggy Mulloy, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., said this month's cold spell has cost the average gas-heat customer an average of 27 cents a day more than average for January.

The utility said its gas sales have risen 9 percent this January over last. The average daily temperature has been 28.2 degrees through Jan. 16, compared with 31.7 degrees last year.

Even on the coldest days, like Sunday, when the mercury reached only 18 degrees, the extra toll is modest. On Sunday, the average homeowner used 3.1 extra "therms" of heat (on top of the 5.6 therms daily average), at a cost of $1.64, Ms. Mulloy said. (One therm is equivalent to 100,000 BTUs.)

Heating-oil customers have not been hit that hard, either, dealerssaid. Retail prices have been stable despite wild speculative swings in the heating-oil commodities market, and the cold does not make as much difference in the amount consumed as customers might think.

"A typical three-bedroom house in Parkville today may use 6 gallons and still be comfortable, as opposed to 5 1/2 " on a normal January day, said Bill Weber, general manager of Narex Heating Oil Co. in White Marsh.

Mr. Weber and Lock Wills of Southern Maryland Heating Oil in LaPlata, Charles County, said their companies have not changed their prices during the cold. Mr. Phelps said his price has climbed 4 cents a gallon, to $1.029, since Jan. 1.

But even Mr. Phelps' price increase is well below the 16 percent climb in the commodities-market price of heating oil between Jan. 1 and Monday. The speculative rally collapsed yesterday, with prices falling 6 percent in the face of forecasts of warmer weather in the northeastern United States.

"The commodities markets tend to bounce like a yo-yo," Mr. Wills said. "The inventory we have in our tanks now we contracted for over time," something that most retailers do to beat the risk of being at the mercy of a sharp wholesale price spike. That means, he said, that commodity-market spikes show up at the home pump only if the speculation lasts long enough for dealers to exhaust their inventories.

Nonetheless, the weather did mean more business for hardware stores and plumbers.

"The biggest thing I have is people forgetting to turn off their outside hose faucets," said Ron Covington, a plumber in Rodgers Forge.

Adam Pritchett, who works at Mount Airy Center Hardware in Mount Airy, said the store has been selling lots of heat tape -- a electric-powered item that wraps around plumbing to keep it from bursting.

And, of course, the store is selling all the salt it can keep in stock to homeowners and others who have icy walks and driveways to clear.

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