This well pays off when the heat's on

Raymond Welch's source for free natural gas fuels his home - and his neighbors' envy

September 25, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

OAKLAND // Raymond Welch is perhaps the only person in Maryland who doesn't care about the record-breaking heating costs expected to hit homeowners this winter.

When Welch hears about soaring energy prices, he smiles and gazes out the window of his farmhouse at his personal natural gas well, which supplies his home with unlimited free heat, hot water and cooking fuel.

His total utility bill: $12 a month for electricity to power his ancient, flickering TV, which he watches with his wife of 55 years, Ruthanne.

"I don't have to worry about energy prices at all anymore. I've got all the energy I need right here," he said with a laugh, pointing his thumb at the knot of pipes and gauges in his front yard, amid the rolling hills of Garrett County in Western Maryland.

The Welches are virtually off the energy grid. They're the owners of one of only eight natural gas wells in Maryland and are the only people to own a well supplying a single home instead of a distribution pipeline, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Welch, a retired water system superintendent for Garrett County, has been living on his family's 100-acre farm since he was born, 78 years ago. The well was dug by a pipeline company in 1950, when hundreds of wells were popping up across the hills of Western Maryland.

Nearly all of those wells were capped during the 1970s and 1980s, as many dried up and prices dropped. But when the company was about to shut down the well on Welch's farm, he said he offered $200 and persuaded the firm to disconnect the well from the distribution pipeline and hook it up straight to his basement.

Every winter since, he has saved at least as much money as his investment - and sometimes quadruple that amount.

"I have a very smart husband," his wife said. "It's wonderful not to have any bills."

The well in their yard also pumps neighbors full of envy.

"He's sitting on top of a gold mine," said neighbor Steve Dilley, 41, a truck driver, as he cut brush on a recent afternoon and thought about his own gas bills. "He doesn't have to worry about anything."

Brenda Arnold, a 41-year-old teacher who lives down the street, said she wishes she had a gas well in her yard.

"The price of energy keeps going up and up, but salaries don't go up along with it," she said, shaking her head.

Welch suffered a pair of heart attacks two years ago and has since had to pay about $400 a month for heart medicine.

He said that expense has been a burden, considering that he and his wife live on about $1,400 a month in Social Security and pension checks.

So he said it has been a relief not having to pay any bills for hot water, fuel for their gas stove or heat for the two-story white clapboard house that was ordered whole out of a Sears Roebuck catalog in 1926. Tacked to a peeling sidewall is a faded Royal Crown Cola thermometer.

Welch doesn't worry too much when the mercury plunges.

"Having our own well helps quite a bit," Welch said.

"We're not poor people, but we're not rich people, either. If the well wasn't there, I don't know what I'd do when it's 20 degrees below zero outside."

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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