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Home heating costs are rising

October 26, 2003|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

As the temperature drops, the cost of heating your home is rising.

The prices of natural gas, heating oil and propane are higher than they were last year even though an oil workers' strike in Venezuela ended in March and natural gas supplies are adequate, said Charles Miller, research manager for the Maryland Energy Administration. Those factors had been cited earlier as reasons for higher prices.

Speculating by investors in the commodities market probably is causing prices to rise now, Miller said.

The weather always is the biggest factor in determining the impact heating costs will have on consumers' wallets, he said.

As usual, the weather is a bit of a mystery.

The Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack is calling for 70 inches of snow and 95 days from Dec. 2 to March 26 with a temperature of 45 degrees or colder. The National Weather Service's winter outlook calls for temperatures in the area to have equal chances of being at, above or below the region's norm.

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The average winter temperature in Hagerstown is 32.1 degrees, based on a 30-year average, according to local weather observer Greg Keefer's Web site at i4weather.net.

Statewide in Maryland, the estimated average price per gallon of heating oil was $1.40 a week ago, Miller said.

Heating oil is costing 10 to 12 cents higher per gallon more than at this time a year ago, Miller said. However, by the end of last winter the price per gallon had gotten as high as $1.70 to $1.80.

The statewide average price for propane a week ago was $1.55 per gallon, Miller said. That also was 10 to 12 cents higher than a year earlier.

Miller recommended that heating oil and propane customers conserve and try to lock in a good price with their suppliers for the winter because prices usually go up during harsh winters.

Local suppliers of natural gas recently changed their rates for the winter.

The typical residential consumer of Mountaineer Gas probably will use 13,000 cubic feet of natural gas per month this winter at a cost of $132 each month, said Allen Staggers, spokesman for Mountaineer's parent company, Allegheny Energy Inc.

That's a 23 percent increase from last year, when the typical customer's monthly bill was $107.14, Staggers said.

Mountaineer, which serves West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, asked the West Virginia Public Service Commission for a larger increase. Staggers said it's not likely the commission will approve another rate increase before winter ends.

The average monthly bill for customers of Columbia Gas of Maryland will be higher than a year ago, Columbia Gas spokesman Rob Boulware said.

The average customer who uses 9,000 cubic feet of gas a month will pay $99 starting with the October billing cycle, compared with $80 a year ago.

The average monthly bill for customers of Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania also will be higher, Boulware said.

The average residential customer who uses 10,000 cubic feet of gas will pay $102 a month, compared with $98 a year ago.

More increases?


Prices could go up more during the winter.

Instability in the Mideast could cause problems with oil supplies, Boulware said. When heating oil prices increase, it can cause natural gas prices to go up because natural gas often is an alternative heating source for commercial and industrial users, Boulware said.

An increasingly popular alternative heating source in homes is wood pellet stoves, Miller said. There are more wood pellet stoves in Pennsylvania homes, but the trend is moving into Maryland, he said.

Dale Holmes, assistant store manager at Lowe's, said wood pellet sales at the Wesel Boulevard store in Hagerstown have about doubled since last year. The stoves cost around $1,000 or more, depending on how ornate they are, he said.

Holmes said the stoves' popularity is partly attributed to how easy they are to operate. A user can load the stove with a can of wood pellets rather than feed a log to the fire, he said.

Holmes' advice to consumers interested in wood pellet stoves is to shop early because Lowe's is usually out of them by the time the cold sets in for the winter.

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