CANTON Brisk weather means heating bills are around the corner for north country residents.
Whether those bills will be higher, lower or about the same as last year depends on the weather and the heating source: fuel oil, electricity, natural gas, wood pellets, propane or firewood.
Residential natural gas customers served by Enbridge St. Lawrence Gas Co., 33 Stearns St., Massena, can expect to see their bills drop by about 4 percent from last year. As for heating oil, however, area suppliers said its difficult to predict what prices will be in the coming months. Pellet stoves, meanwhile, continue to grow in popularity as consumers look for more convenient, cleaner ways to stay warm during the notoriously cold Northern New York winters.
Oil prices have been on the rise, but prices change on a daily basis, said John W. Baird, vice president of sales for MX Fuels, 84 Center St., Massena.
Theres little correlation between prices at the gas station pumps and what consumers pay for heating fuel, propane and kerosene, he said.
Theres a 50-50 chance of prices rising or going down at this point, Mr. Baird said. A lot depends on what happens with Iran, the presidential election and the world economy.
On Thursday, MX was charging $2.24 per gallon for propane and $3.65 per gallon for fuel oil, which is about the same as last year, Mr. Baird said.
Charles J. Merriman, president of J.C. Merriman Fuels, 90 South Main St., Norwood, said the worldwide supply of oil is high and there is no legitimate reason for costs to increase. But, he added, we have no way of sensing whats going to happen.
Media speculation about rising oil prices creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, he said.
Theres no reason for it to be going up other than speculation, he said. It depends on whats happening in the world, like if somebody starts fighting or blows up a big refinery.
Wholesale oil prices can fluctuate by 6 or 7 cents a day, Mr. Merriman said. His business was selling fuel oil for $3.65 a gallon Thursday, propane for $2.09 and kerosene for $3.95.
The popularity of other heating sources, including pellet stoves and infrared electric heaters, continues to grow, said William J. Coakley of Coakley Ace One Hardware, 2535 State Highway 68, Canton.
Wood pellet stoves continue to be very popular. Theyre a lot easier and cleaner than regular wood, he said. You dont have to cut or split the wood. You only have to fill a wood pellet stove once every two days.
The wood pellet stoves at Coakleys sell for about $1,399. The infrared electric heaters sell for $279, and they cost about $10 for every eight hours theyre running.
Brian Arquette, owner of Factory Fireplace, 7814 Route 68, Ogdensburg, sells 15 to 20 wood and pellet stoves a year. Prices range from $1,200 to $4,000.
A lot of people buy them because of rising fuel prices, Mr. Arquette said. Youve got a source of constant heat. And you save money.
At Lowes in Ogdensburg, 2001 Ford Street Extension, assistant store manager Eric B. Stevens said that pellet stoves are more popular than wood stoves because they cause less mess.
A few years ago, he installed a pellet stove in his own home, switching from oil. His annual heating cost: $1,200, down from $4,000 when he burned oil.
Wood and pellet stoves definitely need to be handled with care, though. Residents are encouraged to consult vendors, code enforcement officers and fire departments for advice on installation, operation and maintenance.
You really need to know what youre doing, Mr. Graveline said.
Natural Gas Bills
James P. Ward, assistant general manager at St. Lawrence Gas, said natural gas customers will get a break this year. Company officials estimate a 4 percent decrease in residential gas bills from a year ago.
Natural gas prices are projected to be lower than last year. We are therefore projecting lower prices for our customers, he said. That decrease reflects the normal weather pattern for this upcoming season compared to the very warm winter we had last year. The difficulty in projecting prices is you have to take the weather into account.
Customers who use the companys budget plan may see less of a decrease than other customers because of last years rates, he said.
Mr. Ward said theres no correlation between the St. Lawrence Gas costs and the rising prices that motorists are paying at the pumps.
Natural gas and oil prices used to be kind of tied at the hip. When one went up, the other one would go up, he said. With all the new extraction methods for natural gas, those methods are keeping natural gas prices low. Oil and natural gas prices have been disconnected the last couple of years.
A typical home using natural gas, based on September rates, would pay about $1,300 annually, Mr. Ward said.
Massena Electric Department, 71 East Hatfield St., again is discouraging homeowners from using electric heat. Electric heat drives up costs for all ratepayers in the district, according to Superintendent Andrew J. McMahon.
The district receives a certain amount of low-cost hydropower from the New York Power Authority each year. When consumer demand spikes and exceeds that allocation, the department is forced to purchase more expensive, supplemental power, driving up bills systemwide, Mr. McMahon said.
The more energy we use, the more our average cost of power is driven up, he said.
He encouraged homeowners to take advantage of the energy audit program the department offers and to switch to alternative energy sources.
Wood Is Cheapest
Dale J. Matthews of Matthews Firewood, 183 Upper Ridge Road, Brasher Falls, said the least expensive way to heat a home is with firewood.
However, wood suppliers have been affected by the growing number of customers who receive help through the Home Energy Assistance Program and the allowance changes that have been made to that program.
Business has been down a little bit because of the economy and growing number of people using HEAP, Mr. Matthews said. Theyve lowered the allowances for firewood customers and given more for people who burn fuel. Last year, HEAP customers were given the option of a $250 allowance for firewood or $550 for fuel, Mr. Matthews said.
That hurt our profit margins and business a lot last winter, said Mr. Matthews. Most of the HEAP dealers have dropped out of the program because there wasnt any profit in the business.
Mr. Matthews said customers typically use 10 cords of wood per winter, which costs $60 per cord for green wood and $70 for dry wood, with an additional delivery charge based on the load.
Three cords of wood is the equivalent of a 275-gallon tank of fuel oil, Mr. Matthews said. Using $3.69 per gallon as an example, the tank of fuel would cost $1,014.75 while the three cords of dry wood would cost about $210.
The government says they want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but they are in fact doing the opposite, he said.
Mr. Matthews said he will find out in early October what the new HEAP allowances will be for this winter.
HEAP Usage Up
More than 11,000 households in St. Lawrence County took advantage last winter of HEAP benefits, county Department of Social Services Commissioner Christopher R. Rediehs said.
I think it will be a similar number in the coming year that will use it, he said. We are grateful to have it.
The program will operate much as it did last winter. Regular HEAP will begin Nov. 19. Emergency HEAP is expected to start at the beginning of January.
Income guidelines have changed slightly.
If youre eligible, youre paid the benefit, Mr. Rediehs said. The amount of the benefit will be a little higher than it was this year.
This winter is projected to be warmer than usual, but not as mild as last year when the snowfall was much lower, said Andrew Loconto, a meteorologist at the National Weather Services Burlington, Vt., office.
Martha Ellen, Brian Kidwell, Bob Beckstead, Amanda Purcell, Brian Hayden and Sean Ewart contributed to this report.